Alferd E. Packer (1842–1909) was a prospector who became famous after confessing to eating his dead comrades while trapped in the San Juan Mountains in February 1874. With the group starving and disoriented, it appears likely that Packer killed another prospector in self-defense and then began gnawing on the corpses of those who had already died. Packer’s story of cannibalism highlights the dangers faced by nearly every nineteenth-century prospector who ventured into the Rocky Mountains, and has become one of the West’s most grisly and enduring legends and murder mysteries.
Lost in the Wilderness
Packer had been part of a larger band of twenty gold seekers who had left Utah and split up into two groups. On February 9, 1874, Al Packer and five other prospectors departed the Ute leader Ouray’s winter camp. Ignoring the chief’s warning and declining his gracious offer to let them stay, the would-be miners foolishly headed into deep snow.
Al Packer later stated, “Three or four days after our provisions were all consumed, we took our moccasins, which were made of raw hide, and cooked them. . . . Our trail was entirely drifted over. In places, the snow had blown away from patches of wild rose bushes, and we were gathering the buds from these bushes, stewing them and eating them.”
Packer left Utah with few provisions and no weapons. Nine weeks later he arrived at the Los Piños Indian Agency south of present-day Gunnison with a Winchester rifle, a skinning knife, and a coffee pot containing live coals. Though haggard and worn, he was otherwise fit.
Escape and Capture
Packer played high-stakes poker at Dolan’s saloon and bought a $70 horse. Another member of the original gold seekers arrived and questioned where Packer had gotten his spending money. Packer reluctantly admitted that the small band had starved in the San Juans, that the group’s oldest member, Israel Swan, had died from hunger and exposure, and that Packer had eaten him.
Jailed in Saguache, Packer escaped, changed his identity, and was arrested in Wyoming before being returned to Hinsdale County for trial. The area northeast of Lake City where Packer’s party got lost is listed on maps as “Cannibal Plateau.” The site where the bodies were found five miles beyond town is known as Deadman’s Gulch.
After being re-captured, Packer stated that while the group attempted to find the Indian Agency, Shannon Bell killed James Humphrey, George Noon, and Frank Miller as they slept around the campfire. Packer had been out searching for food and when he returned to camp a raging Shannon Bell accosted him with a hatchet. Packer fired twice with a pistol, shooting Bell in self-defense.
He explained that after killing Bell, “I tried to get away every day, but could not, so I lived on the flesh of these men the greater part of the sixty days I was out. Then the snow began to have a crust and I started out up the creek … .” His lawyer mounted a spirited defense, but Packer went to prison for seventeen years before The Denver Post petitioned to have him released.
In the penitentiary he made horsehair bridles, one of which is displayed at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction. He also built elaborate Victorian dollhouses. Alferd Packer died in 1907, but his misspelled name and his unique reputation lives on. He has evolved from Old West infamy to New West celebrity.
In the 1950s, a rusted 1862 Colt Police Model .32 five-shot revolver was found on the Cannibal Plateau with two shots missing. Analysis at Mesa State College’s Electron Microscopy Facility proved that bullet fragments exhumed from the burial site matched lead from the old pistol, suggesting that Packer did shoot Shannon Bell in self-defense. Museum curator David Bailey believes that “Alferd didn’t deny he ate the bodies, but he killed only in self-defense. It’s never too late for the truth. He was wrongly convicted.” Packer’s pistol is now on display at the Museum of Western Colorado.
Packer’s memory is alive and well in Lake City, where “Al Packer Days,” the Packer Burger at the Cannibal Grill, and a large wooden historical marker proclaiming the Alferd Packer Massacre Site are popular attractions. Travel magazines state that the Hinsdale County Museum houses “the largest collection of Packer memorabilia known,” “including “skull fragments and clothing buttons from victims, as well as the shackles used when he was imprisoned.” Tourists are advised, “Don’t miss the actual burial site, just five minutes from town.”
In 1968 students at the University of Colorado in Boulder renamed the student union restaurant the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill, and in 1998 author James E. Bank penned Alferd Packer’s Wilderness Cookbook. In addition, CU film students Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who would later create the hit TV show South Park, produced Cannibal! The Musical in 1993. Like Packer’s companions, the film was short-lived.