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Alferd Griner Packer
January 21, 1842
|Died||April 23, 1907 (aged 65)|
|Other names||John Schwartze|
|Known for||Being accused of murdering his travel companions|
Alferd Griner Packer[a] (January 21, 1842 – April 23, 1907), also known as "The Colorado Cannibal", was an American prospector and self-proclaimed professional wilderness guide who confessed to cannibalism during the winter of 1874. He and five other men attempted to travel through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado during the peak of a harsh winter. When only Packer reached civilization, he said that he had been abandoned by his party but eventually confessed that the party had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive when they became hopelessly lost. He later recanted this story and confessed to having lived off the flesh of his companions during his snowbound state after they had fallen victim to party member Shannon Bell, whom Packer said he shot in self-defense, and to having used their flesh to survive while stranded and during his trek out of the mountains nearly two and a half months later.
After Packer's story was called into question, he escaped jail and hid from justice for nine years before being tried, convicted of premeditated murder, and sentenced to death. Packer won a retrial and was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison on five counts of voluntary manslaughter.
An almost completely fictitious biopic of his exploits, The Legend of Alfred Packer, was released in 1980. A more comedic and heavily fabricated take on the story, titled Cannibal! The Musical, was released in 1993.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Career
- 3 Expedition
- 4 Two months later
- 5 First trial
- 6 Second trial
- 7 Parole
- 8 Death
- 9 Later investigations
- 10 In popular culture
- 11 See also
- 12 Notes
- 13 References
- 14 Bibliography
- 15 External links
Alferd Griner Packer was born January 21, 1842, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, one of three children of James Packer and his wife Esther Griner. By the early 1850s, James Packer had moved his family to LaGrange County, Indiana, where he worked as a cabinetmaker. Alferd is said to have had a bitter relationship with his parents and later moved in his late teens to the Minnesota area, where he worked as a shoemaker.
Packer served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Upon enlisting on April 22, 1862, at Winona, Minnesota, in Company F, 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, he gave his occupation as a shoemaker. He was honorably discharged due to epilepsy eight months later, at Fort Ontario, New York. He moved south and on June 25, 1863, enlisted in Company L, 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment at Ottumwa, Iowa; however, he was discharged at Cleveland, Tennessee, on April 22, 1864, for the same reason. Packer suffered from seizures, secondary to his condition, and is reported as having had them about every two days, which ultimately led to his discharge.
He then traveled west and over the next nine years worked at numerous odd jobs, including as a hunter, wagon teamster, ranch hand, and field worker, but his seizures and overall attitude ensured that he never kept a job for long. He also worked for a couple of months as a guide, but those who knew him at this time later stated that being a guide was by no means his strong point and he was prone to lose his way. He ended up working mining-related jobs, drifting from mine to mine, but never found prosperity through the industry. He worked for a short time in the Colorado area as a miner but moved on to Utah upon having no luck there.
By all accounts, Packer was generally disliked and distrusted by most who knew him. He was recalled by several different people as having been known to steal, and being a quarrelsome and difficult person to get along with. Just as modern researchers conclude, most of Packer's contemporaries also had the impression that he was a nearly pathological liar.
In November 1873, 20 men left the Bingham Canyon mines near Salt Lake City, Utah, for the gold fields of Breckenridge, Colorado, upon news of a massive strike that was discovered there. The men were largely strangers to each other, and banded together to make their fortune in Colorado after Bob McGrue rallied any willing men to follow him. A member of this original party, George Tracy, claimed that the men encountered Packer some 25 miles from their starting point, near Provo. Packer asked where they were headed, and when he heard they were headed to the gold country of the San Juan Mountains, he said he would like to join them. Packer was without money and also lacked adequate supplies, so the men were apprehensive to take him along, but Packer claimed he was both a prospector and a guide, and that he knew the San Juan territory well. His claim gave him a position of worth among the simple prospectors, who knew little or nothing of Colorado's geography. Unfortunately, neither did Packer.
Members of this original party later said that he had vastly overstated his experience of being a seasoned guide familiar to the area, or had even possibly fabricated his qualifications altogether. He was also reported as being without a rifle at the time the expedition left, having only a Colt revolver with him. Throughout the course of their journey, Packer was reported as being greedy with rations, a bit of a beggar, lazy, and obstinate. He was reported to have quarreled constantly with party member Frank Miller. At the time of his first trial, Packer was characterized as a "whining fraud" by party member Preston Nutter. His seizures also made his presence in the group strenuous.
The party made less than adequate progress towards their destination. The winter was becoming a major obstacle for them, as the wagons and horses of the assemblage were being bogged down, along with the fact that the Mormon Trail they were following was becoming heavily snowed over and largely indistinguishable, forcing the men to rely almost solely on a compass. Packer's inexperience was also beginning to show itself, and the party ultimately became lost. Provisions quickly ran out, and the men were reduced to surviving for a considerable length of time on horse feed and were nearing the point where the horses themselves were next to be eaten. On January 21, 1874, the party came upon the encampment of Chief Ouray, known as the White Man's Friend, near Montrose, Colorado, within the Uncompahgre Valley. The men were desperate but still approached the camp with great trepidation, unsure of how they would be received by the tribe. Although they reportedly scared some of the Utes away with their haggard appearance, Chief Ouray greeted them as welcomed guests and supplied them with food and lodging, to their grateful astonishment. He recommended they postpone their expedition until spring, since they were likely to encounter dangerous winter weather in the mountains. He told them that no Ute would attempt such a journey, and that to chance it would be to risk almost certain death. Ouray offered to allow the men to stay with his tribe until the winter had passed, and promised to share all that he and his people had with them.
Breckenridge was being descended upon by miners from all over the country, and a fear of missing out on the riches made some of the men anxious to continue on. After a couple of weeks with Ouray and his people, the party convened and discussed leaving. However, it was the beginning of February at this point and the snow had been relentless since their arrival, meaning that half of the party was forced to stay put with their wagons and horses until spring. Eleven men in total were unencumbered to proceed on, and they decided to do so, intending to travel first to the Los Pinos Indian Agency, which was the closest outpost to the camp, and proceed onward to Breckenridge from there. Chief Ouray saw that there was no changing the men's minds, and gave them food for their journey as well as safe directions that bypassed the mountains. Packer, however, was in favor of getting to the agency by going through the mountains, stating it was a more direct route. Five of the eleven men were adamantly in favor of following Ouray's directions, which would largely have them following the Gunnison River along its banks. Packer insisted that he knew the country well and that his way was quicker, eventually securing five men to follow him. Oliver D. Loutsenhizer and the four other men left first, following the Gunnison River. This party's own journey was besieged by bad weather and freezing temperatures, and although they followed the river, provisions ran out well before they reached their destination. The men were close to starvation, when cowhands with the Government Cattle Camp near Gunnison, Colorado, came upon them by chance and gave them food and shelter. They remained at the camp until later that April.
On February 9, Packer and the five others in his party left for the Los Pinos Indian Agency, intending to traverse the mountains. Besides Packer, the group comprised Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank "Butcher" Miller, George "California" Noon, and Israel Swan. The fact that no one in the other group opposed their "guide" leaving has led many researchers to conclude that Packer's inexperience and overall attitude had become quite taxing to them, and that they figured they were better off without him. The men in Packer's party had a 75-mile journey ahead of them. The leader of the combined parties, Bob McGrue, guided Packer's party along the river route advised by Chief Ouray until his horses could not continue. McGrue unloaded the men's provisions and went back to Ouray's camp. The men continued along the river for a time before Packer took his party along a path higher up in the San Juan Mountains, disregarding Ouray's ominous warning. This decision was made when the men barely had enough food to cover the supposed 14 days it would take to travel the safest route, possessed no snowshoes, had a bare minimum of matches and no flint, and also had no heavy clothing that would combat the extreme cold. They went into the mountains with two rifles, one pistol, a couple of knives, a hatchet, and minimal ammunition. What happened after this is not clear.
Two months later
On April 16, 1874, Packer emerged from the woods alone and stumbled his way across a frozen lake bed to the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Saguache, Colorado, with rags lashed to his feet. As the men of the agency sat around the table of the mess hall eating breakfast, the door flung open and Packer stood before them begging for food and shelter. He carried with him a rifle, a knife, a steel coffee pot, and a satchel. The men hurried Packer inside, sat him down at the table, and gave him some food, which he vomited as quickly as he ate it. Packer said that his digestion was altered as a result of his prolonged near-starvation. After several shots of whiskey, he regaled to the men the events leading up to Ouray's camp and that he had been hired by five men to guide them to Breckenridge from there. He stated that during their journey he had become snow-blind and was lagging behind the remainder of his party, becoming a burden for them. Packer claimed that a member of the party, Israel Swan, supplied him with a rifle, and they then abandoned him. He then was forced to survive on his own and make his way out of the mountains with minimal ammunition and virtually no supplies, and ate little else than roots and rose buds the entire time he was alone. The men at the agency listened to his story but found it rather odd that even though he had been lost in the wilderness for a little over two months, he did not look as malnourished and threadbare as most lost wanderers they had ever come about. His face was reported as being bloated and his overall physique hardly skeletal. Packer claimed he was broke and sold the Winchester rifle he had in his possession to Major Downer, the agency's justice of the peace, for $10 (equivalent to $221 in 2018). Packer stayed at the agency for ten days before he expressed that he wished to go back home to Pennsylvania, and then headed to the nearby town of Saguache to buy supplies for his journey.
When he reached Saguache, Packer made arrangements to room in Dolan's Saloon. Larry Dolan, the owner, claimed that Packer spent around $100 equivalent to $2,214 in 2018 during his stay, and that Packer even offered to lend him $300. Packer also spent $78 in Otto Mears' general store. It was also claimed that he had several different wallets in his possession. Packer drank heavily and daily, and after becoming intoxicated, he gave several different and conflicting stories regarding his journey and how he came to be detached from the other men. This led to quick gossip among the townspeople, given his ever-evolving story, seemingly endless cash flow, and the fact that his party was still unheard from.
Preston Nutter, a member of the original party who remained at Ouray's camp, arrived in Saguache around this time with two other original party members. He encountered Packer in Dolan's Saloon, drinking and carrying on. Nutter asked Packer where the rest of his party was, with Packer claiming that he had "got his feet wet and frozen". He stated that they had set up camp when a winter storm set in and he started a fire to warm up while the others went ahead to look for food. Packer claimed that Swan left him with his rifle, in case of trouble, and that they never returned. He presumed they abandoned him. He claimed he was forced to leave the party to their unknown fate, as he had no idea where they went when they left him and lived mainly on rose buds and the occasional squirrel as he made his trek out. Nutter thought his story odd, considering that Packer looked rather well-fed and that it would be a potentially fatal choice for five miners unfamiliar with Colorado to abandon their "guide" in the snowbound mountains of a territory he claimed to know well. He also found it hard to believe that the men would just simply abandon him.
Nutter also thought it peculiar that Israel Swan would simply give Packer his rifle and wish him well before pressing on with the four other men with only one rifle as a means of shooting game. Furthermore, where was Packer's Colt revolver that he had left both Provo and Ouray's camp with? Where did all of this drinking money come from when Packer was flat broke when he joined the party? Nutter also noted that Packer had in his possession a skinning knife that had belonged to Frank "Butcher" Miller. Nutter asked Packer how he came to have it, with Packer stating that Miller had stuck it in a tree and walked off without it. Having had doubts about Packer's story from the beginning, Nutter was all but convinced that something nefarious had happened. In addition to his suspicions, Nutter had come to view Packer in the same negative light as Loutsenhizer based on his performance and overall character leading up to their arrival at Ouray's camp. Accusations were flung and words were exchanged, with Nutter threatening to hang Packer. Nutter later stated, regarding Packer: “He was sulky, obstinate and quarrelsome. He was a petty thief willing to take things that did not belong to him, whether of any value or not." The two men were separated and Packer made plans to move on.
Meanwhile, back at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, two men of the five-man party that had taken the Gunnison River route before being rescued by government cowhands finally arrived at their destination. They were joined a few days later by the remaining three men, including Oliver D. Loutsenhizer. The men were introduced to the head of the agency, General Charles Adams, who greeted them and relayed to them that he had already received another member of their party by the name of Alferd Packer, and that he spoke of desertion at the hands of his companions. All five men at once discredited what Packer had told the General and his staff, stating that the men that they had known would never abandon a man to die. Loutsenhizer flatly told the General that Packer was not to be trusted, and that he was sure that something bad had happened in the mountains. He noted the Winchester rifle carried in by Packer belonged to an elderly man in Packer's party and that a pipe he had left behind at the agency belonged to a man named Shannon Bell, who was also a member of his party. The men convinced General Adams to dispatch a mounted agency officer to Saguache at once to retrieve Packer for questioning, but under the guise of him being sequestered for a search party for the missing men. Packer was in the process of getting his things gathered to leave the area when he was again approached by Nutter and some other men. The agency officer arrived, just in time, and got in between the men. He told Packer he had been sent to enlist him as a guide for the search party for the missing men. Packer was reluctant to go, but with little other option than vigilante justice, he agreed, mounted his recently purchased horse, and followed the officer back to Los Pinos, but not before Nutter had a private chat with the officer.
Upon arriving at the agency, Packer came face-to-face with General Adams and five men he had not seen since February. The agency officer came in after Packer and relayed to the general that a man named Preston Nutter had told him that Packer had spent several hundred dollars over his six-week stay in Saguache aside from buying a new horse and saddle, that he was in possession of things that belonged to missing men, and that he was penniless when he had originally joined their party. Loutsenhizer demanded an explanation from Packer, who repeated the story exactly as he had told it the first time. Packer showed amazement that the men had not been heard from and was concerned for their well-being. Loutsenhizer scoffed at his story, demanding to know where his newly acquired wealth came from, with Packer stating that he had received a cash loan from a man in Saguache. Adams told Packer that if this were true, then he should not mind staying at the agency while the officer was sent back to Saguache to verify his story. Packer agreed with slight hesitation. The officer was dispatched at once, and after a short while, returned with news from various sources that Packer had been seen with several different wallets and had told varying stories regarding his journey. He had arrived in Saguache with plenty of cash and no one in town claimed to have loaned him a penny. Adams convened a council of the five men, himself, Packer, and the agency officers to settle the matter. As they began the proceedings, two Ute tribesmen rushed into the agency holding strips of dried human flesh they referred to as "white man's meat", which they had found on a hill near the agency while hunting. Packer reportedly fainted and crumpled to the floor. He was revived and profusely began begging for mercy, swearing to make a full confession. After a long silence, he cryptically stated to Adams: “It would not be the first time that people had been obliged to eat each other when they were hungry." Packer slowly and sobbingly began to tell what was to become one of several different official statements over the next three decades.
Herman Lauter, the agency clerk, was in attendance and transcribed Packer's first official statement. Packer claimed that the men had left Ouray's camp with what they thought was sufficient food for the anticipated 14-day journey ahead of them. Before they knew it, provisions were exhausted due to the rough terrain and expenditure of energy needed for the traverse. They survived for days on roots dug from the ground, pine gum, rose buds, and the occasional rabbit. After a few days of no wildlife activity due to the extreme cold and eating virtually nothing but roots, he claimed that the men started to eye each other in an unsettling way, their stomachs twisting in hunger. A few days after this, he left camp to gather dry firewood and returned to find four men around the slain body of Israel Swan, who had been struck in the head with a hatchet and killed instantly. The four started to butcher Swan, with Packer accepting the situation and joining them. He claimed several thousand dollars was found on Swan's person, and it was divided between the men. They consumed the most agreeable parts of Swan's body, packed some up, and moved on, with Packer appropriating Swan's rifle. Within two days, however, the five men were again out of meat, and game continued to elude them. Packer, Bell, Humphrey, and Noon decided in secret that Miller would be the next to go. Packer confessed that Miller was a stocky man and was chosen for his amount of soft flesh. He was killed with a hatchet blow to the head while he was stooping to pick up wood for the fire, then butchered and consumed. Packer took Miller's knife, having admired it, and Miller's share of Swan's money was redistributed among the four men, who then moved on to Los Pinos.
The winter was relentless and the men were slow-moving, barely able to see in front of them, cursing the wind that was cutting at their exposed skin. Humphrey was next to be sacrificed, followed before too long by Noon. At last it was just down to Bell and Packer. He claimed that the two men swore on Almighty God to not eat each other. They each had a rifle a piece at this point and a couple thousand dollars of Swan's cash, and presumed that two men would fare well on the remainder of their trip with what minimal game there was to be found. They agreed they would say the four men had perished due to the elements, and were buried with dignity, vowing to never speak of the cannibalism. They felt no one would ever believe it was "necessary" as they had. After trekking for a few days with little else eaten other than a rabbit and some roots, the men were exhausted and set up camp next to a large lake that was skirted on one side by a large grove of hemlock trees. Packer said that a few days after this, Bell snapped up out of his blanket and screamed that he could not take it anymore. He told Packer that one of them was going to die for food. He snatched his rifle and sprinted at Packer with it readied to bash his skull in. Packer deflected the blow and cleaved Bell in the head with a hatchet. He claimed that at this point the only fear he had left was to starve to death. He then butchered Bell, eating as much as he could in preparation for the remaining leg of his journey, and packed a good amount away. He relieved Bell of his share of Swan's money and then headed on, unsure how far he was from anywhere or if he was even going to survive. After a while he mounted a hill and saw at long last the Los Pinos Indian Agency. He threw the remaining strips of Bell's flesh away, presuming that an animal would hastily eat them, and admitted that he did so with a fair degree of hesitation. He confessed that he had grown quite fond of human flesh and found the portion around the breasts to be especially delicious.
Loutsenhizer erupted with anger, but General Adams exerted his authority and called for a consultation between the five men and the agency officers to determine the next course of action. It was decided that a search party would be assembled at once to find the men's remains. The five Utah men claimed that they did not believe one part of Packer's story, and that Bell was the sort of man that would lay down his life for another if needed. General Adams asked of the two Ute men if they knew of an area next to a lake that Packer had described. They said that such a place existed roughly 50 miles away across the hills. The search party was headed by agency clerk Herman Lauter and consisted of the five miners from Utah, a few agency officers, and Packer acting as guide. After two weeks, as the party was reaching the area of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, Packer claimed he was lost and that the area did not look right. Loutsenhizer called Packer a liar and a murderer, and insisted that he be hung then and there. Nothing was found, and the party headed back to the agency. Along their route back, Packer attempted to murder Herman Lauter with a large knife he had concealed in his clothing. He was caught in the act, restrained, and arrested. General Adams had been willing to believe Packer up to this point, but the unprovoked attempt made on his officer's life convinced him that Packer was dangerous. He was transported to Saguache and jailed by the sheriff outside the town itself for his own protection.
During Packer's detention, he retracted what he had told the men at the agency about the events leading up to the five men losing their lives. He now claimed that the men had encountered a strong blizzard along their way through the mountains. The snow fell so heavily and persistently that they became hopelessly lost and were unable to retrace their steps back to their starting point. Provisions were already minimal when they began the trek and quickly ran out. They just as quickly ran out of matches, and were forced to carry hot embers in a steel coffee pot to have a means to light fires. Days went by with no signs of game, and attempts at ice fishing proved utterly futile. After roasting and eating their shoes and attempting to survive on what scant and edible vegetation they could find, it was Packer's claim that the men entered into a pact wherein if one died, their meat would serve to save the others from starvation. After days of hiking with virtually nothing to eat, Israel Swan could go no further and the others were dangerously fatigued. They found a pine-shaded gulch next to a lake and set up camp. A short time after this, Packer claimed that Swan died of a combination of hunger and exposure.
Packer signed his first confession:
Old Man Swan died first and was eaten by the other five persons about ten days out of camp. Four or five days afterwards Humphreys died and was also eaten; he had about one hundred and thirty three dollars ($133). I found the pocket book and took the money. Some time afterwards, while I was carrying wood, the butcher was killed—as the other two told me accidentally—and he was also eaten. Bell shot "California" with Swan's gun and I killed Bell. Shot him. I covered up the remains and took a large piece along. Then traveled fourteen days into the agency. Bell wanted to kill me with his rifle—struck a tree and broke his gun.
In Packer's later amended version of this story, the men had endured almost 20 days from Ouray's camp and more than 10 without any substantial food at all. Packer elaborated that James Humphrey had also died of exposure to the extreme cold, and that George Noon was killed days later by Shannon Bell for the sole purpose of food, after there was no more substantial meat to be had from the three fallen men. Then it was just down to Bell and himself. He claimed that he and Bell had agreed that they would stand together until the end, swearing not to eat each other. Days went by, and Bell could no longer take the hunger and rushed at Packer with Swan's rifle, intending to bludgeon him with its stock. Packer then shot Bell with his pistol. Packer confessed to taking the valuables of the deceased members, claiming they no longer needed them, but made no statements as to the exact items taken nor to the amount of money accrued.
Discovery of bodies
The following August, the site of the incident was happened upon by John A. Randolph, an illustrator who worked for Harper's Weekly magazine. He discovered all five of the bodies at the foot of Slumgullion Pass, two miles southeast of Lake City, Colorado, in a pine-shaded gulch skirted by hemlock trees. They lay above the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, now known colloquially as Dead Man's Gulch, which matched the description of where Packer had originally claimed that only Bell had met his end. The men had been well within hiking distance of the nearby city had they descended the Lake Fork down as opposed to up, especially in their alleged desperate situation, but Packer was the guide. The snow that had been covering the bodies and campsite had melted in the elapsed four months. Randolph sketched the scene as he found it and then alerted authorities in nearby Lake City. The story was covered two months later in the October 17, 1874, edition of Harper's Weekly, and included his illustration of the site.
The local coroner and law enforcement set out for the site along with about 20 volunteers and discovered the bodies of all five men in various states of decomposition, having been left to the elements and animals for four months. First responders to the site noted that it appeared that "extreme violence" had befallen the men, and it was putrid with the smell of death. Frank Miller's head was missing entirely from the campsite; his and Israel Swan's corpses had been considerably worked upon by scavengers and were little more than scattered bones. Israel's skull had a jagged chunk missing out of it, and it was presumed that Miller's head was carried away by an animal. The bodies of George Noon and James Humphrey were largely flayed torsos of rotting viscera, attached to skeletal legs, but with intact and bearded faces, with Humphrey's face being slightly more decayed than Noon's. They had received blows to the head, the shape indicating perhaps a hatchet, and their bodies had noticeable broken bones. Shannon Bell lay with largely skeletal legs splayed and arms to his sides that were crudely cut to their bones leading to hands that were still fully skinned. His remaining corpse was a putrid mass of viscera encased in an almost wholly flayed torso, which led to an almost still-living face, complete with a thick red beard and bushy hair. The lack of noticeable decay in his face suggested that he had been the last to die. The top of Bell's skull had been ripped open and his brains were lying on the ground beneath him. The three men whose bodies were still intact or partly intact had had flesh and muscle excised from choice and meaty locations; no attempt had been made to consume bone marrow or any organs at all.
The state of the bodies immediately contradicted Packer's version of events. They were all together in one spot, not scattered across miles. Both Humphrey and Noon had large portions of remaining flesh, muscle, organs, etc., that could have been consumed long before Bell succumbed to the madness of hunger and attempted to murder Packer, as he had claimed. The men had tattered cloths lashed to their rotting feet, which had replaced the shoes they had eaten in their desperation, and moldy and tattered blankets lay beneath and beside them. A beaten path went from the resting place of the corpses to a crude shelter that was used by Packer, and there was evidence to suggest that the deaths might possibly have occurred before supplies were totally exhausted. Within the shelter were possessions belonging to the men that Packer had left behind. The theory was that Packer killed the men before supplies ran out to rob them of their possessions, got snowed in, and then lived in his makeshift shelter for months, walking to his slain companions and slicing meat off as needed. Preston Nutter accompanied the party to the site and identified the bodies as belonging to the five missing men. A rifle broken in two was found close to the bodies. Due to the damage apparent on their remains, it is presumed that it was used to bludgeon one or more of them. Their remains where buried at the site by officials and the search party returned to Packer's makeshift jail to confront him, only to find him missing.
The jail at that time was little more than a log cabin located on ranch property belonging to the Saguache County Sheriff. Months had passed with no definitive evidence of a crime having been committed, no bodies discovered, and no formal charges lodged against Packer. Saguache County authorities were reportedly not happy about taxpayer dollars being spent so exorbitantly on keeping Packer housed and under constant guard. He was allegedly passed a makeshift key for his irons and given some supplies, and easily escaped. Even so, nearly the entirety of Saguache was convinced, either though rumor or rational deduction, that Packer was guilty of either robbery or murder. His life was threatened constantly by the nearby townspeople. Packer never divulged who helped him escape, how this was achieved, or why. It was presumed that his guard had been bribed by Packer himself or by someone else.
The generally accepted theory at the time was that Packer had attached himself to the party under highly overstated qualifications of being a mountain guide familiar with the area in order to accompany the men to Breckenridge, and had at best led his party to miserable deaths due to gross incompetence. This was enough of a crime in itself as far as the local population was concerned. However, an ultimately more popular theory was that he had set out with his party of five men from Ouray's camp with a premeditated plan to lead them into the wilderness where he would kill and rob them. Nutter and Loutsenhizer made it a personal mission to discredit Packer's alleged qualifications as far as being a guide, let alone a mountain guide, pointed out all of his character flaws that they had come to know, and stressed his numerous different stories and inconsistencies. Local papers picked up on the story and the incident received constant coverage, with highly sensational headlines, many negative comments regarding Packer's character, and highly imagined theories that grabbed both national and international attention. Regardless as to how it may have happened, nearly the entire population of Saguache, and soon nearly the entire country and beyond, found that Packer's culpability for his party's deaths was beyond doubt.
The cannibalism aspect of his charges, although shocking, was not necessarily the foremost issue of his guilt. People at that time were well-acquainted with the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, who had resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1846–1847, and were understanding to a degree of the dire need to eat in the unforgiving wilderness. Additionally cannibalism was not, then or now, illegal per se in the United States unless one commits murder in order to obtain the flesh to be consumed. Even in such a case, the accused is charged with murder, with the cannibalism itself being charged as the desecration and/or abuse of a corpse. Packer would claim for the remainder of his life that he had been unjustly vilified and convicted for engaging in cannibalism rather than for cold-blooded murder, which he continued to deny ever having committed. In the end, it came down to the question; did five men die due to incompetence or greed?
On March 11, 1883, Packer was discovered by Jean "Frenchy" Cabazon in Cheyenne, Wyoming, living under the alias of "John Schwartze", one of the original members of the Utah mining party who stayed in Chief Ouray's camp in the winter of 1874. Cabazon was himself a member of the original party of men who left Provo, and wisely decided to stay put in Chief Ouray's camp, later safely making his way to their destination with Bob McGrue and Preston Nutter's party.
He encountered Packer by chance when Packer approached him looking to buy some supplies. Cabazon reported Packer to the local sheriff, who apprehended him and contacted General Adams. He was summoned to Cheyenne where he confirmed Packer's identity and accompanied him by train to Denver for his second confession, which Packer signed on March 16. Packer stated that his main reason for fleeing was out of a fear of mob justice being exacted upon him by the populace of Saguache. Because the actual crime was committed within the confines of Hinsdale County, rather than neighboring Saguache County, Packer was accordingly sent to Lake City for detention and prosecution.
Instead of claiming that the men were gradually eaten as they died until Bell killed Noon and Packer in turn killed Bell in self-defense, Packer now claimed that Bell had killed the others after Bell had told him to go scouting for any way out of the mountains and to find some food. He had been gone the better part of the day and returned in the late evening. Packer told General Adams:
I found the red headed man [Bell] who acted crazy in the morning sitting near the fire roasting a piece of meat which he had cut out of the leg of the German butcher [Miller], the latter's body was lying the furthest off form the fire down the stream, his skull was crushed in with the hatchet. The other three were lying near the fire, they were cut in the forehead with the hatchet. Some had two or three cuts. I came within a rod of the fire, when the man saw me, he got up with his hatchet towards me when I shot him sideways through the belly, he fell on his face, the hatchet fell forwards. I grabbed it and hit him in the top of the head.
In the ensuing moments of shooting Bell and going for the hatchet, Packer dropped his revolver in the deep snow and subsequently lost it. He claimed he made himself a crude shelter out of stray logs to combat the snow and wind, aways down from the bodies. Another strong storm set in and he hunkered down for hours. He was starving and made the decision that he had to eat something or die. He continued:
I went back to the fire. Covered the men up and fetched to the camp the piece of meat that was near the fire. I made a new fire near my camp and cooked the piece of meat and ate it. I tried to get away every day but could not, so I lived off the flesh of these men, the bigger part of sixty days.
Adams asked Packer why he had not told him this story nine years previous, with Packer replying: "I was excited, I wanted to say something, and the story, as I told it, came first to my mind!" It was the argument of the prosecution that the only logical reason for Packer to have attempted such a perilous journey through the mountains with such minimal food and supplies was for the sole purpose to lead the men into the wilderness to both kill and rob them.
At the time of Packer's trial, it was reported by the family of Israel Swan that he had left to go on the expedition with around $6,000 (equivalent to $132,865 in 2018) in cash and gold, and that he also had a valuable Winchester rifle with him, which would give a strong motivation for murder, as well as his senior age of 65 at the time of his death. The other four members may have been either complicit in his murder and later betrayed by Packer, or were murdered by him for having been witnesses. Packer was not found with any gold on him at the time of his arrest, and although he did have money left, it did not total in the thousands. His spending had been frivolous.
Nevertheless, on April 6, a trial began in Lake City. Packer pleaded not guilty. After seven days of testimonies and examinations, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of Israel Swan, and sentenced to death by hanging, which was scheduled for May 19, 1883. It was presumed that Swan's death had occurred on, or around, the 1st of March. It was determined by the prosecution in court that Swan's remains showed signs of a struggle at the time of death, and that the others appeared to be killed in their sleep. Among those who testified on behalf of the prosecution were Otto Mears, Larry Dolan, Oliver D. Loutsenhizer, and Preston Nutter, who acted as the prosecution's key witness. According to a local newspaper, which received their quote from Larry Dolan, the presiding judge, M.B. Gerry, said:
Stand up yah voracious man-eatin' sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of 'em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t' be hanged by th' neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin' ag'in reducin' th' Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.
Court records present Judge Gerry's sentence as conventionally apolitical:
Alfred Packer, the judgement of this court is that you be removed from hence to the jail of Hinsdale County and there confined until the 19th day of May, A.D. 1883, and that on said 19th day of May, 1883, you be taken from thence by the sheriff of Hinsdale County to a place of execution prepared for this purpose, at some point within the corporate limits of the town of Lake City, in the said county of Hinsdale, and between the hours of 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. of said day, you, then and there, by said sheriff, be hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul.
Packer was spared the death penalty when his lawyers discovered that the murder statutes on the books for 1874 had been repealed and replaced with a "savings clause", which spared him being tried for murder on a technicality. In October 1885, the sentence was reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court being based on an ex post facto law. They had declared that the government could not sentence a man to death for committing a crime, if it had indeed occurred, before Colorado officially became a state as opposed to a territory.
The overturning of his murder charge and scheduled execution did not spare Packer culpability for the men's deaths, however. A second trial was held in Gunnison following a change of venue for his hearing that was also granted per the Colorado Supreme Court as well as having a new Judge of Republican Party standing to preside, pursuant to Packer and his Counsel feeling as though the prejudices and pre-affirmed guilt within the community of Lake City (most of them Democrats), made it impossible for him to receive a fair and unbiased trial. He again pleaded not guilty. After a swift trial and even speedier verdict deliberation, on June 8, 1886, Packer was convicted of five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison (8 years for each count, as well as the maximum sentence allowed per count). At the time, this was the longest custodial sentence in U.S. history.
At the time of his second hearing, local hunters and officials made statements that although the winter of 1874 was one of the worst they had encountered for quite some time, the area of the San Juans where Packer and his party were camped was still plenty active with such large wild game as deer and antelope, as well as smaller game. There was even a report that the carcass of a deer was found near the campsite. This significantly damaged Packer's claims that the area was so scant with wildlife that the men had to resort to cannibalism quickly. Further emphasis was placed on the fact that Packer's choice to hike through the San Juan Mountains during the middle of winter, where snow depths can exceed more than six feet in a single downfall, coupled with blistering winds and freezing temperatures, was practically suicidal. He had been given a safe route to follow by locals that was next to a main water source that could have yielded fresh fish if nothing else as well as serve to keep them on course, but he perilously chose a mountain path with minimal supplies in the naive belief that it would be a faster route. In actuality, the route Packer and his companions took was nearly identical in length to the recommended route (though not in traverse), yet far more dangerous.
Packer took the stand in his own defense. His version of the events that took place at the campsite remained relatively the same as his second official version. He made a request that he be charged the 40 years, but only for the death of Shannon Bell, who is the only man that Packer continued to claim he had killed, with the other deaths being beyond his control. His request was denied. He was sent to serve out his sentence at the Canon City Penitentiary.
Packer filed appeals on his case on five separate occasions and was roundly denied upon every submission. He sent letters to local newspapers stating he had been unjustly convicted by an unfair and unsympathetic judicial system, and by the ignorant conclusions and judgments of small-minded people. On June 19, 1899, Packer's sentence was officially upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court. Nevertheless, he was paroled on February 8, 1901, following a campaign that was initially spearheaded by an old acquaintance of Packer's named Duane Hatch, who petitioned for his release for nearly a decade before his labors came to the attention of Polly Pry. Packer had served 18 years of his 40-year sentence.
An entrepreneurial and resourceful reporter for The Denver Post, Pry saw and appreciated the sensationalism of Packer's case and how his story and pre-existing reputation could generate a buzz. She used Packer's service in the Army as a basis to portray him as a common man of the people who got caught in a regrettable situation, a victim of circumstances who did what he had to do to survive, and a man who had essentially been crucified for violating civilized sensibilities by having to resort to cannibalism. Her stories on Packer led to a change of heart within the local businesses and people such that a series of petitions and requests made their way to the office of Colorado Governor Charles Thomas, which were still met with strong opposition. Thomas ultimately relented, and his last official act before leaving office was to parole, but not pardon, Packer under the agreement that he would not try to profit from his story.
After his parole, Packer went to work as a guard at The Denver Post, and later as a ranch hand. His employment at The Denver Post came about, many believe, as a direct result of Pry and her employers securing his release. Packer had an endearing respect for Pry for his remaining years, and referred to her as his "Liberator".
Alferd Packer died on April 23, 1907, aged 65, in Deer Creek, Jefferson County, Colorado. The cause of his death was cited as "Dementia – trouble & worry", although his clinical cause of death has been described as the result of a stroke. Packer is widely rumored to have become a vegetarian before his death and was reported by those who knew him as a man rich with stories and well-liked by children. He lived modestly and was known to be a charitable man.
Packer was interred in Littleton, Colorado, with a full military burial. His grave is marked with a veteran's tombstone listing his original regiment in 1862, which is a replacement, as his original grave marker was stolen. His first name is listed as Alfred on his headstone, as opposed to the actual spelling of Alferd, but he is known to have gone by both in life. He was never successful in getting an official state pardon for his alleged crimes.
The Littleton Cemetery Association cemented over Packer's grave in 1973 to deter grave robbing and vandalism. Despite their belief that his corpse is intact, claims have been made by Edward Meyer, the Vice-President of Exhibits and Archives for the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, that they are in possession of Packer's dissected skull, which they bought from an anonymous party for a reported sum of $20,000. No statement was made as to how they verified the authenticity of the skull, which is partially mummified, other than to state that the seller's information regarding its origin was sufficient.
If the skull in question does belong to Packer, it is presumed that his head was removed from his body shortly before or after his burial, was then dissected with the brain being removed for study, and was then preserved through an arsenic curing process. It is then said to have fallen into the hands of a traveling sideshow, which displayed it, until it was later sold to a private party who in turn later sold it to Ripley's. As of 2008, the skull is reported to be at the Ripley's Museum in San Antonio, Texas, following its relocation from their New Orleans facility in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
On July 17, 1989, 115 years after Packer consumed his companions, an exhumation of the five bodies was undertaken by James E. Starrs, then a professor of law specializing in forensic science at George Washington University, following an exhaustive search for the precise location of the remains around the area of Cannibal Plateau. The men's remains were located at the end of a residential driveway of a home belonging to a local surgeon, and were only buried thirteen inches below ground level. Starrs and his colleague Walter H. Birkby concluded, regarding the cannibalism: "I don't think there will ever be any way to scientifically demonstrate cannibalism. Cannibalism per se is the ingestion of human flesh. So you'd have to have a picture of the guy actually eating." Packer never denied cannibalism, so this was not the men's main intent for their investigation. The evidence uncovered was sufficient for Starrs to conclude that Packer had indeed murdered his comrades. Starrs came away with the belief that Packer more than likely murdered his companions for their belongings, and resorted to cannibalism out of necessity rather than intent. The men were re-interred and given a proper burial, complete with funeral rites being read.
Exhumation of the skeletal remains showed signs of what appeared to be blunt force trauma to the skulls of two of the men, with no other noteworthy disturbance to their skeletal remains aside from those made during their butchering. All skulls had damage to varying extents to their upper craniums, with fabric fibers being found within some of the skulls themselves, suggesting that their heads were possibly covered with a blanket at the time of their deaths. The three other skeletons showed defensive signs of hacking marks across the radial and ulna bones of their forearms (Shannon Bell being one), which one could sustain whilst shielding their face and body from an attack. Although Packer claimed that Bell had murdered the others with hatchet blows to the head, in his second version of the story, he never claimed that he had to fight off Bell with the hatchet in any rendition. In one version of his story, Bell had charged at Packer with Swan's rifle, and Packer shot him. In Packer's second official version of the story, he claimed he finished off Bell with a hatchet blow to the head, but that was the extent of his claim in regards to the hatchet. All five of the skeletons had numerous differing post-mortem injuries to them, including depressed fractures, butterfly fractures, butchering trauma, and hacking trauma, which seems to contradict Packer's claims of "minimal cannibalism".
Additionally, two other skeletons aside from that of Shannon Bell were found to have cylindrical puncture wounds in the pelvic bone, which has led some to question if all three marks are the result of the scavenging marks of a bear, or even possibly bullet wounds. No definitive conclusions have been made to these discoveries.
This discovery has led some to hypothesize that a possible scenario is that two of the men were bludgeoned in their sleep by Packer, and the three remaining men awoke and Packer perhaps shot them in the hips to incapacitate them (if the punctures are in fact bullet wounds). They then attempted to fight off Packer who was wielding a hatchet. It is presumed that he then killed them all with blows to the head. He may then have butchered the men and used their flesh to survive in his snowbound state and during his journey. The differing states of decomposition of the bodies does contradict this theory, though probable. It would seem unlikely that Packer had shot three of the five men in the hip, which is not by itself an outright kill shot, unless it was to debilitate them while he went in for the kill. Further analysis into the entry and exit geometry could be telling as to what their initial cause was, but no such examination has been done to date. His ultimate motivation for their murder has been debated heavily, and has several possible theories.
In 1994, David P. Bailey, Curator of History at the Museum of Western Colorado, undertook an investigation to turn up more conclusive results than Starrs' in regards to Packer's claims of having shot Bell. In the Audrey Thrailkill collection of firearms owned by the museum was a Colt revolver that had reportedly been found at the site of Packer's alleged crime. Exhaustive investigation into the pistol's background turned up documents from the time of the trial: "A Civil War veteran that visited the crime scene stated that Shannon Bell had been shot twice and the other victims were killed with a hatchet. Upon careful study of Bell, he noticed a severe bullet wound to the pelvic area and that Bell's wallet had a bullet hole through it." This seems to corroborate Packer's claim that Bell had killed the other victims and that Packer shot Bell in self-defense. By 2000, Bailey had not yet proven a link between the antique pistol and Alferd Packer, but he discovered that forensic samples from the 1989 exhumation had been archived, and analysis in 2001 with an electron microscope by Dr. Richard Dujay at Mesa State College found microscopic lead fragments in the soil taken from under Shannon Bell's remains that were matched by spectrograph with the bullets remaining in what was indeed Packer's pistol. While it appears certain that at least Bell was shot, the question of whether or not it was in self-defense remains unanswered.
As of 2019, nearly 145 years after the events, authors and law professors continue to debate the merits of Packer's guilt or innocence in relation to the outright murder of his party. Most have come to view Packer as guilty of the crimes based on the evidence discovered by Starrs in conjunction with Packer's own contradictions and retractions and his seeming inability to tell the truth, as well as the facts at hand.
Whatever may have transpired in the mountains that ultimately led to the deaths of his companions, the fact remains that five men essentially walked into death by following a roundly unqualified man, who had presented himself as capable, into an extremely unforgiving environment with inadequate supplies. He had been given the opportunity to take good and exponentially safer directions, which would have absolved him of any further "guide" duties, but he let his false sense of security and pride steer his decision-making. The men who had followed him paid for his mistake, one way or the other, while he was fortunate enough to survive. George Noon did not even make his twentieth birthday before he died, Israel Swan was an elderly man close to the end of his work career, Frank Miller was a hard-working German immigrant, and Shannon Bell and James Humphrey were also hard-working men who simply wanted a better life. It is unlikely that the question of murder of his entire party will ever definitively be solved.
In popular culture
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In Bud Grace's comic strip The Piranha Club, one of the madcap denizens of Bayonne, New Jersey, is an old lady named "Alferda Packer, consumer advocate", who wages a humorously violent Carrie Nation-style crusade against unscrupulous business practices. One of her most frequent targets is her own son-in-law Dr. Enos Pork, a quack surgeon who bilks outrageous prices from his patients for the malpractice he performs on them.
In 1968, students at the University of Colorado Boulder named their new cafeteria grill the "Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill", with the slogan, "Have a friend for lunch!" Students can order an "El Canibal" beefburger, and on the wall is a giant map outlining Packer's travels through Colorado. It has since been renamed the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill.
In 1977, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, attempted to terminate a contract for the department's cafeteria food service but was prevented by the General Services Administration (GSA). To embarrass the GSA, Bergland and his employees convened a press conference on August 10, 1977, to unveil a plaque naming the executive cafeteria "The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill", announcing that Packer's life exemplified the spirit and fare of the cafeteria and would "serve all mankind". The event was covered on ABC-TV Evening News by Barbara Walters. The stratagem succeeded, and the contracts were terminated soon thereafter. Magnanimous in victory, Bergland yielded to the bureaucratic objection that the plaque lacked official GSA authorization and removed it. The plaque is currently displayed on the wall of the National Press Club's The Reliable Source members-only bar. It doubles as a memorial to Stanley Weston (1931–84), a man who worked at the USDA. The Press Club's hamburger is called the "Alferd Packer Burger".
The annual Philadelphia Folk Festival features a dining tent emblazoned with the tongue-in-cheek moniker: "The Alfred E. Packer Memorial Dining Hall...serving humanity since 1874".
Film and stage productions
University of Colorado students Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of South Park, made a film called Cannibal! The Musical (1993), based loosely on Packer's life, with Parker billed as "Juan Schwartz" (a variation of Packer's "John Schwartze"). The film was released commercially in 1996 by Troma Entertainment and produced as a stage play, titled Alferd Packer: The Musical, initially by Dad's Garage Theatre Company and by several other theatre companies since. Lesser known film adaptions include The Legend of Alfred Packer (1980) and the horror film, Devoured: The Legend of Alferd Packer (2005).
The 1999 Czech-American horror movie Ravenous is loosely based on the story of Alferd Packer.
Folk singer Phil Ochs wrote the song "The Ballad of Alferd Packer" (1964), documenting the events of the expedition and its aftermath. Ochs' use of humor in the song is typical of the seemingly lighthearted ongoing attitude regarding Packer and his alleged crimes. Although the track never appeared on any of Ochs' studio or live album releases, it has appeared on several compilations issued since his death in 1976, most recently on the On My Way (2010) compilation of demos from 1963.
Country artist C.W. McCall (of "Convoy" fame) recorded a track on his album The Real McCall titled "Coming Back for More" (1990), which revived the legend and implied that Packer's ghost still haunts Lake City.
The American death metal band Cannibal Corpse dedicated their debut album, Eaten Back to Life (1990), to Packer. The following statement can be found in the inlay of this album: "This album is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Packer, the first American cannibal (R.I.P.)"
My Favorite Murder Episode 171.
- Alexander Pearce, an Irish-born convict who confessed to cannibalizing fellow prison escapees in the Tasmanian wilderness
- Donner Party
- List of incidents of cannibalism
- The spelling of Alferd/Alfred Packer's name has been the source of much confusion over the years. Official documents give his name as Alfred Packer, although he may (according to one story) have adopted the name Alferd after it was wrongly tattooed on to one of his arms. Packer sometimes signed his name as "Alferd", sometimes as "Alfred", and is referred to by both names. In many documents, he is referred to simply as A. Packer or Al Packer.
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- Nash, Robert Jay. Alferd Packer. Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws. Da Capo Press. pp. 250–251. ISBN 0-306-80591-X. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
- "Ancestry of Alfred Packer". Wargs.
- US Census, 1860, Lagrange Co., Indiana, page 9, residence #68
- Army Register of Enlistments 1862, #182, regular army
- Compiled Service Record of Alfred G. Parker, 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment
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- Simpson, A. W. B. (1984). Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 273. ISBN 978-0-226-75942-5.
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- "Dinner Menu". The National Press Club. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
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- Botkin, Benjamin A. (1957). "Man-Eating Packer". A Treasury of American Anecdotes. Galahad Press. p. 174.
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- "Solving the American West's Greatest Mystery: Was Alferd Packer Innocent of Murder?" (PDF). Museum of Western Colorado. 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-01-17.
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- ""Packard Day is Today!"". Openworks Wooster. 1977-05-20. Archived from the original on 2018-08-07.