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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Human jerked beef

Jean “Frenchy” Cabazon was one of the party of 21 from Utah who wisely stayed in Ouray’s camp for the winter. Nine years later, in 1883, he was working as a peddler in the mining camps of Wyoming. One day, he met a familiar-looking miner calling himself John Schwartze who wanted to buy supplies. Cabazon had to stifle his surprise when he realized he knew this man with long chestnut hair and a high, grating voice, but he wasn’t called Schwartze when they first met – he was called Packer.

Cabazon alerted the local sheriff, and Packer was arrested. Charles Adams, by then a postal inspector in Manitou Springs, was called to Cheyenne to confirm Packer’s identity and accompany him by train to Denver, where a thousand curious onlookers gathered on March 16, 1883, for the cannibal’s arrival. Packer, looking haggard in brown overalls and a soiled woolen shirt, was glad to see Adams again. He had drifted to Arizona, Montana and Oregon before coming to Wyoming, he said, and he felt fate had drawn him to Adams so he could finally tell the whole truth. That night, Packer gave Adams his second confession.

The other five men hadn’t gradually died along the way, Packer admitted. They all made it to Dead Man’s Gulch, where the others set up camp while Packer climbed the mountain to get a better vantage of which way to go. Packer took a gun with him in case he saw any animals to shoot for food. He was gone most of the day, and when he returned, he saw his comrades lying in their blankets, except for Bell, who was sitting by the campfire. When Bell noticed he was back, he charged at Packer, wielding a hatchet. “I shot him sideways through the belly,” Packer said.

“He fell on his face, the hatchet fell forward. I grabbed it and hit him in the top of his head.” The other men didn’t stir. Bell had hacked them all to death. Packer saw that Bell had been roasting a piece of meat cut from the leg of Miller, the German butcher.

Packer camped there that night and set out the next day, but snow forced him back. He made a shelter of pine boughs not far from the dead men, then fetched the meat Bell had cut off. He searched the bodies, taking $70 he found – far less than the thousands he was suspected of taking. Packer made a fire at his new camp, cooked the hunk of Miller’s leg and ate it. He was sickened by it, so he only ate a bit at a time. “I tried to get away every day but could not, so I lived off the flesh of these men, the bigger part of the 60 days I was out.” If this was true, Adams asked, why hadn’t Packer told him so nine years ago? “I was excited, I wanted to say something,” Packer said, “and the story, as I told it, came first to my mind!”

The Denver newspapers had a field day with the story. Articles about Packer, described as “the man-eating murderer with his villainous and ugly face,” carried headlines like “Human Jerked Beef” and “A Fiend Who Became Very Corpulent.”

In the decade since Packer’s ordeal, the mining town of Lake City had sprouted up a few miles from Dead Man’s Gulch, and Packer was transported there for trial. On April 9, a heavily manacled Packer was led into a courtroom with a potbellied stove, chandelier and a “No Spitting” sign. Prosecutors argued Packer had deliberately led his companions into the wilderness so he could murder them and take their money; even before the trial started, that was exactly what most of the jurors believed had happened.

Packer defended himself with a rambling, at times incoherent statement. He freely admitted killing Bell, but only after Bell had killed the rest out of insane hunger. The jury didn’t believe him. Packer was convicted of premeditated murder, and in a long, eloquent statement, Judge Melville Gerry sentenced him to death by hanging. “Close up your ears to the blandishments of hope,” Gerry intoned. “Listen not to its flattering promises of life; but prepare for the dread certainty of death.”

Saloonkeeper Larry Dolan, who had been watching in the gallery and rushed back to his bar after the sentencing, came up with a cheeky alternate version of Gerry’s speech that is often repeated as the actual sentence: “There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, but you, you voracious, man-eating son-of-a-bitch, you ate five of them. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you’re dead, dead, dead, as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of the state.”

Packer was taken back to the Lake City jail. While awaiting his fate, a miner, arrested for drunkenness, balked at his infamous cellmate. “Packer the man-eater is in that cell and I’m damned if I’m going to stay here,” the miner protested. Packer, his sense of humor intact, warned him, “Dry up out there, God damn you, or I’ll chew you up.” The petrified drunk didn’t say another word.

Packer was spared the noose. His lawyer discovered that the murder statute on the books in 1874 had been repealed and replaced without a “savings clause,” a technicality that meant Packer couldn’t be prosecuted for murder. The technicality didn’t get him off the hook for manslaughter, however, so he was retried in Gunnison and convicted of the lesser crime and sentenced to 40 years in prison – the maximum eight years for each dead man. Packer expected this, but made a curious request of the judge: He wanted to be sentenced 40 years, but only for the death of Bell, the one man he admitted killing. The request was denied.


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