The Mystery of Alfred Packer

It's was no secret that prospector and blizzard survivor Alfred Packer once dined on human flesh, but was he driven to cannibalism by desperation, or was the preparation of his unusual meal premeditated?

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They were almost immediately lost. The relentless snow fell so deep they had to travel along the ridges, rather than the gulches they’d planned on following, Packer later testified. After nine days, they ate their final pint of flour, which he said they mixed with melted snow to make a sort of mush. A few days later, Noon offered his pair of goatskin moccasins to eat; they plucked out the hair, roasted and ate them. Every few days they’d eat another man’s moccasins until there were none left. They soon ran out of matches, so they marched with burning coals in a coffeepot, which old man Swan volunteered to carry to keep his hands warm – he was suffering the worst from the cold. They forged ahead, an ever-growing blanket of snow making it impossible to retrace their steps. They ate rosebuds from wild rosebushes and chewed pine gum to allay their hunger, but it wasn’t working. They cried and shouted and prayed – in their desperate hunger, they prayed most of all for the taste of salt. Coming to a frozen lake, they punched a hole through the ice to catch some fish, but they found only muck. By day 20 of their supposed seven-day trip, the exhausted Swan could go no further. The famished, frozen men followed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River to a pine-shaded gulch near a plateau – places now known as Dead Man’s Gulch and Cannibal Plateau.


Suspicious circumstances

On April 16, a well-fed Packer stumbled out of the woods and onto the Indian agency. He ran into Preston Nutter and other members of the original Utah party who had waited out the winter in Ouray’s camp; like Packer, they were just arriving at the agency, but unlike him they’d had a relatively easy 14-day trip. Packer rode a stagecoach with some of them to the town of Saguache, and they naturally wondered what became of his companions. Packer claimed they had left him behind, forcing him to survive on rosebuds and small game on his solitary journey, but his Utah acquaintances grew suspicious once they reached Saguache. Packer was thought to be nearly penniless, so how did he get the money for a new horse and saddle when he hit town? And how could he afford his current drinking and card-playing spree in a local saloon?

Packer spent two weeks living it up in Saguache before Charles Adams, the man in charge of the Los Pinos Indian Agency, talked him into returning to the agency to lead a search party for the missing men. Adams asked Packer where he’d gotten his money, and Packer said he borrowed it from a local blacksmith. Adams soon discovered that was a lie and urged Packer to come clean, prompting his first – and least truthful – confession. It was late in the evening of May 4 that Packer began spinning his tale.

They were lost, Packer told Adams, and old man Swan died of hunger. The party cut meat from his body and traveled on for a few more days until the death of Humphrey, who also was eaten. Days later, Packer went off to gather firewood, returning to find Miller had been killed by the two remaining men. Bell later killed Noon, and later still he tried to club Packer with his rifle but missed, breaking it against a tree. Packer shot and killed Bell, took a large hunk of his body for food and kept hiking.

Adams was inclined to believe Packer’s story and authorized a search for the bodies. Packer was the guide, and Nutter and other members of the Utah group followed, but after a few days of looking, Packer claimed he couldn’t find the route he’d traveled. “You killed these men and you ought to be hung for it,” an enraged Nutter said to Packer.

Packer was arrested and kept under constant guard in a building on the Saguache County sheriff’s ranch. But months passed, and with no bodies found, no evidence of a crime and no specific charges against Packer, the Saguache County authorities weren’t thrilled about his indefinite detention at taxpayer expense. Someone slipped Packer a penknife to open the locks on his shackles, and the cannibal disappeared into the night.

It wasn’t long after Packer’s escape that a traveling illustrator for Harper’s Weekly discovered a grisly scene on the banks of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, near present-day Lake City. Five dead and butchered men lay on the ground, each with his head bashed in by a hatchet – except for one man who had no head at all. The artist sketched the corpses, which had apparently been there for months, before alerting authorities. “All agreed they were a nasty, bad-smelling mess to handle,” said a man who arrived at the scene. Nutter was summoned to confirm what everyone suspected: Here, at last, were Packer’s companions. But where was Packer?


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