Saturday, September 8, 2012

Alfred Packer, Man-eater.

From Harper's Weekly, 1874
In February of 1874, a group of six men led by Alfred Packer, ventured into the San Juan Mountains in Colorado territory in search of gold. That April, Packer arrived alone at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, somewhat wild looking, but remarkably healthy for someone who had endured two month of brutal winter weather in the mountains. Packer claimed that he had taken ill, his men had abandoned him and he had traveled alone to the Agency. But when confronted with evidence that suggested his story was false, Packer made a full confession. He had survived the San Juan winter by eating his companions.

Date:  February 1874

Location:   San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Victims:  Wilson Bell, James Humphreys, Frank Miller, George Noon and Israel Swan

Cause of Death:  Blows with an axe

Accused:  Alfred G. Packer

Packer’s expedition, which left Salt Lake City, Utah in the Fall of 1873, was originally twenty men strong. They had heard glowing accounts of fortunes made in the San Juan country and were anxious to try their hands at prospecting. Alfred Packer, who allegedly had knowledge of the territory, would be their guide. But if Packer did know the territory, he did not know how to prepare an expedition of this size for a Colorado winter. After several weeks of travel through barren wastes and snowy mountains they had run out of food.  Just when it looked like their only reward would be starvation and death they came upon a camp of Ute Indians at the mouth of Dry Creek.

They entered the camp with trepidation, not knowing how they would be treated by the Indians, but the Utes were friendly and Chief Ouray insisted that they stay in the camp until fully recuperated. After regaining their health the men were anxious to continue their journey but Chief Ouray, for their own safety, tried to dissuade them.  He did manage to change the minds of ten of the men who decided to turn back to Salt Lake City. The other ten were determined to continue on to their goal, the Los Pinos Indian Agency, some seventy miles away. Chief Ouray provided them with food and advised them to follow the Gunnison River.

Alfred G. Packer
After traveling a short way, Packer told them that rich gold fields had recently been discovered near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and proposed that they head that way. Four members of the party were determined to follow Chief Ouray’s instructions, but the other five—Swan, Miller, Noon, Bell and Humphrey—had gold fever and agreed to follow Packer.

Of the party of four who followed the chief’s instructions, two died from starvation and exposure, and the other two reached the Los Pinos Agency later that February.  On April 16, Alfred Packer arrived alone at the Agency, carrying a rifle and a coffeepot holding burning embers, and begged piteously for food and shelter.

Packer said that he had taken ill and his companions had given him a rifle then deserted him. After ten days recovering at the Agency, Packer left for the town of Saguache, saying he intended to work his way back to his home in Pennsylvania. In Saguache, Packer drank heavily and appeared to have plenty of money. While intoxicated he began telling conflicting stories about the fate of his companions and suspicions arose that Packer himself might have engineered their demise.

Not long after Packer's arrival, two excited Indians ran into the Agency holding strips of flesh which they called “white man’s meat.” They had found them  on the ground not far from the Agency, where the snow and cold weather had preserved them. When Packer was confronted with the strips of flesh, he nearly fainted. After begging for mercy he made the first of several confessions.

He said that he and his five companions thought that they had enough food for the long journey ahead of them, but it was rapidly used up and they soon found themselves living on roots dug from the ground. The cold weather had driven all the animals and birds to shelter so there was no source of meat.  As they approached starvation, the members of the party began looking at each other with suspicion. One day Packer went to gather firewood and when he returned he found that Mr. Swan, the oldest of the party, had died. The rest of the men were in the act of cutting up the body and preparing to eat it. The $2,000 in cash that Swan was carrying was divided up among the remaining men.

A few days later, when they were hungry again, someone split Miller’s skull with an axe and he was eaten. Then, in succession, Humphrey and Noon were killed and eaten. The two remaining, Packer and Bell, made a pact that they would stand together, regardless of what happened, and face starvation rather than eating each other. But Bell could not stand the hunger and rushed Packer, attempting to strike him with the butt of his gun. Packer parried the blow and killed Bell with a hatchet. He cut Bell’s flesh into strips and carried them on his journey. He threw them away when he spied the Agency. He told his questioners:
“I threw away the strips I had left, and I confess I did so reluctantly as I had grown fond of human flesh, especially the portion around the breast.”
Packer agreed to guide them to the remains of the murdered men, but after leading them into the mountains he was unable to find the site. He was taken back to the Agency and turned over to the sheriff.

Saguache Jail.
That summer and artist named John Randolph, on assignment from Harper’s Weekly Magazine, found five sets of human remains just above the bank of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  He made a sketch of what he saw then reported his discovery. The Hinsdale County Coroner took twenty men to the site as witnesses. It appeared that one of the victims had put up a fight, but all of the others had been killed in their sleep. After everyone had a good look, they buried the bodies. The men hurried back to town to confront Packer with the new evidence only to find that he had escaped from the Saguache jail.

For nine years Packer eluded capture, travelling under the name John Schwartze. Then, in a saloon in Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, Frenchy Cabizon, one of the original twenty men Packer had led from Salt Lake City, recognized his voice. Packer was arrested and transported back to Lake City, Colorado for trial.

Trial: April 6, 1883, August 2, 1886

The victim who had struggled was identified as Israel Swan. This directly contradicted Packer’s story that it was Wilson Bell that he fought and killed in self-defense. Alfred Packer was tried for the first degree murder of Israel Swan.  Packer testified for two hours, and though he admitted to eating the flesh of his companions, he denied killing anyone but Wilson Bell, and that was in self-defense. On April 13, Alfred Packer was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to hang.

Over the next three years, Packer’s attorneys filed several appeals before the Colorado Supreme Court. The court finally overturned Packer’s conviction on technicalities stemming from the fact that crime was committed in 1874, two years before Colorado became a state. Packer was tried again on August 2, 1886, this time on five counts of voluntary manslaughter. Packer was found guilty on all five counts and sentenced to five eight year terms to be served consecutively—forty years in total.

Verdicts: Guilty of first degree murder – overturned
                 Guilty of five counts of voluntary manslaughter.

The case was appealed again, making a total of five times the Colorado Supreme Court had ruled on Packer’s case.  This time, however, they upheld the lower court’s verdict.

After serving eighteen years of his sentence, Alfred Packer was pardoned by the governor of Colorado, largely due to the efforts of Polly Ply, a reporter for the Denver Post. Packer died of a stroke in 1907.


Burt, Olive Woolley. American Murder Ballads and Their Stories . New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Duke, Thomas S.. Celebrated Criminal Cases of America . San Francisco, Cal.: J.H. Barry, 1910.

Gordon, John . Colorado reports cases adjudged in the Supreme Court of Colorado at the January and April and Part of the September Term 1899. Vol. 26. New York: The Banks Law Publishing Co., 1900.

Alfred "Alferd" Packer The Cannibal of Lake City, Colorado

Ballad Lyrics:
The Lost Miners

Gravesites (from Findagrave)

Alfred Packer ("Alferd" on the grave stone)

Alfred Packer Memorial (Flickr)


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