Alfred Packer: The Maneater of Colorado
A Fateful Journey
In the Colorado Rockies
Where the snow is deep and cold
And a man afoot can starve to death
Unless he's brave and bold
Oh Alfred Packer
You'll surely go to hell
While all the others starved to death
You dined a bit too well
— from The Ballad of Alfred Packer
The strange odyssey of Alfred G. Packer has generated much controversy over the years, from those who believe he murdered and cannibalized five men for his own profit to those who insist he was innocent of murder and merely ate human flesh to survive. He's considered something of a local hero in some parts of Colorado, and despite evidence that supports his more nefarious side, people continue to defend him.
From books to newspaper accounts during the time of tabloid journalism to official documents in the Colorado State Archives, there are nearly as many versions of the story as Packer himself told. All rely on him as the sole witness, with the exception of those who saw the results of what he had done.
In 1873, Alfred Packer, 31, went with a group of 20 other prospectors from Bingham Canyon, Utah, near Salt Lake City, into the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to seek wealth from mining minerals, including gold. He claimed to have been the guide for this expedition, but there is evidence that this may have been an exaggeration if not an outright fabrication. Apparently some of the food supply was lost along the way, and the would-be miners grew hungry and desperate.
The party arrived in January 1874 into Chief Ouray's Ute camp in northwestern Colorado, near Montrose, where they were cared for and urged to remain until spring. At that time of year, the mountain passes were treacherous, the Ute said, and snow could bury men. It would not be wise to proceed.
Nevertheless, a handful of these prospectors could not wait. They wanted to get to the mines before anyone else. Five of them, frenzied by the prospecting spirit, decided to risk all and continue over the mountains to the Los Piños Indian Agency on Cochetopa Creek near Saguache and Gunnison. Packer joined them. They left on February 9. (Many years later, Packer claimed that another group of five had gone out before them.)
With a ten day supply of food for a 75-mile trip (they apparently thought it was 40), the doomed men who left Chief Ouray's camp with Packer were Shannon Wilson Bell, Israel Swan, James Humphrey, Frank 'Reddy' Miller, and George 'California' Noon, who was only 18. Aside from Packer, that was the last time anyone saw these men alive.
More than two months passed and people wondered where they were. The next event is confusing. Either a party of prospectors came through in the spring and asked about them, sending out search parties, or Packer himself emerged. The popular story has it that Packer came out alone from the winter wilderness and walked into the Los Piños Indian Agency. It was April 16 (the Colorado State Archives say April 6). Some witnesses say they saw him in the nearby town of Saguache more than a week earlier.
Oddly, when he arrived, he had several wallets in his possession from which he extracted rolls of money, and although he professed having gone for more than a day without food, he asked for nothing to eat. He just wanted some whiskey. He mentioned that he'd hurt his leg and had fallen behind, so he was not sure where the others from his party were. He had expected them to beat him out of the mountains.
But the prospectors had not been seen. People who listened to his tales at the saloon thought that he'd taken the dead men's possessions. Then, an Indian guide walking along the trail found strips of meat, which turned out to be human flesh. Packer's tales began to sound like outright lies. From all appearances, he had killed the others, survived off their meat, and enriched himself with their assets.
The pressure was on to get a coherent account out of him.