Thursday, August 25, 2022

Alferd Packer -- The Beloved Hatchet-Murdering Cannibal Of Colorado

Many years ago while driving through Colorado, I was sort of surprised to hear about a local celebrity of sorts. I say, "of sorts," because that man who seems to be quite the Colorado celebrity was a mass murderer and cannibal. His name was Alferd Packer and his horrid acts of crime have not stopped people in Colorado from celebrating his name in some very interesting ways.

For example, folks knowing that Alferd Parker killed five men and ate them hasn't stopped someone from creating the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And if that's not enough to make you wonder what's wrong with some folks out there, there was once a writer who actually published a book titled, "Alferd Packer's Wilderness Cookbook." In Littleton, Colorado, the folks there hold the "Alferd Packer Cannibal Fast Food 5K/10K Run/Walk." And not to miss a chance at 15 minutes of fame, believe it or not, a sculpture once created a bust of Alferd Packer that somehow ended up sitting in the Colorado State Capitol right next to Colorado's more prestigious citizens.

So why would anyone make a mass murderer and cannibal famous, and in fact, do it so much so that a whole town celebrates "Al Packer Days" as is the case in one Colorado town? Frankly, there's no rhyme or reason why the macabre and gruesome interests people like it does. It's true. Just as there is no telling why anyone would start a restaurant and name it the "Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill." No, there is no telling why anyone would make a mass murderer and a cannibal famous -- especially a man who is said to have killed and eaten five of his traveling companions,

As in any story, whether it's a story in the newspapers or found in a good book, our learning the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a story is the key to our understanding of all that took place. When writing, the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a story ensures that we examine all aspects of a story.

As for the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the story dealing with Alfred Packer, we know who he was. Alferd Packer was born sometime in 1842. Different sources give different months and days of his birth that year. While that's true, there's no confusion about him being raised in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.

We also know that he was in Minnesota by the time he was 19 years of age. We know that because he was 19 when he enlisted in the Union Army with the 16th US Infantry in Wynona, Minnesota at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sources say that he received an Honorable Discharge in late 1862. His short time in the Union Army was supposedly due to him having epilepsy. If true, that didn't stop him from trying to enlist again in June of 1863. It's believed that he was able to join the Union Army's 8th Regiment of the Iowa Cavalry until he was again mustered out due to epilepsy.

From there, it is sort of a mystery what he did for about 10 years. Some say he traveled West to California. Some say he turned into a drunk while taking whatever job he could find. Some say he went from mining camp to mining camp looking to strike it rich like so many others.

We do know that by late 1873, Alferd Packer and about two dozen other prospectors left Utah and headed to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Traveling late in the year to the mountains is not the smartest thing anyone can do -- even today. The Winter of 1873 and 1874 was one of the worst on record. To find shelter, the men stayed at the Ute Indian village of Chief Ouray. It is said that they got there in January of 1874, hungry and desperate.

The Ute Indian hospitality was what kept Packer and the others alive. It's too bad they didn't heed the Ute Chief's warning about continuing on and waiting until Spring to travel. The snow was deep and the mountains were treacherous. The Ute Chief tried to warn them, but the lust for gold was too much for a few. Soon, five of the men made plans to go on. For some reason, they believed that Packer was their man to hire as their guide. That being the case, on February 9, 1874, Alferd Packer, Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George Noon, and Israel Swan, left the Ute Indian village and headed into the San Juan Mountains. The lure of gold and riches waiting for them had blinded their senses.

Soon, they found themselves with 10-days of food trapped in the mountains with snow up to their shoulders. It wouldn't be long before they would be buried in snow and out of food. Packer was their guide, and now they were lost and on what has been described as a gravel terrace just up from what is present-day Lake City, Colorado.

What happened next had everyone there trying to piece the story together in an effort to find the truth of what really took place. Most things simply didn't add up at first. Then the stories started to make less and less sense. Soon, no one believed a work Alferd Packer had to say pertaining to the deaths of Packer's traveling companions.

That all started in April of 1874 when only one of the six men made it out of the mountains. That was Alferd Packer who walked out looking too well for someone who said he had been living on rabbits and shrubs. Of course, Packer would tell many versions of what took place before coming out of the mountains that April. All of his stories were different.

When I went driving through the small town of Saguache, Colorado. I was told about Alferd Packer who served time in the Saguache Jail as a suspected "cannibal." I was told that Alferd Packer, Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George Noon, and Israel Swan, became stranded in the mountains and that Packer killed them -- and ate them while stuck there for a couple of months. That's what I was told.

I was told that most from around those parts at the time believed that the six died in the blizzard high in the mountains. It surely wasn't that unusual for those hunting gold to get so involved in their search for gold, that they put off eating, sleeping, or even seeking shelter when they should. There are stories of travelers finding prospectors frozen, just dead where they lay or sat. I know of one story about two travelers who found a prospector dead near his sluice box. There was no foul play involved. The prospector simply decided to work his claim in the harsh weather instead of finding shelter and warmth. It's believed he may have simply tired and died from the cold. So no, there was no reason to believe that Packer and the other men were still alive.

In mid-April, to everyone's surprise, Alferd Packer surfaced. He had come out of the mountains. And yes, he was alone. Things started going downhill for Packer almost as soon as he walked out of the mountains. Whether he was ready for it or not, folks wanted to know what happened to the other five men that he was last seen with in February. And sadly for Packer, his stories of what took place in the mountains didn't add up. In fact, as I said before, he gave several conflicting stories about the fate of the other men.

Packer initially said that he had been abandoned by his party. Then he said that he had hurt his leg and that they had dropped and left without him. He then admitted that those were lies. After a few more tales that didn't add up, he said that the whole party had resorted to cannibalism of a dead member. He said they did it to stay alive when they became lost. But really, even that was a lie.

He changed his story a number of times and even confessed to him being the only one who lived off of the flesh of his companions. He said that one of the others in his party, Shannon Bell, had killed the others. Packer said he had to kill Bell in self-defense. He also confessed to eating Bell and the others while stranded in the mountains -- and while he was walking out of the mountains. Yes, almost two and a half months later. That's probably why everyone commented on how good he looked for someone who said he'd been struggling through heavy snow for ten weeks.

I found it interesting that the authorities forced Packer to lead a search party into the mountains in an effort to try to locate the bodies of his companions. Packer is said to have led them to the wrong place where nothing was found. Since no one believed Packer's stories, it didn't take long before this all landed him in jail in Saguache. Actually, I was told that he was held somewhere just outside of Saguache and not in jail. He was held while people there were trying to piece together what really happened.

But then in August, with the help of someone there, he escaped. The day of his escape is important because it was the same day that the authorities found the remains of his missing companions. Evidence pointed to foul play and worst -- cannibalism. As the word spread of what took place, the area where the bodies were found soon became known as the "Cannibal Plateau."

For the next nine years, the authorities tracked him down. He was believed to have been living in Washington, Montana, Wyoming, and as far South as Arizona. After those long nine years, he was found living under the name John Schwartze in Fort Fetterman, Wyoming. The story of how he was found is sort of interesting. It is said that a member of Packer's original 20-man party that had started out with him from Utah, a man by the name of Frenchy Cabizon, was in a saloon when he heard Packer laughing in that same saloon. When Cabizon realized who it was, he turned him in to the authorities in Wyoming. Packer was then returned to Lake City, Colorado, where he was tried for the hatchet-murders of his five companions. Surprisingly, Packer was never charged with cannibalism.

On April 6, 1883, Alferd Packer's trial began at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. During the trial, among other information, witnesses said that Packer walked out of the mountains with several items in his possession that belonged to the men that he killed. He also walked out with what was described as "rolls of money" on him.

Packer took the stand in his own defense and went on for more than two hours. The whole while telling new lies about what supposedly took place. It is interesting that Packer is said to have supposedly lied about his age, what he did while in the Union Army, and even the cause of his epilepsy. I was told that no one could confirm anything he said.

On the stand, Packer also claimed that he had a struggle with Bell and had shot him in self-defense. But Swan's remains showed evidence of a hand-to-hand struggle, not Bell. That inconsistency was in itself enough evidence that there was much more violence than what Packer said there was. While he denied killing anyone except Wilson Bell in self-defense, he did in fact admit to eating portions of Bell and Miller.

While I'm not going to go into the facts of the case regarding who he killed first, about how most of his victims were half-frozen and asleep when he took a hatchet to them, I'm sure there are writers out there who will furnish everyone with their suspicions of how the crimes were committed. Since no one was there, most of what's known about how he killed his five companions, and how he was still eating parts of them on his way out of the mountain, was pieced together in court. It was pieced together enough for the evidence to be clear to the jury for a guilty verdict. On Friday, April 13, 1883, Alferd Packer was found guilty. He was convicted of five counts of premeditated murder, and ordered to hang for what he did. 

In the next two years, he used whatever legal avenue he had available. He and his lawyers are known to have used the question of court jurisdiction because the murders may have been perpetrated on Indian Reservation lands, and they tried to say that because there was no murder statute in the Colorado Territorial law -- that he technically had committed no crime.

Using these sorts of legal ploys, Packer avoided hanging and actually won the right to a new trial with a change in venue to Gunnison which is 30 miles away. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned his murder conviction, just because he had committed the crimes in the Colorado Territory and the laws had changed when Colorado became a state. During the retrial, that trial in Gunnison went no different for Packer and he was convicted of five counts of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

In August of 1897, Packer wrote letters to The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. One particular newspaper columnist who took a definite interest in Packer was with The Denver Post. She wrote under the name of Polly Pry. She is said to have started an effort to get Packer's conviction overturned on the grounds that she was convinced of his innocence -- even though Packer confessed to committing the crimes. In fact, she believed that so much, that she published a series of heartfelt articles to get him paroled. And, while this might answer why folks in Colorado fell in love with their self-confessed hatchet-murdering cannibal, Polly Pry is the reason that public opinion turned in Packer's favor.

She did such a good job at making that killer look like the victim, that it wasn't long before other newspaper reporters and Colorado politicians got involved. Soon, there was such an outcry for Packer's release that Colorado Governor Charles S. Thomas is said to have looked forward to receiving Packer's request for parole. And yes indeed, Governor Thomas approved it as soon as he got it.

Packer, serving less than half of his 40-year sentence, was released from prison in 1901. So while many of us have this notion that murdering criminals didn't get off so easily in the Old West, it is interesting to note that he was paroled after only serving 17 years of his 40-year sentence in the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.

After his release from prison, he took a job as a guard at The Denver Post. It's said he took that job instead of taking a job as a side-show freak with the Sells-Floto Circus. Of course, it is remarkable to think that he is said to have talked about his exploits and even told stories to children about his adventures in the Colorado Territory before he died at age 60 on April 24, 1907. It's also hard to believe that he was buried with full military honors all paid for at the government's expense since he was a veteran of the Civil War.

Over the years, it's said that grave robbers wanted to steal his body. Others say the concrete over his grave is to stop vandals. Whatever the reason, concrete was poured over his grave to keep him securely in place.

That is, minus his head. Yes, without his head. Believe it or not, a representative from Ripley’s! Believe It or Not confirmed that the company has Packer's mummified head in its collection. Imagine that. While we know that his head is not buried with him, we don't know who removed it from his body, when they did it, and where it went before the Ripley’s! Believe It or Not folks got it. We also don't know how they come into possession of his head, or why Packer's head was taken in the first place. It all remains a mystery.

Of course, even though the whole story of Alferd Packer and what he did is one of the most horrible crimes against nature in Old West history, some folks don't care about that. And really, I'm thinking that Packer not being buried with his head is a mystery that I'm almost certain will help the folks in Colorado celebrate their beloved hatchet-murdering cannibal just that much more.

Tom Correa