Government official Charles Adams summoned Alfred G. Packer to his office on the Los Pinos Indian agency, determined to find out what really happened to Packer’s five traveling companions.

“I believe these men are dead and you know something about it,” Adams said. “You might as well tell the truth. If the matter is as I suspect, you are more to be pitied than blamed.”

Several minutes passed. Packer said nothing.

Three months earlier, in February 1874, the lanky, blue-eyed 31-year-old was one of six gold prospectors to venture into southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains during one of the worst winters in memory. They were headed for the Indian agency south of present-day Gunnison, but Packer was the only one who arrived. Though he claimed the rest of his party left him behind after his feet got too frozen to keep up, rumors soon spread that he had murdered his comrades for their money.

Perhaps feeling cornered by Adams’ interrogation, Packer finally broke his silence with a cryptic, disturbing observation: “It would not be the first time that people had been obliged to eat each other when they were hungry.”

And so, through tears, Packer began to confess. It was to be the first of many confessions. He would recount his story a number of times over the next three decades, with the details changing in each telling. To this day, no one knows if Packer was the blameless victim of blizzards and starvation, or a calculating murderer who led five men to their doom. But there is one detail that was the same in each confession: He survived more than a month in the frozen wilderness by eating human flesh. Alfred G. Packer was a cannibal.


Into the blizzard

Packer was born near Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, 1842, though he claimed his birthday was Jan. 21. This ambiguity is hallmark of Packer’s life. There are two stories for even the most basic details, including his name. The spelling was Alfred in all official documents and contemporary newspapers, but he repeatedly signed his name “Alferd.” He left his parents, brother and two sisters at a young age, and by his late teens, he was living as a shoemaker in Minnesota.

All his life, Packer suffered from epilepsy, a disorder then thought to be linked to insanity. He enlisted with two different Union regiments during the Civil War, but he served with each for less than a year before getting discharged due to seizures, which occurred every two days, if not more frequently.

He spent the decade after the war drifting from job to job – hunter, hard-rock miner, trapper, teamster, guide – but despite his various explanations for his seizures, his employment invariably ended when his ailment manifested itself. By 1872, Packer arrived in Colorado. He worked as a miner in Georgetown, where he lost part of his left pinky and index finger to an errant sledgehammer blow. He wandered to Utah in 1873, making a poor living at the mines there. Then came word of a new gold strike in Colorado, and a group of would-be gold hunters –  strangers to one another – gathered in Bingham Canyon, Utah, eager to get first crack at the untapped riches of the San Juans. Among them was Packer, who touted his experience traveling the mountains of Colorado.

Another man on the trip, Preston Nutter, summed up the general opinion of Packer: “He was sulky, obstinate and quarrelsome. He was a petty thief willing to take things that did not belong to him, whether of any value or not.” Whether Packer actually did anything to warrant this assessment is unknown, but the stigma of his epilepsy might have contributed to the mistrust. He suffered “fits” while still in Utah. Once, while sitting by the campfire, he was overcome by a seizure and fell into the flames, overturning a coffeepot, which spattered its scalding contents on his face.

The party, which grew to include 21 men, set out in late autumn on a long journey by foot to the Colorado border. The travel was slow, game was scarce and early snow was heavy. Facing dwindling rations, the crew was forced to eat livestock feed. By late January 1874, the bedraggled lot made it to the Ute Indian camp of Chief Ouray in Colorado, near present-day Delta. Ouray shared his food and fire with the white men. He knew the country as well as anyone, and he warned his guests that to venture into the mountains at this time of year was to risk certain death – no Ute would attempt such a passage until spring.

But some of the party of 21 refused to wait for better weather. Seeing there was no stopping them, Ouray gave directions: Travel east for seven days to the government cattle camp near Gunnison, then follow the creek south to the Los Pinos Indian Agency, from which it would be a relatively easy 40-mile trek to Saguache. Packer was the nominal guide for the group of six that departed Feb. 9. With him were George Noon, a teenager; Israel Swan, older than 60 and rumored to be carrying thousands in cash; James Humphrey; Frank Miller, a butcher from Germany; and stout, red-faced, red-haired Shannon Wilson Bell. 

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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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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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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. 

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