Traversing county roads around Hunterdon County a few weeks ago, Ivan and I came upon a rather puzzling marker:
The title alone gives one pause. Without reading the rest of the sign, I envisioned a local oddball who made his name by ordering liver every time he went to the local tavern. Maybe he got the name by winning a bet for eating several pounds of liver which, while being very nutritious, isn't everyone's cup of tea.
You can read the sign for yourself to get the gist of the story, but it's possibly a little misleading. While Garrison/Johnson was born in Little York (now Alexandria), New Jersey, the deed which led to his sobriquet actually occurred in the American West.
I checked into the Johnson story and found several conflicting accounts, all basically pretty revolting. Some say that after a troubled childhood, he left New Jersey to take to the sea, serving in the Navy before venturing west to the frontier. Others say he fought in the Mexican War and enlisted to serve on the Union side in the Civil War. Allegedly, he deserted after striking an officer, which led him to change his name to avoid capture.
The liver-eating part is, well, a bit gruesome. According to legend, members of the Crow tribe killed his wife, and in revenge, he took to a 12 year murder rampage. He slaughtered several Crow, eating his victims' livers since the tribe believed that eating the raw liver of the game they hunted would give them added strength. I haven't seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson, but I'm guessing that the cannibalism story line wasn't part of the plot. After all, the title role was played by Robert Redford, not Anthony Hopkins.
My research led me to a very well written essay by a young student who refutes the whole 'liver eating' story. That account says that while Johnson was an ornery, belligerent man, he had largely favorable relations with the natives. His nickname apparently originated after a knife fight with attacking Sioux, when a bit of his opponent's liver remained on Johnson's knife after a stabbing. Turning to his companions, Johnson offered the blade and asked if they'd like a bite. That may be callous, but it's not cannibalistic.
Johnson lived out his life in classic 1800's Western style, bootlegging whiskey, enforcing the law (while doing the bootlegging, I don't know), prospecting for gold and eventually retreating to a cabin in Montana. He's buried in Cody, Wyoming, far from his Garden State roots. Kinda makes you wonder how many other frontier legends were born in New Jersey.