Welcome back to the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! Tonight we are discussing Alferd Packer who walked out of the Colorado Rocky Mountains after a horrendous snowstorm, the sole survivor of a group of men headed for the gold mines. At first, Packard claimed his friends died in the blizzard, but when a search party went after the bodies of the rest of the group, they found a grizzly scene. Packard was arrested for murder, and found guilty of cannibalism by the public.
In 1874, Alferd Packer, a gold prospector from Utah, walked out of the Colorado Rocky Mountains with a terrifying tale of starvation, madness, and cannibalism.
Alferd Packer and the Civil War
Alferd G. Packer was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on January 21, 1842 to James and Esther Packer. He suffered from seizures from the time he was a child. There was still a lot of folklore surrounding seizures and they were often associated with mental illness, which certainly didn't help Packer's cause.
In April of 1862, Packer enlisted with the Union Army and served in Company F, 16th U.S. Infantry of Minnesota, but was mustered out of service in December due to his epilepsy. Determined to serve in the military, Packer enlisted in the Company L, 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment in 1863, but was mustered out again due to his epilepsy. Instead, Packer decided to join a group of men headed for the gold rush in Colorado.
Joining in the Search for Gold
In November of 1873, Packer left Utah with a party of twenty one men headed for Colorado. In January of 1874, as they traveled near Montrose, Colorado, the men met up with Chief Ouray who led the Southern Ute tribe. Packer claimed that Ouray's estimated the distance they would need to travel to reach the Los Pinos Indian Agency was forty miles, when in fact it was eighty miles. This was important--the men thought they would be able to reach the Indian Agency before severe weather arrived. The men split into separate traveling parties, and all parties were trapped by a blizzard.
Rosehips in the snow. Photo by Elmschrat.
They boiled and ate rose hips, the part of wild roses left on the stem when the petals fall off. Wild roses grew abundantly across the trails, but they would be covered in snow in a blizzard and difficult to find. When they reached a point of starvation, boiled and ate their own moccasins then wrapped their feet in strips of blankets to stay warm.
Packer Emerges From the Mountains Alone
Two months later, on April 16, 1874, Packer emerged alone from the forest near the Los Pinos Indian Agency on Cochetopa Creek near Gunnison. He walked into a bar in Saguache, Colorado and met up with a few of the men from the original traveling party.
Packer claimed he survived by eating rabbits, but if he was able to find rabbits, his companions should have been able to find them, as well. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman, (who would never eat anything so adorable even if she was starving.)
At first, Packer claimed he survived by eating rabbits and rose hips. When it was discovered that he had money and personal possessions (I believe it was a wallet and pocket knife) from his missing companions, Packer’s story took a sordid turn.
A Signed Confession of Cannibalism, Arrest, and Escape
The story Packer told sent chills throughout the room. Packer said that some of the men died of exposure on the trail, then he admitted that the survivors were forced to eat their companions to survive. Three months later the bodies of the men were located, but they were all at the campsite and there was signs of a fierce struggle. Packer was arrested and charged with murder.
In his written confession, Packer claimed that he left the camp one morning to climb to the top of the mountain and search for the Los Pinos Indian Agency. When he returned he found most of his companions murdered and Shannon Bell roasting a man's leg over a fire. Packer said Bell attacked him with an axe and he was forced to shoot him. Packer also claimed he fell into an exhausted state of shock. He remembered eating more boiled rose hips, but he also remembered eating flesh from the murdered men, which made him very sick. According to Packer, he was the victim of an insane miner, and saved himself.
Memorial to victims of Alferd Packer at the site of the alleged crime. Photo by Plazak.In May of 1874, Packer signed the first of three murder confessions and was jailed in Saguache. Then, in a true mystery of history, an unknown person slipped Packer the keys and he escaped before the trial. There were many people who believed Packer was innocent, people who lived in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Mountain Men and miners. People who lived with blizzards as a way of life and knew that a person could be stranded an hour's walk from a bustling town and never know it due to the way the snow suffocates sound.
The Fugitive is Found in Cheyenne, Wyoming
Nine years later, in March of 1883, Packer resurfaced in Cheyenne, Wyoming, living under the name John Schwartz. He was arrested a second time, signed a second confession, and was charged with the murder of one of the men. This is a common practice when a person is believed to have killed more than one person. The Prosecution will only pursue one murder charge. That way, if the case falls apart, the person can be charged again for the remaining murders. If the person is charged with all of the murders at the same time and there is a technicality, he or she cannot be charged twice for the same crime.
Packer's second prison photo courtesy of Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration.Packers trial was held in April in Lake City, Colorado. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but luck was on his side, temporarily. The Colorado Supreme Court voted to reverse the death sentence of Alferd Packer based on a technicality. However, in 1886, in Gunnison, Colorado, Packer was charged with the murders of the other four men. This time he was sentenced to forty years in prison. His sentence was upheld in 1899 by the Colorado Supreme Court., but in 1901 the Colorado Governor paroled Packer and he moved to Deer Creek, Colorado, where he died six years later on April 23, 1907.
Alferd Packer's gravestone. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.
Was Alferd Packer Innocent of Murder?
The controversy over Alferd Packer's innocence or guilt remains to this day. In 1981, a Colorado judge tried to posthumously pardon Packer, but the pardon was denied by Governor Richard Lamm.
In 2001, Dr. Richard Dulay at Mesa State College used an electron microscope to match lead fragments in the soil near Bell's remains to the bullets remaining in the colt pistol examined by Bailey, and the lead fragments matched. However, it was decided that there still is not enough evidence to prove self-defense.
- "Alferd Packer." Massengill, Pat. Biographies. History of Littleton: City of Littleton, Colorado Official Website. Retrieved July 28, 2009.
- Bailey, David P. "Was Alferd Packer Innocent of Murder?" The Museum of Western Colorado Official Website. Retrieved August 2, 2009.
- “The Alferd Packer Collection.” Colorado Department of Personnel & Administration. Retrieved July 29, 2009.