David Bailey was surprised and a little skeptical when he first saw the pistol in 1994. He came across the rusted Colt revolver in a museum storage area while conducting an inventory of the firearms collection at Grand Junction’s Museum of the West, part of the Museums of Western Colorado, where Bailey is curator of history. He wouldn’t have given the weapon much thought were it not for the brief note written on its accession card: “This gun was found at the site where Alferd Packer killed and ate five of his traveling companions.”
Bailey was well acquainted with the story of Alfred “Alferd” Packer, the 19th-century cannibal convicted of killing five fellow prospectors and living off their flesh after they became lost in the snowy San Juan Mountains. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, his quest to learn more about the gun was the beginning of a second career as a history detective, investigating historical mysteries across the Western Slope.
After a little sleuthing, Bailey was able to trace the weapon back to a reputable archaeologist who had indeed found it at the Packer site on Cannibal Mesa, near Lake City, in 1950. Confident the artifact was genuine, his next step was to figure out what role it played in the Packer narrative of murder and cannibalism. He dug into historical court documents, letters and diaries looking for clues.
Packer had been found guilty of killing all five of his companions. Prosecutors said he used a hatchet to hack the men to death while they slept. While Packer readily admitted to eating the men, he maintained he had killed just one of them, Shannon Bell, and only in self-defense.
In his version of the story, Packer, armed with a gun, had left his comrades at their snowbound camp to scout ahead for signs of civilization and perhaps shoot an animal for food. Unsuccessful on both counts, he returned to camp to find four of his companions dead, their skulls split open with a hatchet. The fifth man, Bell, was at the campfire roasting a hunk of meat cut from the leg of one of the deceased. Noticing Packer was back, Bell charged him with the hatchet. “I shot him sideways through the belly,” Packer testified. “He fell on his face. The hatchet fell forwards. I grabbed it and hit him in the top of the head.”
Bailey wondered: Could the mystery weapon in the Museum of the West’s collection be the gun Packer claimed he used to shoot Bell? If he could prove Packer shot Bell, a scenario that prosecutors dismissed, he could demonstrate that at least one part of the cannibal’s story was true, lending greater credence to the rest of Packer’s account.
As Bailey continued his research, he discovered the diary of a man who helped recover the badly decomposed bodies of Packer’s companions on Cannibal Mesa in 1874. The diarist, a Civil War veteran well acquainted with bullet wounds, wrote that Bell had two gunshot wounds, including one through his pelvic area. Intriguingly, the supposed Packer gun was a five-shot revolver, discovered with only three of its five chambers loaded. Bailey suspected the two missing bullets may have ended up inside of Bell, but he had no way to prove it. Or did he?
The big break in the case came in 2000, when Bailey was chatting with Lake City historian Grant Houston about archaeology at the Packer site. Bailey knew that archaeologists had exhumed the skeletons of the Packer cannibalism victims in 1989, studied the skeletons and reburied them. Houston told him something he hadn’t known – the Hinsdale County Historical Society had saved forensic material from each skeleton, including the surrounding soil and bits of wool fabric. What’s more, photos showed that one of the bodies, labeled Skeleton A, had a small wound in its pelvis. Bailey was convinced it was a bullet hole, meaning Skeleton A was Shannon Bell.
Bailey took the forensic material from Skeleton A to Dr. Richard Dujay, director of Colorado Mesa University’s electron microscope lab, to see if he could find any gunshot residue. That was a tall order. “It’s as if 127 years ago someone hit a baseball in the U.S., and now you’re asking to find it,” Dujay told him. But Dujay and his team of scientists found the “baseball” – a microscopic piece of lead that showed clear signs of being man-made.
“Lead isn’t just lead,” Bailey said. “Each batch has different amounts of various things in them, like tin and antimony.” The scientists used an X-ray spectrograph to test the composition of the lead from the skeleton and the lead from one of the bullets in the Packer gun. They were a perfect match. After more than a century, Packer’s story was confirmed, at least as far as shooting Bell was concerned.
On Feb. 12, 2001, Bailey hosted a press conference announcing their new evidence suggesting Packer’s possible innocence. The story drew worldwide media attention, sparking a sort of Packermania. Bailey spent the next two days doing interviews with news outlets from the United Kingdom to Australia, then spent part of the next few years consulting on Packer documentaries. He and Dujay even helped stage a mock retrial in which Packer was posthumously, if unofficially, acquitted.
For the rest of the story see the March/April issue of Colorado Life.