Hurricane Sandy has me stuck indoors today so I have some time on my hands to find a new topic to write about. I was flipping through pages of an old scrapbook and found a small newspaper article about a new controversial cafeteria plaque being installed in the US Department of Agriculture. “Perfect”, I thought, “Its just the right kind of perverse story for today.” So I apologize if you know the tale but if not, here’s the tale of Alferd E. Packer.
Alferd E. Packer was a prospector who sometimes led groups west. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1842 and later moved to Indiana with his family. Alferd joined the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting in Minnesota. He was discharged for epilepsy but enlisted again in Iowa. Discharged for the same reason again, Alferd decided to try his hand at prospecting. In 1873, he was hired to lead a group of 20 men on a prospecting trip through the San Juan mountains of Colorado. He claimed to have experience and could lead them to valuable gold ore but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of that.
Heading out, they stopped at the village of Chief Ouray, known as White Man’s Friend, warned the group that they’d be smarter to wait out the dangerous winter weather and begin again in the Spring. After hearing that, Packer and five others decided to continue; the others to wait it out.
Packer and the others quickly got lost in the mountains and ran out of their provisions. They were lost for 60 days. The rest of the group looked for them when they started out again in early spring. Then in April, Packer walked into a saloon in Colorado looking healthy and ran into members of the second party. He told them various versions of what had happened. In one, he’d been wounded and left behind. In another, one of the others had gone bezerk and shot other prospectors; Packer claimed he killed him in self defense. A few months later, strips of human flesh were found on the trail and, in August, the camp of the 5 missing men was found. Packer was arrested by escaped. He was later arrested again and put on trial.
Packer made 3 confessions. In the first, he said:
“Old man Swan died first and was eaten by the other five persons, about ten days out from camp; four or five days afterwards Humphrey died and was also eaten; he had about one hundred and thirty three dollars. I found the pocket-book and took the money. Some time afterwards while I was carrying wood, the Butcher was killed as the other two told me accidentally and he was eaten. Bell shot “California” with Swan’s gun, and I killed Bell; shot him – covered up the remains, and took a large piece along. Then traveled fourteen days into the “Agency.” Bell wanted to kill me, struck at me with his rifle, struck a tree and broke his gun.”
In his second confession , Packer blamed another prospector who he said had gone crazy:
When I came back to camp after being gone nearly all day I found the redheaded man [Bell] who acted crazy in the morning sitting near the fire roasting a piece of meat which he had cut out of the leg of the german butcher [Miller] the latters body was lying the furthest off from the fire down the stream, his skull was crushed in with the hatchet. The other three men were lying near the fire, they were cut in the forehead with the hatchet some had two some three cuts – I came within a rod of the fire, when the man saw me, he got up with his hatchet towards me when I shot him sideways through the belly, he fell on his face, the hatchet fell forwards. I grabbed it and hit him in the top of the head. I camped that night at the fire, sat up all night, the next morning I followed my tracks up the mountain but I could not make it, the snow was too deep and I came back, I went sideways into a piece of pine timber set up two sticks and covered it with pine boughs and then made a shelter about three feet high, this was my camp until I came out. I went back to the fire covered the men up and fetched to the camp the piece of meat that was near the fire. I made a new fire near my camp and cooked the piece of meat and ate it. I tried to get away every day but could not so I lived off the flesh of these men, the bigger part of the 60 days I was out.
His third confession explained:
“…our supplies were exhausted by the time that we reached the Green River, at the head of the Colorado. And now, my kind friend let me impress upon you the painful fact that thus early in our journey we were suffering most terrible from the pangs of hunger…Starvation had fastened its deathly talons upon us, and was slowly but most tortuously driving us into the state of imbecility; in fact, Bell, the strongest and most able-bodied man of our party, had succumbed to the power of mental derangement and was causing the party to be very much afraid of him, as well as that which they felt to be the inevitable doom of each, mentally.In the morning I ascended the mountain for the next purpose of ascertaining if there were any visible signs of civilization on the opposite side…As I neared the camp on my return I was confronted by a terrible sight. As I came near I saw no one but Bell. I spoke to him, and then, with the look of a terrible maniac, his eyes glaring and burning fearfully, he grabbed a hatchet and started for me, whereupon I raised my Winchester and shot him. The report from rifle did not arouse the camp, so I hastened to the campfire and found my comrades dead.
Can you imagine my situation – my companions dead and I left alone, surrounded by the midnight horrors of starvation as well as those of utter isolation? My body weak, my mind acted upon in such an awful manner that the greatest wonder is that I ever returned to a rational condition.
In looking about I saw a piece of flesh on the fire, which Bell had cut from Miller’s leg. I took this flesh from the fire and lay it to one side, after which I covered the bodies of my dead comrades. I remained here with them during the night. In the morning I moved about 1,000 yards below, where there was a grove of pine trees. I distinctly remember of taking a piece of the flesh and boiling it in a tin cup. I also know that I became sick and suffered most terribly. My mind at this period failed me. But I am satisfied that I must have eaten some of the flesh, but my mind was a total blank for a considerable period of time.”
Alferd E. Packer was put on trial, the first case of cannibalism tried in the United States court system.
He was found guilty and folklore stays that the judge, upon declaring his sentence said, “There were only six Democrats in all of Hinsdale County and you, you man-eating (expletive deleted), you ate five of them. I sentence you to hang by the neck until you’re dead, dead, dead as a warning against further reducing the Democratic population of the county.”
As it turns out, he was never hung. The Colorado Supreme Court reconsidered his case and changed his sentence to 40 years.
If you remember, I introduced this story by mentioning a controversial plaque at the cafeteria of the US Department of Agriculture. In the 1970s, employees of the US Department of Agriculture, disgruntled about the quality of food served in the cafeteria, spent their own money on a plaque renaming it. The plaque declared it ” The Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill”, proclaiming that his case “”exemplifies the spirit and the fare of this Agriculture Department cafeteria.” When the Agriculture Secretary found out who Alferd E. Packer was, the plaque was removed.
What follows is the article I clipped in 1977 from the Washington Post which was what got me looking up Mr. Packer today. What does it say about me that I’ve had this clipping for over 30 years?