What most people know of convicted killer and self-confessed cannibal Alferd Packer is as much fiction as fact.
His gruesome tale has been so embellished over the years that the complete truth about what happened to Packer’s five companions during the winter of 1874 may never be known. A team of 13 scientists spent a week exhuming the shallow grave of his companions near Lake City. The researchers hope that the bones will give clues to how the men died, to what extent they were cannibalized, and to what extent Alferd Packer was telling the truth.
Anthropologists at the site said evidence already indicated that one of the men had been shot and several of the bones had been scraped with a knife. Wallace Birkby, curator of physical anthropology at the University of Arizona, said a bullet hole was found in a right pelvic bone Saturday, supporting Packer’s story that he’d shot one of the men in self defense. The bullet hole indicated that the man had been shot from the front. Scrape marks on the bones of two skeletons indicated they’d been cut and scraped, or “defleshed,” Birkby said.
Historians know these bare bones of the “Colorado cannibal’s” story, which began in November 1873: A group of Provo, Utah, prospectors headed toward Breckenridge, in Colorado Territory, after hearing of a gold strike there. Packer, then 31, acted as their guide in exchange for a grubstake. Packer was a Civil War veteran who was nearly 6 feet tall, with a muscular build, coal-black hair, a long mustache and goatee, and a high-pitched voice. Packer had epilepsy, and some historians have speculated that he was schizophrenic, because of his habit of referring to himself in the third person.
The party had 21 members when it entered Colorado during the harsh winter months. At one point, the men were forced to eat chopped barley brought for the horses. After taking refuge for several weeks at a Ute Indian camp, Packer and prospectors Israel Swan, George Noon, Frank Miller, Shannon Wilson Bell, and James Humphrey set out again on Feb. 9, 1874. Only Packer knew what happened between that day and April 16, when he arrived alone at the Los Pinos Indian Agency in Saguache County.
Packer said that he had become snow-blind and footsore, and that the other men had left him behind. He said that he had gone on alone, and somehow managed to survive his ordeal in the wilderness. That might have sufficed, had Packer not aroused suspicion among others in the original group, who by then had also arrived at the agency. They noticed that Packer was carrying Miller’s skinning knife and a rifle that had belonged to Swan or Noon. And though he’d been broke when the prospectors left Provo, Packer now was spending freely at the local saloon.
Under questioning by Gen. Charles Adams, Packer made his first confession on May 8. He said that Swan, at 60 the oldest in the party, weakened and died after the party got lost. Humphrey died a few days later, and the survivors lived off the flesh of both men. Then, while Packer was away getting wood, Miller died “accidentally” -apparently sacrificed to feed the survivors. Then Bell shot the 17-year-old Noon, and Packer killed Bell in self-defense.
Packer was arrested on suspicion of homicide, but escaped before the decomposed bodies were found in August on a bluff overlooking Lake Fork. It was nine years before he was recaptured, at which time he made his second confession.
Now Packer said that the starving men, lost in a storm, attempted to live on rosebuds, pine gum and boiled sandals. They became desperate, and when Packer returned to the campsite one evening, “I found the redheaded 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).” Bell had killed the four other men with hatchet blows to the head, Packer said, and he was forced to kill Bell in self-defense.
For almost two months, Packer said, he lived on the flesh of the dead men at the campsite near what would later become Lake City. Newspaper headlines at the time of Packer’s 1883 trial for murder were lurid. They described him as “The Fiend Who Became Very Corpulent Upon a Diet of Human Steaks” and “The Man Who Lived on Meat Cut From His Murdered Victims.”
Members of the jury also were unsympathetic; they convicted him after only three hours of deliberation. The popular tale about Packer’s sentencing, in which the judge berated him for eating five of Hinsdale County’s seven Democrats, originated with Lake City saloonkeeper Larry Dolan. The actual words of District Court Judge Melville B. Gerry are considered among the most eloquent ever heard in a Western court of law.
“You and your companions camped at the base of a grand old mountain, in sight of the place you now stand, on the banks of a stream as pure and beautiful as ever traced by the finger of God upon the bosom of earth. In this goodly favored spot, you conceived your murderous designs.”
“Whether your murderous hand was guided by the misty light of the moon, or the flickering blaze of the campfire, you only can tell. No eye saw the bloody deed performed; no ear save your own caught the groans of your dying victims. You then and there robbed the living of life, and then robbed the dead of the reward of honest toil which they had accumulated; at least so say the jury. “To other sickening details of your crime I will not refer. Silence is kindness. I do not say these things to harrow your soul, for I know you have drunk the cup of bitterness to its very dregs, and wherever you have gone the stings of your conscience and the goadings of remorse have been an avenging nemesis which has followed you at every turn in life and painted afresh for your contemplation the picture of the past
“You, Alferd Packer, sowed the wind; you must now reap the whirlwind. Society cannot forgive you for the crime you have committed. It enforces the old Mosaic law of a life for a life, and your life must be taken as the penalty for your crime.”
“With God it is different. He will not forget, but will forgive. He pardoned the dying thief on the cross. He is the same God today as then. A God of love and mercy, of long suffering and kind forbearance; a God who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb and promises rest to all the weary and heartbroken children of men; and it is to this God I commend you.
“Prepare to meet thy God; prepare to meet the spirits of thy murdered victims; prepare to meet thy aged father and mother, of whom you have spoken and who still love you as their dear boy. You have been indeed a poor pitiable waif of humanity. I hope and pray that in the spirit land to which you are so fast and surely drifting, you will find that peace and rest for your weary spirit which this world does not give.”
“Alferd Packer, the judgment of this court is that you be removed hence to Hinsdale County jail and there confined until the 19th day of May, A.D. 1883 and between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. of said day, you then and there be hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul.”
Packer’s conviction was overturned by a legal loophole that had formed when Colorado Territory became the state of Colorado in 1876. He was re-tried on five counts of manslaughter in 1886, convicted and sentenced to 40 years in the Colorado State Penitentiary. At his sentencing, Packer admitted the evidence against him was overwhelming:
“If I had been on the jury and such evidence had been produced, I think I would have convicted myself. There is a chain of evidence that has run against me that I cannot wipe out. I had one hope, and that was that sometime I would be able to hold up before the people of Colorado that I am not guilty of the murder of the four men. I killed Bell. But he is the only man I killed.”
During his 15 years at the penitentiary in Cañon City, Packer apparently was a well-behaved prisoner. A wooden, two-story doll house he made while incarcerated is in storage at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, where it occasionally is displayed.
After a public-opinion campaign waged by The Denver Post, Packer was granted clemency by Gov. Charles Thomas in 1901. Packer went on to live quietly in a shack near Littleton, where children often gathered to hear his tales of the Old West.
In April 1907, Packer wrote the governor to request an unconditional pardon, saying, “I am dying and I am innocent of the crime.”
The request was in vain. Alferd Packer died on April 24, 1907.