THE COLORADO CANNIBAL
THE LIFE & CRIMES OF ALFRED PACKER
On Friday, April 13, a man named Alfred Packer was found guilty of a murder that he committed in the mountains of Colorado. But this just wasn’t any murder – Packer was charged with killing and eating his victims, earning him the nickname of the “Colorado Cannibal,” which endures to this day.
Cannibalism, the practice of consuming human flesh, is considered one of the great taboos in human history. And yet, from the dawn of time, man has devoured the bodies of his enemies after triumph in battle or has consumed them for nourishment under conditions when no other food is available. North America has been cursed with cases of cannibalism since the beginnings of its recorded history.
While some tribes of American Indians practiced cannibalism, most abhorred it. Indians in the Great Lakes region even told an evil spirit they called the Windigo. It was a monster that was once a man who ate human flesh and then was banished to the forests to prey on the helpless.
Stories of cannibalism also emerged from the settlers who came to North America. Some have become famous, like that of the Donner Party, a group of settlers who were stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter months and turned to eating the dead to survive. But there are other cases in American history where a taste for human flesh came about not from gnawing hunger and desperate circumstance. In some cases, men resorted to cannibalism by choice, engaging in bloodshed, murder and depravity to fulfill their horrific needs.
Alfred Packer, the so-called “Colorado Cannibal”
Alfred Packer earned his place in the history of the American West during the late fall and winter of 1873. The cold temperatures of autumn promised a bitter winter ahead but this meant little to men seeking gold. There were 20 would-be prospectors who left Bingham Canyon, near Salt Lake City, to seek their fortune in the San Juan Mountains. All of the men were novices and newcomers with no knowledge of the wild regions of the area; all except one, the self-proclaimed mountain man named Alfred G. Packer, who the other men had hired as their guide.
Alfred Packer was born on November 21, 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He learned the cobbler trade as a boy but enlisted in the army when the Civil War broke out. Instead of joining up with a local unit, he went west and joined the 16th U.S. Infantry in Winona, Minnesota. Strangely, though, he was mustered out by the end of the year with “epilepsy,” which earned him an honorable discharge. In June 1863, he joined up again, this time with the 8th Regiment of the Iowa Cavalry, but was again discharged because of “epilepsy.” In those days, “epilepsy” was often a word used to describe a strange condition or bizarre behavior but whether or not Packer actually suffered from the illness, or was mustered out for some other odd condition, is unknown.
After leaving the military, Packer came west and worked odd jobs. In 1873, he was among the men who left Utah on the mining expedition. He told the men who hired him that he had driven ore wagons in some mining camps, which gave him the expertise needed for him to be their guide, but it turned out that he really knew very little about the area into which they were going. Packer was leading them to their doom.
As the men crossed into Colorado, their enthusiasm for gold-seeking began to wane. They began to bitterly complain as they stumbled through the wilderness, fighting winter winds and snow. They lost most of their equipment and their food ran out but fortunately, since most of Packer’s claims of wilderness skill were nothing but lies, the band wandered into the camp of a friendly Indian, Chief Ouray. The tribe fed them and the chief warned them not to go any farther. The mountains were snowed in for the winter and it would not be gold that they found in the snow-covered passes, but death.
The prospectors argued among themselves about what they should do. Out of the group, 10 of the prospectors elected to return to Salt Lake City, while the others were swayed by Packer’s belief that gold could be found along the Gunnison River. He convinced the men that a huge strike was waiting for them and to bolster his argument, he convinced Chief Ouray to give the remaining men enough food to get them to the river. Ouray reluctantly agreed but warned the men to stay near the river. He told them that venturing into the mountains during the winter months meant certain death. Packer all but ignored the chief’s warnings, telling the men that if things got bad, they could also find shelter at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, a camp that was not far from their intended diggings.
The party left Ouray’s camp the following day and began to work their way up the river. They had a 10-day supply of food to make the 75-miles trip, which Packer convinced them was only 40 miles. As the food supply began to dwindle, vicious arguments broke out, causing four of the men to leave and to try and make it to the Los Pinos Agency camp. Only two of them ever arrived. The other men, swayed by Packer’s tales of gold, continued on. The doomed men who stayed with Packer were Shannon Wilson Bell, Israel Swan, James Humphrey, Frank “Reddy” Miller, and George “California” Noon, who was only 18. Aside from Packer, this was the last time anyone ever saw these men alive.
On April 6, 1874, a man walked into the Los Pinos camp. His clothing was in rags and his eyes were wild but otherwise, he was in good condition. Oddly, he had several wallets in his possession, from which he removed wads of money, and although he claimed to have gone more than a day without food, he asked for nothing to eat. He just wanted whiskey. The man said that his name was Alfred Packer and that he had become separated from his party after injuring his leg. He said he expected the other prospectors had beaten him down from the mountains.
But the other men had not been seen. People who listened to Packer’s tales in the saloon thought that perhaps he had robbed the other men but then an Indian guide, who had passed along a nearby trail, found strips of meat which turned out to be human flesh. Packer’s stories now began to sound like lies and the pressure was on to try and get the facts out of him. Packer’s answers were vague and evasive and General Charles Adams, the commander of the agency, had him arrested. It would be more than a month before Packer would reveal what happened to the others in his party. On May 8, he gave his confession to General Adams.
Packer told Adams that the poor weather conditions had hindered the party’s progress from the beginning. Their supplies soon ran out and the lakes were too treacherous to fish and wild game became scarce. They were soon trapped by the snow and unable to turn back. Packer’s statement claimed that the other five men had died at various stages of the journey, either as starvation overtook them or when they were killed during attacks by men who were driven mad with hunger.
Israel Swan, the oldest man at 65, died first, about 10 days after the group left Ouray’s camp. The survivors had all taken pieces of him to eat. Then, four or five days later, James Humphrey died and was also eaten. He had $133 in his coat and Packer confessed to taking it. The third man to die was Frank Miller, who met his end in an “accident” while Packer was searching for wood. The other men decided to eat him and Packer returned to the camp after they had already butchered him and placed his flesh on the fire. The next victim was young George Noon. Packer claimed that he was away from camp for several days hunting game and when he came back, Bell had killed the boy. Packer admitted that he had taken part in eating him.
Packer told General Adams that he had killed Bell in self-defense. His confession stated, “Bell wanted to kill me. He struck at me with his rifle, struck a tree and broke his gun.” This left only Packer alive and he sustained himself on Bell’s flesh until he could make it back to the Los Pinos Agency.
Why Packer did not offer this story when he first came down from the mountains is unclear but regardless, questions soon began to arise about his account. A search party was sent out, led by a reluctant Packer, and he took them to where the men had last been seen, but failed to find the bodies of the prospectors. It was now apparent that the prospectors had not been killed one by one and left along the trail. Packer’s confession was a lie and he had obviously been scheming for a way to get himself released from custody so that he could disappear. Before that could happen, he was jailed in Saguache on suspicion of murder.
In August 1874, John A. Randolph, an artist sent to Colorado by Harper’s Weekly magazine, came across a gruesome scene at Slumgullion Pass: five sets of human remains near the bank of the Gunnison River. Among the remains were pieces of clothing, blankets and even a few scraps of flesh. Animals and the elements had clearly been at work but Randolph quickly realized that the bodies must belong to the vanished prospectors. Upon examination, he found that the men’s feet had been tied with piece of torn blanket and there were no shoes, cooking utensils or guns around them. The men appeared to have been murdered and horribly ravaged. One set of remains was even missing its head. The victims had obviously been butchered and likely eaten. Randolph quickly sketched the scene and then reported his discovery.
The Hinsdale County coroner, W. F. Ryan, hurried to the scene to hold an inquest and brought 20 men along with him. A member of the original party that had left Utah, Preston Nutter, identified the remains as those of his former companions, and eventually, it was determined that Frank Miller was the man without a head. The bodies were buried together on a nearby bluff and in time, the area became known as “Dead Man’s Gulch.”
Once this grim task was completed, the men returned to town to confront Packer with his lies. Word had spread of Randolph’s discovery and apparently, Packer heard about it in the jail. Desperate, he escaped and vanished into the wide open country of the west. Months passed, then years, but the “Colorado Cannibal” was nowhere to be found.
Packer managed to stay ahead of the law for the next nine years, living under the assumed name of John Schwartze. It is unknown what he did to earn a living during this time but whatever his work, it brought him to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, in March 1883. Frenchy Cabizon, a former member of the original mining party, recognized Packer’s laugh while drinking in a local saloon. Exposed, Packer was arrested again and a grand jury returned five indictments against him for the hatchet murders of the five luckless prospectors. Packer offered a second confession on March 16, 1883.
He said that he and the others had left Ouray’s camp with only seven days’ worth of food for one man – hardly enough to sustain their numbers for even a few days. After two or three days, a snowstorm swept into the area and made conditions even worse. By the fourth day, only a pint of flour remained from their provisions. They had no choice but to keep going, barely surviving on rosebuds and pine sap. They tried to catch fish on the frozen lakes but had no luck. The men were now showing signs of depression and even madness.
Israel Swan ordered Packer to go up on the mountain and scout out the terrain. When Packer returned with nothing to report, he found Shannon Bell, who had been acting “crazy” all morning, roasting a large piece of meat over the fire. The meat turned out to be the leg of Frank Miller. Bell had apparently gone berserk and slaughtered all of the men while Packer was away. Packer said: “The latter’s body was lying the furthest off from the fire down the stream, his skull was crushed in with a hatchet. The other three men were lying near the fire, they were cut in the forehead with the hatchet. Some had two, some three cuts.”
As Packer came closer, Bell picked up the bloody hatchet and tried to attack him. In self-defense, Packer claimed that he shot the man through the stomach. When Bell dropped the hatchet and collapsed, Packer said that he used the weapon on the other man, hitting him in the top of the head to insure that the man was actually dead. He spent the night in despair. He tried to leave the camp the next day, leaving the men behind, but the snow was too deep and he was forced to stay. He covered the dead men, but for weeks, lived on the flesh that Bell had already cut from them.
Each day, he tried to leave, but the weather was just too fierce. He survived on the cuts of flesh for about two months. He confessed, “I could not eat but a little at a time.”
Finally, as the snow began to thaw, Packer took a few strips of flesh, a gun, about $70 that he found on the dead men, and started down toward the Los Pinos camp. Just before he reached the agency, at his last camp, he ate what was left of the meat that he had preserved, not accounting for how some strips of flesh were discovered on the trail.
Once again, Packer claimed that this was a true confession but it would turn out not to be his final version of the story.
Alfred Packer’s trial began on April 6, 1883 at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. He was placed on trial for the murder of Israel Swan. Preston Nutter, who had identified the five victims that John Randolph had discovered, testified as a witness. Using illustrations, he described for the jury the positions that the men had been found in and said that all but one had suffered hatchet wounds to the head. When he was recalled later in the trial, Nutter described a hole that he had seen in one of the bones that were severed from a body. He said that it looked like a gunshot wound. He also described how the clothing of the dead men had been “cut and ripped up.” He never explained what he meant by that, or what he was inferring that Packer might have done with the bodies.
Oddly, the coroner, who was the only one able to offer a professional opinion about the remains, was never called to testify in the case. For some reason, he had never recorded his observations about the bodies or the details of the inquest that was held at the murder scene. With nothing in writing that the court could refer to, his testimony was meaningless. In fact, no one with any experience in criminal investigation testified during the trial. It was mostly a matter of who the jury would believe and there was no one who really knew what happened in the mountains except for Alfred Packer, who had already changed his story twice.
Packer took the witness stand and defended himself for more than two hours. In the process, he told several significant lies. He lied about his age, the nature of his military service (that he had enlisted and been discharged two times) and the cause of his epilepsy, which he claimed that he got from walking guard duty.
When it came to the case at hand, Packer denied that he had any part in the deaths of the men, aside from the hatchet-wielding Shannon Bell. He spoke of the deaths of the other men and said that some of them had survived longer by eating the flesh of those who died first (a direct contradiction of his second confession, which named Bell as the killer and cannibal). Packer continued to claim that he was not present when the murders took place and only ate the dead men to stay alive.
Because he had offered several versions of events at different times, and had admitted to stealing the victims’ belonging and money, things did not go well for him at the trial. To make matters worse, he was argumentative and sarcastic on the witness stand. Most of his story was an obvious lie, concocted to try and save himself. The jury wasn’t having any of it and on Friday, April 13, 1883, they returned a verdict of guilty against Packer for the murder of Israel Swan.
Judge Melville B. Gerry pronounced a death sentence on Packer. Although convicted only of Swan’s murder, the judge was convinced that Packer had murdered all five men. He issued a long statement on the fairness of the trial and the impartiality of the jury. He refused to address Packer’s cannibalism, on the grounds that the trial had been about murder and robbery. He finally stated, “You, Alfred Packer, sowed the wind. You must now reap the whirlwind. Your life must be taken as a penalty of your crime.”
Alfred Packer was sentenced to hang on May 19, 1883, but it was not over yet. The Colorado Cannibal was not about to go willingly to the gallows; he still had one more version of his story to tell.
Two years later, Packer was able to get a new trial. The Colorado Supreme Court had set aside the murder conviction, based on a technical legislative oversight. Packer could not be tried in 1883 for a crime that he had committed in 1874, because there had been no state murder statute in 1874 that allowed for it. He had been arrested when Colorado was still a territory but had been tried when Colorado was a state, making the verdict worthless. Packer was tried again in 1886 for all five deaths – not just for that of Israel Swan – on the charge of voluntary manslaughter. The jury quickly convicted him. He managed to avoid the death penalty this time and was sentenced to 40 years (eight years for each of the five men) in the state penitentiary.
Eventually, Packer wrote another version of the events that occurred along the Gunnison River. He sent it to D.C. Hatch of the Denver Rocky Mountain News and much of it was reprinted in the newspaper. The story had changed yet again.
This time, Packer claimed that even before the last party of men set out, the entire group had been suffering from extreme hunger due to a shortage of supplies on the trip from Utah. They ended up living on horse feed until Chief Ouray gave them assistance and let them camp near his settlement. Packer said that a man named Lutzenheiser and four others decided to go across the mountains to the Indian Agency. Ouray supposedly told them that it was 40 miles but it was actually closer to 80. They soon ran out of supplies and cast lots to see who would become sustenance for the others. Luckily, they killed a coyote soon after, then came across a cow and killed that, too. The cow’s owner followed Lutzenheiser’s tracks and took him back to camp. He also found the others and helped them but the men later set off again. They were found later near exhaustion and starved.
At this point, Packer returned to the travails of his own party. They left about a week after Lutzenheiser departed and they took a different trail. Their supplies lasted for about nine days and three days after they ate the last of their provisions, they boiled and ate their rawhide moccasins, wrapping their feet with cloth and blankets.
They kept going into the mountains. He insisted that Bell was deranged from hunger and that the others were afraid of him. They finally descended to the lake fork of the river and camped there. In the morning, Packer went looking for help and when he returned, he found Bell alone with the bloody corpses of the other men. In this version, though, he did not know the other men were dead until after Bell attacked him. He also claimed that he did not willingly eat any of the men’s flesh. He said that his “mind failed him” and that he did not want to believe that he had eaten any of the flesh but that he could not recall.
Packer went on to say that he did not remember how long he stayed at the bloody encampment but one day when he was out looking for food, he wandered into the agency camp. Without realizing it, he had traveled 40 miles. Although by all reports he came to the camp looking healthy, Packer claimed in his letter that he had to be nursed back to health over a three-week period. He learned that Lutzenheiser and his party had made it out of the wilderness alive, and that the rest of the men who had begun the trip had also survived. Packer said that he confessed at once to the murder of Bell (not based on the original confession given to General Adam) and that he had been unable to show anyone where his companions had been killed because deep snow had driven the search party back to the Los Pinos Agency.
In addition, he had not escaped from jail at the time the remains were discovered. He insisted the sheriff had let him go. He had been unjustly dealt with, Packer complained, for there was no motive for him to have killed his comrades. He wrote, ‘The ghosts of the dead men know me to be innocent.’
After serving 16 years in prison, Packer made a petition for parole. His case was reviewed and parole was denied. A reporter at the Denver Post, Polly Pry, grew interested in his case and for some reason, came to believe that Packer was innocent. She began a campaign for his release and, with the newspaper’s assistance, gained the attention of the governor.
Packer made another petition for parole, this time based on his deteriorating physical condition and, in 1901, his parole was finally approved. The prison doctor certified that Packer was suffering from Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment which made further confinement dangerous in that it would aggravate his illness. Packer had also persuaded a number of prominent men around the state, notably reporters and the owners of the Denver Post, to sign a petition on behalf of his release. The newspaper owners were swayed more by greed than by any conviction about Packer’s innocence. They believed they could get him to be a sideshow attraction in the Sells-Floto Circus and make a fortune.
Packer was released, but not pardoned, and took a job at the newspaper, working as a security guard. City life did not please him, though, and he moved to Deer Creek Canyon in Jefferson County. His final years were spent managing two mines and telling stories to children about his adventures as he lived with liver and stomach ailments. He was remembered by everyone as a nice old man.
Late in 1906, Packer was found unconscious on a trail a mile from his home. He lived for only a few more months and just before he died from a stroke on April 24, 1907, he wrote a letter to the governor and asked for a full pardon. No action was taken and Packer was buried in Littleton, Colorado, in the Prince Avenue Cemetery. He went to his grave still claiming his innocence and as time passed, he gained many supporters who believed that he was a victim of tragic circumstance. He had killed other men because he was starving, they believed, even though Packer denied this during both of his trials.
It would be more than 80 years before the truth would actually be known and what was revealed was something that many people knew all along: that Alfred Packer was a liar and a cannibal.
In the summer of 1989, James E. Starrs, a law professor from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., took an interest in the Packer case. He managed to get permission from land owners around Dead Man’s Gulch to start an archaeological dig that would unearth and examine the remains of the five men that Packer had allegedly murdered and eaten. After the bodies were found, they were carefully studied by forensic anthropologists, who not only found evidence of murder but also found nicks on the bones that appeared to have been made by a knife during the process of cutting away flesh.
While not everyone on the team agreed about how much support there was for making a definitive statement, Professor Starrs went on record as saying that Alfred Packer was a murdering cannibal and a liar.
The strange story of Alfred Packer remains mired in controversy, even after all of these years. There are those who believed that he murdered and cannibalized five men and those who insist that he was innocent of murder and only ate human flesh to survive.
Was Alfred Packer a guilty man, as Professor Starrs believed, or was he a victim himself, forced to survive in whatever way that he could? According to evidence, Packer likely killed his five companions, stripped them of their flesh and ate the meat over the course of the next several weeks. Was he forced to do so? Perhaps, but if this was the case, why hide the fact by trying to dispose of the strips of flesh on the trail before coming to the agency camp? And why continue to lie about what he had done, telling story after story until no one could believe anything but the worst?
Was he guilty of stupidity when he took those men into the mountains to search for gold, knowing that the trails were impassable during the coldest months of the winter? Or did he lure them to their deaths, either for profit or for some dark reasons of his own? Was it really “epilepsy” that got him drummed out of the military, or did his commanding officers see a pattern of disturbing behavior that made him unfit for duty?
And perhaps most frightening of all, did Alfred Packer commit cold-blooded murder and then dine on the corpses of his victims, driven not by starvation but by blood lust and depravity?
In the end, I suppose the man’s life and motivations will always remain a mystery. From books to newspaper accounts to official documents, there are as many versions of Alfred Packer’s life as Packer himself told. Only Packer and the men who died really knew the truth and tragically, the true story died with all of them.