by Mary Lowers
“In the state of Colorado
In the year of ‘74
They crossed the San Juan Mountains
Growing hungry to the core.
Their guide was Alferd Packer
And they trusted him too long.
For his character was weak
And his appetite was strong.”
-from the “Ballad of Alferd Packer” by Phil Ochs
Alfred Packer, an American frontiersman looking, like so many others, to reinvent himself by heading out west to find his fame and fortune, probably never guessed his fame would come from an episode of cannibalism during the long hard winter of 1874.
The incident occurred while Packer was guiding five would-be prospectors to the rich gold country around Breckenridge. The group ran out of food and the snow was too deep for travel. In April 1874 Packer was the only one of the ill-fated party to make it out of the mountains. Alfred, who was known by his nickname of Alferd (the moniker was tattooed on his right arm), confessed to eating some of the party and using their meat to survive after being snowed in for two months.
Born Alfred Griner Packer in Allegheny, PA on January 21, 1842, his family soon moved to Indiana, where Alfred’s father found work as a cabinet maker. When the American Civil War broke out in 1862, Alfred joined up serving as a shoemaker. He was honorably discharged from the Union Army due to epilepsy. He tried again to enter the army but was honorably discharged again for epilepsy. This experience motivated the young man to seek his fortune elsewhere. In 1863 he left the east for the Rocky Mountains where he worked various mining-related jobs for nine years.
After serving jail time in Salt Lake City for counterfeiting in 1873, Packer left Provo, UT and joined a group of twenty-one men headed for new gold strikes in central Colorado. The party met with Ute Chief Ouray near Montrose. The famous leader warned the prospectors that the winter ahead would be harsh and the party should really wait out the winter before crossing the rugged San Juan Mountains. Six men, including Packer, ignored this wise advice. So it happened that the six prospectors left Gunnison on February 9, 1873. The group included, in addition to Packer, Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank “Reddy” Miller, George “California” Noon and Israel Swain.
The party chose Packer as their paid guide, a job he took despite the fact that he knew nothing about the isolated rough terrain they would be crossing. By the time they reached Slumguillion Pass they were well snowed in and were eating their shoes boiled down for sustenance. Packer claimed after the incident in one of three confessions recorded, that he had left camp to scout and hunt. When he returned he found Shannon Bell roasting human flesh. Bell, according to Packer, went crazy and rushed him with a hatchet whereupon Packer drew his Colt revolver in self-defense and shot Bell dead.
Packer in Saguache County
On April 16, 1874 Parker arrived at the Los Pinos Indian Agency alone, looking fat and sassy. Initially he claimed to have lost the other five members of his party in a fierce blizzard. He did not ask for food and proceeded to visit a saloon in Saguache as he said his first need was whiskey. It was observed that Packer seemed to have lots of money to spend in several wallets in his pocket. When questioned Packer claimed he had acted in self defense and had only killed Shannon. In all of his three confessions the fact that the four prospectors were already dead when he shot Shannon, remained consistent. His third and final confession was signed in Saguache on August 5, 1874.
He was first tried in a Saguache County Court. At the time Judge M.B. Gerry said, “Stand up yah voracious man eating sonobitch and receive your sentence. When you came to Hinsdale County there were seven Democrats, but you ate five of them. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, and dead, as a warning against reducing the Democrat population. Packer you Republican Cannibal, I would sentence you to hell but the statues forbid it.” While awaiting the hangman, Packer managed to break out of jail in Saguache and fled to Cheyenne, WY. Living under the name John Schwartze he lived quietly for nine years. He was discovered and rearrested on March 11, 1883.
Packer then signed a second confession. His second cannibalism trail was in Lake City close to Cannibal Plateau where the carnivorous crime occurred. On April 6, 1883 Packer was found guilty of manslaughter, a lesser charge than murder, and was again sentenced to death. In October of 1885 the Colorado Supreme Court (case #3095) ruled on an appeal, reducing Packer’s sentence to forty years in prison. At the time this was one of the longest custodial sentences in U.S. history.
After serving eighteen years Packer was paroled on February 8, 1901. He was employed for many years as a guard for the Denver Post. He lived quietly near Deer Creek in Jefferson County where he died at the age of sixty-five on April 23, 1907. He was buried in Littleton where his grave is marked with the tombstone of a war veteran. His obituary lists the causes of his death as senility, trouble and worry.
Packer died but certainly was not forgotten. In 1994 David P. Bailey, curator of the Museum of Western Colorado, studied a Colt revolver that was in the museum’s collection said to be from the scene of the crime on Cannibal Plateau, southeast of Lake City. In 2000 Bailey discovered that forensic soil samples from a 1989 exhumation of Shannon Belle’s grave contained, when examined under an electron microscope by Dr. Richard Dujay at Mesa State College, lead. Samples of this lead matched bullets from Packer’s pistol. This seems to corroborate part of Packer’s account that Bell was killed with a shot from his gun. Whether or not the killing was in self defense is still not clear. Evidence continues to be unearthed; in 2004 a one hundred and thirty-year-old human finger bone linked to a site where the bodies of Packer’s party were butchered was found on Cannibal Plateau.
Many songs about Alferd Packer have been written. I recommend tuning into YouTube and checking out C.W. McCall’s Best Cannibal Song Ever. Trey Parker of the animated TV show South Park fame did a movie called Cannibal, the Musical, also available for viewing on the internet. Marketing for Colorado’s most popular cannibal include movies, songs, a cookbook and various Packer events statewide.
Alferd Packer Festival in Saguache
On October 11 this year the Town of Saguache will hold the second Alferd Packer Festival downtown. Events planned include a 5K Cannibal Run, a Beer Garden, a Rib Cook-off, children’s crafts, Live Music, a Beard and Mustache Contest, Tug-O-War, and a free screening of Cannibal, the Musical at the Ute Theatre. Check it out at www.alferdpackerfest.com.
Lake City where Packer’s second trial was held hosts an Alferd Packer Jeep Tour and BBQ each summer. Regular reenactments of the second Packer trail are conducted weekly over the summer in Lake City. Last year in Littleton, where Packer is buried, the Rotary Club held an Alferd Packer Bacon Party fundraiser. The cafeteria at CU Boulder Student Center is called the Alferd Packer Memorial Grille.