The story of Alferd Packer, "The Colorado Cannibal," is one of the most notorious - and most misunderstood - tales from the pages of Colorful Colorado's history.
Packer, as you might know, was a prospector who set out for Colorado's gold fields with a party of five other men across the rugged San Juan Mountains during the winter of 1874. Packer was the only man who would survive that ill-fated trip with his life. His reputation (as evidenced by the fact that we're writing about him today) did not survive.
The soon-to-be-notorious Packer aroused suspicion when he emerged from the woods with a pocket full of cash and no traveling party. After being accused of murdering the other men, Packer told the story that would define the rest of his life and earn him a permanent place in Colorado history.
According to Packer, the members of his party died one at a time and were consumed by the other members until it came down to just him and one other member, Shannon Bell. In Packer's story, a desperately hungry Bell attempted to beat the Grim Reaper by killing the Colorado Cannibal before he died of natural causes. Bell was killed in the ensuing fight and Packer was left with no choice but to eat the man who would have eaten him.
Not surprisingly, local authorities weren't convinced by Packer's story and he was eventually charged with murder. Packer promptly escaped from the Saguache jail and stayed on the lam for eight years before authorities tracked him down. He was eventually found guilty of Bell's murder in 1883. He was originally sentenced to death, but after a second trial in 1885 he received a 40-year sentence, of which he served 16 years before being released and living out his life in relative peace.
Though Packer himself died peacefully, his legacy has been anything but settled, and his story has been the subject of historical and popular discussion ever since.
Alferd Packer: Fact vs. Fiction
The story we know about Alferd Packer and the story that actually occurred are not always the same story. Fortunately, the real story of Packer's crimes, trials and life can be found right here at the Western History/Genealogy Department.
Take, for example, Judge M.B. Gerry's famous quote that was supposedly uttered while handing down the sentence in Packer's first trial:
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' in reducin' th' Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.
As it turns out, Judge Gerry, like most Colorado residents, didn't talk like Yosemite Sam, which Fred M. Mazzula points out in his book, Al Packer, A Colorado Cannibal. Mazzula used transcripts from the trial to discover that what Judge Gerry actually said was:
Alfred Packer, the judgment 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 country 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 my God have mercy upon your soul.
While Gerry's real quote is less colorful, it does have the benefit of being accurate.
Finding the Truth for Yourself
Researchers and history buffs who want to learn more about Packer's life and crimes can find an array of materials at Denver Public Library that can be used to prove, or disprove, various pieces of the Packer legend.
Besides microfilm of Denver and Colorado newspapers of the era (including a complete run of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News), WH/G visitors can access a number of Packer books, including books like The Alfred G. Packer Victims Exhumation Project Lake City, Colorado, July 17, 1989 that utilizes archeology to get to the truth of what really happened during that ill-fated journey. Of course, we also have a few unique items (we wouldn't be a special collection if we didn't!) including copies of Packer's confession and an unused warrant for his execution...which obviously never happened.
Packer's story involves a whole lot more than a starving man who was reduced to consuming human flesh in an effort to survive a high country winter. Indeed, Packer was a Civil War veteran who spent nearly a decade on the run from justice and, ultimately, found some redemption from the people of Colorado, or at least from the justice system.
And while Packer's story has long been the subject of gallows humor and amusements, such as Alferd Packer's High Protein Gourmet Cookbook, there's really nothing funny about the tale at all. In the end, five men died agonizing deaths in the cruel mountain cold, while a sixth had his own life irrevocably altered.
But if you're looking to find out the real story behind the story you think you know, the truth is out there.