originally published June 30, 2014
Like many who don’t seek to occupy their thoughts with world-shifting brilliance or cunning inventorism, I spend an inordinate amount of time in day-dreamy contemplation. I’ve written about a host of historic criminals, and sometimes it strikes me that the prose we are left with, which documents their foulest of deeds and paints the page red with the nefarious blood-spritz of their infamous acts, is somewhat lacking. These men were not evil masterminds who plotted their wickedness from the dimly-lit murk of a dastardly lair.
Well, maybe that was the case for someone like William “Boss” Tweed, but for the most part I think history’s monsters could be better understood – I say ‘understood’, not ‘forgiven’ – with a tiny relevé in perspective. Sometimes their heinous horrors were simply the path of least resistance to a sought-after goal.
Like survival. In the dazzling pantheon of American cannibalism stories, there’s a sparkling room reserved for Alferd Packer, the man who ascended into Colorado legend for having feasted upon an intrepid troupe of gold-hungry explorers one winter eve in 1874. What tipped him into infamy was little more than desperation, panic, and a sprinkling of unmanaged greed. Would any of us have done things differently?
Okay, probably. Almost definitely. What the hell, I guess I had to ask.
Alferd Packer – and his name was transcribed as both ‘Alfred’ and ‘Alferd’, though he preferred Alferd, allegedly because of a misspelled tattoo on his arm – served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was discharged for epilepsy then drifted west, earning a scant income as a small-time con man. Whether he was legitimately on the hunt for gold or whether he’d simply duped a team of money-hungry would-be prospectors into trusting his abilities as a gold-sniffing mountain man, we’ll never know.
Packer led a team of twenty from Provo, Utah en route to the headwaters of the Gunnison River in Colorado. “There be gold in them thar headwaters,” he may have said. I don’t know, I’m just trying to sprinkle a little more drama into the story. Anyhow, they pushed into the San Juan Mountains, stumbling into the land of the Ute tribe near Montrose in the Colorado Territory and encountering Chief Ouray. Chief Ouray and his followers got along well with the local white folk, and were happy to help nurse the team of 21 back to health – it seems that “mountain man” Alferd Packer had guided them to the brink of starvation along the route.
It was January of 1874, in the chalky thick of a wretched winter. Chief Ouray laid it out for everyone: turn back and make this journey when the weather is not actively trying to murder you. This makes sense in retrospect: who ventures on a gold hunt in the freezing mountains of Colorado in the heart of winter? Ten of the team turned back. But Alferd was adamant that they’d be successful. He and his ten faithful bid adieu to the kind Chief and set on their way toward Gunnison.
They’d been given supplies and some sage advice to follow the river upstream, but Alferd insisted that he knew better. He pointed his nose into the deep, thick trees and led everyone on a clamber. Right away they hit a vicious blizzard. They didn’t get too far before five of the party broke away and headed for the Los Pinos Indian Agency. That left only six explorers (including Alferd), who were no doubt fired up at the prospect of fewer people with whom they’d have to share their bounty.
The weather was relentless, and the group took shelter in a tiny cabin. The five others – Shannon Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George Noon and Israel Swan – went out in search of food and never returned. This is the shoulder-shrugging story Alferd gave when he showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency on April 16. After a period of recovery, Alferd moved on to Saguache, Colorado, where he was spotted spending money rather liberally for someone who had just endured a failed expedition for gold. Some of his original 20 companions ran into Alferd and became suspicious of his version of the story.
Alferd was brought back to Los Pinos for questioning, and his story suddenly changed. Now Israel Swan had died and the others had eaten him. Then three of the others died from starvation and exposure, before Alferd had to kill Shannon Bell in an act of self-defense. He was locked up while the investigation continued; members of Chief Ouray’s tribe came across the remains of the other five men, and once again Alferd’s story scooted around. Maybe they were attacked by natives. No? Okay, maybe some of the party went crazy and turned on him and he killed them out of self-preservation. No? Okay, screw it – maybe he should just escape from jail.
Alferd fled from the law and lived for nearly ten years under the assumed name of ‘John Schwartze’ in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before someone from the gold-hunting party recognized him. Once again in custody, Alferd signed a confession in March of 1883. The truth came out: Alferd was torn between the imminent danger of the persistent winter and the unfathomable shame of returning to Utah as a failure. He shot four of the men in their sleep, but when Shannon Bell awoke and tried to defend himself, Alferd smoked him with the butt-end of his rifle. Then he ate them.
As the trial went on, Alferd began to enjoy the national attention. He spoke at length about the benefits of human jerky, pinpointing the chest-meat near the ribs as the best source for quality jerky meat. Alferd was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Colorado lore has the judge saying stuff like, “When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was seven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ‘em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’be hanged th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead.” and “I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.” The truth is, judge M.B. Gerry was more eloquent: “Close your ears to the blandishments of hope. Listen not to its fluttering promises of life. But prepare to meet the spirits of thy murdered victims. Prepare for the dread certainty of death.”
But there was a catch. A legal loophole that saved Alferd from a dangly fate. Alferd’s crimes had taken place in the Territory of Colorado. The trial was happening in the State of Colorado. The state’s constitution didn’t account for such a weirdly heinous crime, so Alferd was instead sentenced to 40 years for manslaughter – a sentence of which he only served 16 years before being paroled.
Alferd spent his final years as a security guard for the Denver Post. Rumor has it he became a vegetarian before dying in his sleep in 1907 at age 65. Alferd was not a sociopathic flesh-fancier, nor was he a deranged serial killer. He had launched a drawn-out con that was about to end badly, and somehow he found the most awful possible conclusion to his situation and made it worse.
As a weird postscript to this story, the cafeteria at the University Memorial Center in the University of Colorado in Boulder has since 1977 been known as the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill. They “serve all mankind.” Sounds delicious!