The Bizarre Tale of Alferd Packer
The winter of 1873 to 1874 was bad in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains -- deep snow, staggeringly strong winds, and below-zero temperatures. But among the many miners who found themselves there, drawn by the hope of staking a claim among the region's newly discovered silver deposits, the temptation to change their fortunes in a day was just too powerful to resist. In February, six eager miners, led by Alferd Packer, set out from a Ute encampment near the present-day town of Delta, ignoring warnings from Ouray, chief of the Ute people. They took only 10 days' worth of food and weren't heard from for over 2 months, until Packer arrived alone at Los Piños Indian Agency, about 25 miles south of the present town of Gunnison.
Packer told Indian Agency officials that after he became ill, his companions abandoned him, and he survived on roots and bushes while making his way through the mountains. Curiously, he refused food upon his arrival. After resting, Packer traveled to the nearby community of Saguache, where he went on a drinking binge, paying with money from several wallets.
Since Packer had been penniless when the six men left the Ute encampment, and was the only one to return, Indian Agency officials became suspicious. When strips of what appeared to be human flesh were discovered along the path Packer had taken, he changed his story, claiming that others in the party had killed their companions one by one, until only he and fellow miner Wilson Bell remained. Finally Packer was forced to kill Bell in self-defense. After admitting to eating the remains of his companions, Packer was arrested and jailed.
Packer escaped from jail that August, at just about the time that five partially decomposed bodies were discovered along the northeast side of Lake San Cristobal, a few miles south of the present town of Lake City. Four of the men had apparently been murdered in their sleep, their heads split open with an ax, while a fifth had been shot. Chunks of flesh had been cut from at least two of the men's chests and thighs, and one was decapitated.
The search was now on in earnest, but Packer was nowhere to be found. About 9 years later, he was discovered living in Wyoming, using the name John Schwartz. He was arrested, and in April 1883 was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to hang. That should have been the end of Packer, but the trial was declared unconstitutional on a technicality.
Retried in 1886, Packer was convicted on five counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 45 years in prison. However, due to poor health, he was pardoned by Gov. Charles Thomas after only 5 years behind bars. Packer died of natural causes (and allegedly as a vegetarian) in the Denver area in 1907, at the age of 64, and was buried in the Littleton Cemetery. As an interesting aside, all through his life, Packer's first name, Alferd, had been misspelled. Apparently, it was a problem that followed him into death, since today the name "Alfred" is prominently displayed on his tombstone.
Though many at the time considered it an open-and-shut case, some have questioned whether Packer was really guilty of murder, or if he was simply convicted because of the public's revulsion at his admission of cannibalism. In 1989, the bodies were exhumed, and it was determined that they had likely been victims of cannibalism -- but no evidence has shown definitively that Packer killed them. The site where the bodies were found, near the town of Lake City, is now known as Cannibal Plateau.
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