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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Freedom without redemption

Packer considered himself dead to the world in 1886 as he began serving his sentence at the penitentiary in Cañon City, but he never stopped seeking exoneration. His efforts were reported by the newspapers, attracting the notice of Duane Hatch, a young Denver barber. As a teenager, Hatch sought his fortune in Wyoming, where he was befriended by a stranger who invited him to share his camp and work with him on a cattle ranch. He recognized the cannibal in the newspaper as his friend and benefactor.

Hatch visited Packer in prison, where they resumed their friendship. He found Packer nothing like the vicious killer he’d been portrayed to be. He was a model prisoner, who spent his time gardening and braiding horsehair into watch fobs and belts to sell to visitors. Packer, using funds from this venture and his Civil War veteran’s pension, gave money to paroled prisoners so they could buy respectable clothes and pay for a month’s rent while seeking work, and he never expected repayment. “Packer is the soul of generosity, and apparently cares nothing for money,” the prison warden said of him – strange for a man convicted of killing five men for their money.

Hatch spent the next decade seeking a pardon for Packer, hiring some of the best lawyers in Denver. When customers came in for a shave and haircut, Hatch asked them to sign a petition supporting Packer’s release. Eventually, the public came to believe Packer was indeed a victim of circumstance convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence. Enterprising Denver Post reporter Polly Pry took up the banner, and by the dawn of the 20th century, most of Denver’s civic and business leaders joined her in pestering Gov. Charles Thomas to pardon the state’s most notorious inmate. The pressure worked: Before Thomas left office in January 1901, his last official act was to parole – but not pardon – Packer.

The cannibal and the governor reached a gentlemen’s agreement that Packer wouldn’t seek to profit from his notoriety. Packer got a job as a security guard at The Denver Post, but spent most of his remaining years prospecting in the foothills southwest of Denver. He died in obscurity on April 24, 1907, still longing to clear his name.


A Cannibal's Legacy

PACKER’S STORY took on new life after his death in 1907. Republicans in the 1930s founded the Packer Club of Colorado, a playful nod to Packer’s supposed eating of five Democrats. Students at the University of Colorado in Boulder eat at the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill, dedicated in 1968. And before Trey Parker created South Park, he produced the cult-classic film Cannibal! The Musical, in which he played a singing Alfred Packer.

Forensic experts still investigate the case – and come to conflicting conclusions. In 1989, a team led by law professor James Starrs exhumed the skeletons of Packer’s comrades buried at Dead Man’s Gulch. Analysis of the bones showed defensive cut wounds, as well as knife marks indicating defleshing. Starrs came away believing Packer was indeed the murderer.

More recently, David Bailey, curator at Grand Junction’s Museum of Western Colorado, tracked down a Colt revolver found at the Packer site with three of its five chambers still loaded. Using an electron microscope, Bailey’s team compared samples from the lead in the pistol’s bullets and lead from soil beneath Bell’s exhumed body. The samples matched, supporting Packer’s claim that he shot Bell.

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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