Bone appétit: The story of Alferd Packer, Colorado’s most infamous, yet beloved, cannibal

Posted: 4:30 AM, Oct 30, 2020
Updated: 2021-04-02 18:24:46-04
Alferd Packer_newspaper clippings.jpg

HINSDALE COUNTY, Colo. — As the first fingers of spring started to peel back winter’s hold in 1874, a man staggered out of the mountains and into Lake City, ready to spill a story — or two, or three — that few would believe. He’d quickly become known as the Colorado Cannibal.

It’s a tale as puzzling as it is horrific, and somehow, from the safe distance of about 150 years, humor has wiggled its way in.

His name was Alferd Packer.

Recognize the name, or perhaps know his story? He became somewhat of a Colorado celebrity in the mid-1900s, when you could find the Packer name in everything from a wilderness cookbook title to a festival name to a musical created by CU Boulder students. People learned of his story and instead of turning away in disgust, they leaned into it. Unabashedly embraced it.

An article from April 1984 in The Washington Post captured the absurdity in one of its opening paragraphs: “In the days before bean sprouts and granola, when the West was raw and men ate men, Packer chewed his way into the hearts of Coloradans by devouring five gold-seeking companions.”

Of course, under the silliness is the much darker story of how those five men met their horrific demise in the freezing, lonely mountains.

The particulars around what actually happened are foggy at best. Packer was the only one from the group to live to tell the tale and he told several. And those details are now buried — and in some instances, altered — under 150 years of history. To dig up what happened, we turned to the details in official court documents and the ink-smudged columns of the local newspapers, both from the late 1800s.

These documents have preserved countless moments from the case, such as Packer’s statement about his alleged crimes as he stood in front of a courthouse packed with people who were no doubt fascinated that a cannibal was in their midst and wondering if he’d get his just desserts.

Even in those moments, just before his sentencing, it was not absolutely certain if Packer had planned to eat the men through a twisted, murderous mind or if it just unfolded that way in an equally desperate and reluctant struggle for survival.

But either way, he had surely bit off more than he could chew.

Introducing Alferd Packer, Colorado’s Cannibal

Packer’s story starts in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. According to the April 20, 1883 edition of the Lake City Mining Register, he was born on Jan. 31, 1842, though other reports list his birthdate as Nov. 21 of that year.

Andrew Gulliford, a professor of southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, said Packer was “a little bit of a drifter” and possibly a Civil War veteran. The Washington Post wrote in a June 8, 1989 article that Packer was discharged from the Union Army in 1862 for epilepsy. While he re-enlisted in another regime, he was discharged for the same reason, according to the City of Littleton.

In an unproven story, but one widely spread, a young Packer visited a tattoo artist who made the permanent error of inking “Alferd” instead of “Alfred” on Packer’s skin. He apparently embraced the typo and ended up adopting the name, though his first name, legally, remained Alfred, per court records.

Between 1863 and 1873, Packer moved west to pursue multiple jobs varying from hunting and trapping to guiding and mining, according to the Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City.

Gulliford said Packer was just one of the thousands of drifters who decided to embark on that journey.

In his early 30s, Packer volunteered to guide a group of 21 men through the Rocky Mountains starting in the area around Salt Lake City, Utah, despite having no weapons, little food or provisions, and limited skills. Reports vary on their final destination — most reports say they were bound for the Los Piños Indian Agency outside Saguache, others say they were headed for present-day Breckenridge.

They were set to start the long journey late in 1873.

Just in time for a nightmarish snowstorm.

‘Then, we gave up to die’

Packer’s stories start about the same — all of them.

He led the group to Ute Indian Chief Ouray’s winter camp near modern-day Montrose, arriving in late January 1874, according to the Hinsdale County Museum.

Knowing another party had left the camp and successfully made it to Los Piños Indian Agency, Packer said he thought his group could do the same. Only five others decided to take the risk with him. Those men were Frank Miller, Wilson Bell, James Humphreys, George Noon and Israel Swan.

The six men took advantage of Chief Ouray’s shelter and food for a few days and left to continue the journey in early February 1874.

It was the last time five of those men were seen alive.

On April 16, 1874, as winter gave way to spring, Packer emerged from the mountains, according to reports in the Lake City Mining Register. He was alone.

After resting at the Los Piños Indian Agency for a few days, Packer went to Saguache, the nearest settlement. When others inquired, Packer said a “fearful” snowstorm that had moved in, filling the trail up to the men’s knees, the Lake City Mining Register reported. The men, desperate for sustenance, ate their moccasins.

“Then, we gave up to die,” Packer is quoted saying in the article.

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Clip of Packer's statement in court

But it didn’t take long for people to start asking questions.

Packer flaunted various versions of what had happened, and his sudden new wealth and the fact that he had some of the missing men's possessions drew suspicion. As the Lake City Mining Register describes it, he “started a career of drinking and carousing.” Authorities wondered where the rest of the party truly was, why Packer couldn’t keep his story straight, and how he claimed he had been starving, but emerged from the mountains looking a bit haggard but otherwise fit.

When talking with officials at the Los Piños Indian Agency, Packer initially claimed — depending on which report you read — that either his feet had frozen or he had become sick. The group had essentially left him to die, he said, with the promise they’d send help when they reached their destination, according to a special series published in Lake City’s Silver World newspaper in 1997.

After he was further questioned by Gen. Charles Adams, a local Indian agent of the Utes at the Los Piños agency, Packer signed his first confession on May 8, 1874, which said something very different. A handwritten copy of the signed confession now hangs in the Hinsdale County Courthouse. It reads that Swan, who was elderly, had died first and was eaten by the five others. Four or five days later, Humphreys died and was eaten. Packer said he took $133 from Humphreys’s pocketbook. Sometime afterward, “while I was carrying wood, the Butcher (Miller) was killed and the other two told me accidentally and he was eaten,” according to his confession. He said Bell shot Noon, leaving just two men from the party of six.

“Bell wanted to kill me, struck at me with his rifle, struck a tree and broke his gun,” the confession reads.

In self-defense, Packer killed Bell, he said. And with that, only he remained.

By late April, the differing tales, paired with his sudden riches and questionable actions, led the public to believe Packer had lured the men into the mountains intentionally to murder and cannibalize them.

He was arrested after signing the confession on charges of murder. Gen. Adams was quoted in the Lake City Mining Register saying, “Packer would hang himself by the discrepancies of his statements.”

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And it seemed like justice would be served.

But then, Packer was gone. Escaped, sometime in early August 1874.

All of a sudden, it was crystal clear to the residents of Hinsdale County that a criminal who had made international headlines, a “man-eating murderer,” as the Lake City Mining Register called him, had bolted and was nowhere to be found.

A taste of justice for Packer

Within the same month of Packer’s escape — and some sources say even the same day — the gruesome remains of his forest feast were discovered.

The leftovers were found in August by an Illinois illustrator from Harper’s Weekly. He found the bodies under a grove of spruce trees, partially wrapped in blankets, and promptly sketched them out in an illustration that was widely circulated after the discovery. They had broken bones and skull fractures, and the fleshy and fatty parts of their bodies had been sliced away, according to a 2020 article published by the Denver Public Library.

As for Packer? Well, despite fleeing from state to state, justice caught up to him in a saloon near Fort Fetterman, Wyoming in early 1883, nine years after his escape.

A French peddler, who had been in Packer’s original group of 21 explorers from Salt Lake City, recognized his voice and laugh in a saloon, according to a March 24, 1883 article in the Silver World. When the man peered through a crack in the saloon’s partition, he saw Packer and immediately, and quietly, alerted the authorities.

Packer, who had been living under the name John Schwartze and working as a rancher and prospector, was arrested and transported back to Colorado in March 1883, according to the Lake City Mining Register.

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While in Denver, Packer signed a second confession on March 16, 1883, according to the Hinsdale County Museum. Again, this one was much different than any story he’d told before.

When asked why he signed the prior confession in the first place, Packer responded “I was excited and I wanted to say something and the story as I told it came first to my mind,” according to documents at the Hinsdale County Courthouse.

In his second confession, which is now on display at the courthouse, he claimed that the group had become desperate searching for food and one of the men had asked Packer to go up on a mountain to try to gain a better vantage point.

“When I came back to camp after being gone nearly all day, I found the redheaded man (Bell) who acted crazy in the morning, sitting near the fire eating a piece of meat which he had cut from the leg of the German butcher (Miller),” the confession reads.

Miller’s skull had been crushed by a hatchet and the other three men were dead around the fire, according to the confession. Upon seeing Packer had returned to camp, Bell rushed at him with a hatchet and Packer shot him in the stomach, the confession reads.

Following the murder, he made camp and tried a piece of meat that was near the fire.

“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,” his confession reads.

Finally, the snow began to crust over, which allowed him to venture farther from the camp.

After signing this confession in Denver, Packer was transported to the Hinsdale County Jail, where he was promptly chained. The Lake City Mining Register reported he was under close guard and there was a rush around town to “catch a glimpse of the fiend.”

Packer, who was now in his early 40s, was tried in early April of 1883 at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City. The green and white building, which still stands near the center of town, now shows off a large portrait of him in the courtroom on the second floor.

Gen. Adams, who had urged Packer to sign his first confession years prior, was one of the many witnesses in the trial. In his testimony, as reported by the Lake City Mining Register, he said after Packer emerged from the woods, he asked if Packer would lead a search and rescue party to find the missing men. After talking with other members of the original 21-person party from Utah, Adams said he felt that Packer knew more than he was letting on.

Packer denied this.

“’Well,’ says I, ‘Then I will tell you that you have lied to me,’” the Lake City Mining Register quoted Adams. “'I believe these men are dead and you knowing something about them. You might as well tell the truth.’ Then he said: ‘It would not be the first time that people had been obliged to eat each other when they were hungry.’ No threats were used to get him to tell this story, which he repeated in the presence of witnesses.”

Adams said Packer did indeed lead a search party, but it came up empty. According to his second signed confession, Packer said he chose to not lead the men to the camp because he didn’t want to see the scene again.

Witnesses also wondered why he escaped from jail if he had been innocent. There isn’t record of Packer’s answer to this, but he did note in his second confession that after his arrest, he had been passed a key made of a knife blade, which he used to unlock his cell.

After several witnesses took to the stand, Packer told his story — the one of Bell killing all the men while he was away, coming at him with a hatchet upon his return, and Packer opening fire on Bell in self-defense — loudly and quickly, and requested that nobody talk until he was finished. He said after killing Bell, he saw the piece of meat he had been cooking over the fire, “but I could not eat it,” according to the Lake City Mining Register’s April 13, 1883 story. That changed by morning. He was too weak to stand, so he took a bite.

“And right there was my last feeling,” Packer said in court. “I gave up to it. I ate that meat, and it has hurt me for nine years. I was perfectly happy and can’t tell how long I remained there.”

Alferd Packer_first taste of human meat

According to a report from the Lake City Mining Register, Packer’s “eyes were lit up with an unnatural brilliancy, and as he neared the trying point in his story, his skin reddened and the veins in his neck swelled, an indication of the tumult that was going on within."

On April 13, 1883 — a Friday the 13th, no less — Packer received his verdict in front of a packed courtroom.

“The prisoner looked very care-worn, and instead of the hopeful expression he has borne all through the trial, there was a decided painful expression of sadness and resignation. He looked ten years older than he did yesterday,” a reporter wrote in a Lake City Mining Register article. Packer’s hands twitched nervously as he sat down.

To the public’s delight, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of Israel Swan, whose remains allegedly showed signs of a hand-to-hand struggle, according to the City of Littleton. It was a crime punishable by death.

The Lake City Mining Register reporter wrote that Packer “received this verdict without visible emotion.”

An important note here: Despite the stories told later, Packer was never charged with cannibalism. Technically, there are no federal laws against cannibalism in the United States. (However, there are plenty of laws in place that make cannibalism illegal, such as murder, illegally obtaining and consuming a body, or abuse and desecration of a corpse.)

Following Packer’s verdict, the date of his execution was decided. The Lake City Mining Register reporter wrote that the ticking of the clock was “plainly heard” in the courtroom while the judge deliberated.

Eventually, the judge told Packer he had “sowed the wind; you must now reap the whirlwind” and announced Packer would die by hanging on May 19, 1883.

The reporter quoted the judge telling Packer he’d hang “by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead.” It was the first death sentence issued in Hinsdale County.

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“While society cannot forgive, it will forget,” the judge said, according to the Lake City Mining Register. “As the days come and go and the years of our pilgrimage roll by, the memory of you and your crimes will fade from the minds of men."

The judge never could have known the man before him would go on to have a permanent, not-so-tucked-away presence in Colorado’s history. Or that he would never swing until he was “dead, dead, dead.”

And that, instead, Packer would die a free man.

A cannibal escapes death by the skin of his teeth

The town was so confident Packer would hang for his crimes that they ordered the lumber to build the gallows and issued invitations to attend the hanging, said Grant Houston, now the editor and owner of the Silver World newspaper in Lake City.

“You'd pack up your kids and have a picnic lunch and for your entertainment, watch Packer meet his just desserts,” he said.

Alferd Packer_invitation to execution
Among many documents on display at the Hinsdale County Courthouse is the invitation sent out to attend the execution of Alferd Packer.

But just three days before Packer’s date with death, a legislative error was brought up that saved his skin.

Packer had been charged under territorial law, when Colorado was not yet a state. But when Colorado officially became a state in 1876, Packer was tried and sentenced to death under state law. In addition, Houston said the murders had allegedly happened on Ute Indian Reservation land, which technically was not under territory law. When Packer’s lawyers discovered these inconsistencies, they acted quickly and as a result, Packer’s execution date was suspended.

Almost two and a half years later, in late October 1885, the Supreme Court of Colorado officially reversed his murder conviction.

Alferd Packer_reversal of execution document
This document, signed by the then-sheriff of Hinsdale County, reads in part that Packer's execution will be stayed "by virtue of a certain writ of error issued out of the clerk’s office of the Supreme Court of the State of Colorado." The document is located at the Hinsdale County Courthouse.

It was a revelation that was met with unrestrained public outrage, both in the community and in the local press. It not only meant that Packer wouldn’t hang, but it meant he couldn’t be sentenced to death under a murder conviction, period.

The Lake City Mining Register wrote in a Sept. 7, 1883 story that this technical loophole could allow Packer’s attorneys to “drag him from the clutches of the law.”

And so, Packer stood for a second trial, this time in Gunnison County in August 1886 — more than three years after his first trial.

This time, he had a little less luck, but still escaped with his neck intact: He was convicted of five counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years behind bars in the State Penitentiary in Cañon City.

A quiet end to a controversial life

Packer’s time in prison was somewhat unremarkable — he played nicely and there are no reports of him being troublesome.

While in prison, Packer became crafty, fashioning items out of horsehair, such as watch fobs, and constructing large dollhouses.

Alferd Packer dollhouse_Hinsdale County Museum
The Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City has this dollhouse on display. It was supposedly — though not confirmed — made by Packer while he was in prison.

One of each is now on display at the Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City. The dollhouse — complete with electricity — was owned by many generations of a family who claimed Packer made it for them. Back then, the prison’s wood shop had everything needed for this sort of project, however it has never been proven to have been constructed by Packer, Houston said.

While he was still incarcerated, a controversial columnist with The Denver Post who wrote under the name Polly Pry launched a movement on Packer’s behalf, urging others that he was innocent, Houston said.

She published emotional articles and by the trace of her pen, started to turn public opinion in Packer’s favor.

It was enough to gift Packer his freedom.

In January 1901, he was paroled by Gov. Charles S. Thomas after serving less than half of his 40-year sentence, according to Denver Public Library records. He was just shy of 60 years old at the time. According to the Hinsdale County Museum, he was granted parole due to medical conditions.

Upon his release, Packer moved to a cabin at the Van Alstine ranch southwest of modern day Ken Caryl in Jefferson County, where he spent the rest of his days, said Jenny Hankinson, curator of collections for the Littleton Museum. He also picked up work as a guard at The Denver Post.

“I think one of the most interesting parts of his later years and his relevance to Littleton is that there are stories about him setting children on his knee and telling them stories about being a trapper and a scout and giving them candy and telling all these wonderful stories,” Hankinson said.

However charming that sounds, she said she’s not sure how much truth it holds. But it has a nice feel to it, she said.

“Here’s this kindly man who once committed a terrible deed and now he’s kind of reversed course,” she said. “Kindly old guy sitting in Littleton, telling stories about the old days. I think that has a quirk to it that’s rather endearing, honestly.”

After moving to Littleton, unfounded rumors claim Packer became a vegetarian. A plaque at his gravesite says the same.

Packer died in his 60s in April 1907 of "trouble and worry,” according to a 2002 archived volume of “Archaeology,” a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, which references his death certificate. Some other sources say he died of a stroke, or stomach or liver problems. And The Denver Post reported in 1963 that he collapsed and a nearby ranch owner, a widow, took him in for nine months.

"On occasions, Packer would rave and shout his innocence of 'the crime,'" according to The Denver Post article.

No matter how death finally dragged Packer down, his passing hardly put his controversial history to bed.

To start, he’s apparently resting without a head.

Ripley’s! Believe It or Not Exhibit’s Interactive Coordinator Kurtis Moellmann confirmed the company has Packer’s mummified head in its collection, but due to changes in their archives department, could not locate paperwork, and therefore any other details, on it.

How exactly they came to possess the head, or when it was removed, by whom and why, remains a mystery.

Packer currently rests in the Littleton Cemetery in a concrete-covered grave. His tombstone simply reads “Alfred Packer, Co. F, 16 U.S. Inf.” A corner of it has been damaged.

Alferd Packer's grave at Littleton Cemetery
Alferd Packer is buried at the Littleton Cemetery.

“When he was initially buried, because he had been in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, he was awarded a military gravestone,” Hankinson said. “But, since then, over the years, there’s been damage to gravestones. … With Alferd Packer being a notorious cannibal, it was a particular target for some of the vandals. Ultimately, concrete was poured over the gravestone to secure it in place and prevent further vandalism.”

A bench next to the grave invites visitors to sit close, almost uncomfortably close, to Packer. While sitting, your feet would almost touch the tombstone. And if you looked down at the grave, you may find a scattering of small items, ranging from pennies and painted rocks, to pinecones and little animal bones.

Packer’s lasting impact on Colorado

Time seems to have added fascination, and even humor, to Packer’s small slice in the Colorado history pie. Almost 150 years later, his story captivates the imagination as much as it bewitches humans’ darker curiosities.

The case got a boost back into the limelight in July 1989 when a team exhumed the bones of the victims for a study at the Human Identification Lab in Tucson, Arizona, according to the Town of Lake City. That team concluded that the bones showed evidence of cannibalism and violent deaths, including blunt force blows, cuts to arms and hands, nicks on bones, and other defensive wounds. According to Houston, research at the Arizona lab found “marks which were consistent with defleshing.”

Houston reported on and photographed the exhumation for the Silver World.

“On these bones — on the forearms and in the fleshy parts of the leg, there were scrape wounds. Can you say filets?” he said with a smile. “Some of the flesh was systematically removed from the fleshier parts of these arms and legs on these guys.”

A photograph of the skeletal remains bears similarities to the illustration that was published in “Harper’s Weekly” when the bodies were initially discovered, he said.

The exhumation research group leader told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March 1999 that he believes Packer did murder the men, noting he’s “the lowest of the low.”

The remains were reburied in a single wooden box with five compartments south of Lake City, in a location known as Deadman Gulch, according to the Silver World.

A large sign off Vickers Lane reads “Alferd Packer Massacre Site” and leads to a horseshoe-style driveway where the men are buried. The site, which includes five plain white crosses and a large stone honoring the men— is fenced off. Flowers and animal bones are scattered around the site.

Alferd Packer Massacre Site
The grave site of the five men who died, allegedly at the hands of Alferd Packer, are buried near Deadman Gulch, a couple miles south of Lake City.

It’s not uncommon to find people at the massacre site. It’s become somewhat of a tourist attraction.

“I think people have an affinity for the stories of the bad boys, of the bad seeds and characters in our communities,” Hankinson said. “If everybody is operating under the same rules, those rule-breaker stories really become notorious. And in his case, a cannibal, which is a hugely taboo subject in most cultures, is extremely, extremely notorious. … Captured and recaptured and tried and re-tried through the years. He really has that notorious story.”

The Hinsdale County Museum welcomes visitors to see various pieces of evidence and items from Packer’s case, including the shackles used to restrain him while he was jailed in Lake City awaiting trial, Houston said. It also has a design sketch of the gallows meant for Packer, a cast of a skull fragment possibly belonging to Frank Miller, and more. While the museum changes its exhibits regularly, the one on Packer is always on display.

Alferd Packer_victim skull
The Hinsdale County Museum's Alferd Packer display includes a fragment of a skull suspected to have belonged to one of the men cannibalized.

Packer’s legacy isn’t always painted in darkness, despite the heavy truth of it all.

Along the Front Range, there’s the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill at the University of Colorado Boulder, a designation the student union decided upon in 1968.

Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill_CU Boulder
CU Boulder has a cafe named the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill. (This photo was taken pre-COVID-19)

The school used to celebrate Alferd Packer Days, which reportedly included a raw meat tossing contest. In the early 1990s, when Trey Parker, who later created the hit series "South Park," attended CU Boulder, he created a student film titled "Cannibal! The Musical" about Packer's tale.

In 1998, author James E. Banks published "Alferd Packer's Wilderness Cookbook." According to the Littleton Independent, Littleton held the Alferd Packer Cannibal Fast Food 5K/10K Run/Walk, which pass by the man’s grave, as recently as 2019.

Packer was even celebrated at the Colorado State Capitol. A New York Times report from July 8, 1982 detailed the unveiling of a bust of Packer at the capitol, “placing the 19th century cannibal, for the time being, among many of Colorado’s most esteemed statesmen,” the article reads.

Alferd Packer bust at Colorado Capitol_New York Times_July 8, 1982, section B page 17.png
This article, published in the July 8, 1982 edition of the New York Times, described why Alferd Packer's bust was temporarily installed at the Colorado State Capitol.

It continues with a quote from then-Gov. Richard Lamm: "I must admit to you that I have little appetite to appear before you today. As I told my staff, I have better things to do than come over and chew the fat with a pack of cannibal lovers. But being an election year, they convinced me that every little bit counts, and in order to protect my flanks, here I am." He added that he and Packer "serve our fellow men, each in our own way."

And then there’s the home of the crime. Lake City has Al Packer Days, which comes and goes every few years. You can order the Cannibal Salad at the Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill in town, grab a drink at Restless Spirits Saloon, rest your head at the Cannibal Cabins and, of course, visit Deadman Gulch.

Packer's Saloon and Cannibal Grill in Lake City

Gulliford, professor at Fort Lewis College, said there’s something about the unlikely folk hero that people remain attracted to.

“I think part of it is because as Coloradans, we spend a lot of time outdoors and we get lost and things happen in the dark,” he said. “So, people want to tell this story around campfires, they want to think about it. There really is a big difference between self-defense and murder. And I think that’s unresolved.”

To his dying day, Packer maintained his innocence, insisting that while he killed Bell in self-defense and ate the men to survive, he did not murder the others.

Today, experts still aren’t sure what to believe. And with limited evidence available, it’s becoming more and more likely that nobody will ever really know what happened.

Yet that mystery seems to be what’s keeping Packer’s memory alive. Was this a case of a cold-blood murderer who slipped through of the hands of justice? Or is it a tale of desperate survival?

As of now, it’s an unanswerable question that has kept countless people hungry. And no matter how many times they chew it over, it still doesn’t taste like the full truth.