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In the study of American History most people remember the story of the Donner Party stuck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and forced to feed on their dead traveling companions. This is a tragedy at the least, but one of survival.
Now fast forward about twenty-seven years to the winter of 1873-74. Certainly no tragedy like the Donner Party would ever occur again; lessons had been learned, precautions taken, and this was a wiser day.
The setting is the Old West, and a mining party in Provo, Utah is determined to find gold in Breckenridge, Colorado after having little success in Utah. It was November and the snows of winter were starting, nevertheless this twenty-one member party was hell-bent to make the trek in search of fortune. In order to make this journey they needed a guide to lead them, and this is where we meet
Alfred Alferd Packer.
Alferd Packer had spent much of life as a failure— all his dreams and aspirations were within reach, but slipping through his fingers. In his younger years he fought for the Union Army during the American Civil War, but was thrown out twice due to epilepsy. He had spent most of his middle years in search of gold and silver as a prospector, but had found little, so he supplemented his meager income by acting as a guide in the Utah and Colorado wilderness. Even then he was no better a guide than he was a prospector, and no better a prospector then he was an epileptic soldier. He was well-meaning, but life was serving him a turd sandwich.
Packer set off with the group immediately. They had the supplies they needed and they were first heading south so they might stay ahead of the snows of winter. As they headed to the eastern part of central Utah, the conditions got worse and the travel much harder. About halfway into their journey they encountered a Ute Indian tribe led by Chief Ouray. Chief Ouray and his tribe provided the men with food and shelter and recommended that they stay with his tribe until weather conditions got better… which probably meant until Spring. Six men and Packer felt differently though. To Packer, waiting until spring meant waiting to be paid, to the six men it meant delay in striking gold. For them, stopping was not an option.
Two months later Alferd Packer arrived alone at the Los Pinos Indian Agency looking very healthy for a man that just struggled through one of the toughest winters in years. Packer told the people in the area that he had become separated from his party and continued on his way. However, as spring approached, other members of the original twenty-one man party began to arrive and so did the questions. Packer was found with a large sum of money and many of the men’s possessions. What had happened to them, and why had they not arrived?
It was these questions combined with some “western persuasion” that lead Packer to confess the truth of what had occurred. Packer indicated that 4 of the 6 men died due to the extreme weather conditions over a short period of time. The flesh of the dead men was consumed by the remainder of the party until only three men were left. Two men were shot and killed; Shannon Bell shot and killed “California,” and Packer shot and killed Shannon Bell in proclaimed self-defense. This left only a well-fed Alferd Packer.
This news led to a quick trial and quick sentence of death to Alferd Packer for Cannibalism. When it seemed life had dealt Packer his last bad hand, he managed to escape from jail using a pen knife. For nine years he remained at large until one day he was found at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming under the name John Schwartze. Once again Packer changed his story in hope of escaping prison.
Packer claimed that all six men had made camp alive, but lost and starving, they were too weak to go on. One day Packer went in search of the trail. Upon returning several hours later, he discovered to his horror that Bell had gone mad, killed the other men with a hatchet, and was boiling the flesh of one of them for his meal. When Bell spotted Packer, he charged with his hatchet raised, and Packer shot him twice in the belly. Lost and trapped and alone in a camp of dead men, Packer said he only resorted to cannibalism after several more days, when it was his only means of survival.
The new confession mattered little and did not change his path. His only luck this time was slipping past the death penalty due to a Colorado law which “grandfathered” his sentence… so he got life in prison. During his time in prison his story changed again a few times and he began referring to his party as comrades and even wrote in to the Rocky Mountain Times claiming his innocence. For eighteen years Packer spent his time in prison, until January 7, 1901 when he was granted parole under the condition that he remain within the State of Colorado for the rest of his days.
Alferd Packer lived for an additional six years and died of what was said to be “Senility – trouble & worry” and he was buried in Littleton, Colorado. Even seventy-four years later he couldn’t get a break; he was denied a posthumous pardon by Governor Lamm in 1981. To this day he remains the only person in the State of Colorado to ever be convicted of cannibalism and one of the few in the United States.
In 1989 an exhumation project under the supervision of Scientific Sleuthing, Inc. concluded that Alferd Packer’s second confession was the more likely scenario, though to this day he remains convicted of cannibalism and man-slaughter.
If you ever want to look at a more entertaining account of this story Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a violent comedy entitled “Cannibal the Musical”. This portrays Packer as a man in love with his horse and merely encountering bad circumstances.