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Local man had a few friends for dinner at Cannibal Plateau

Sunday, March 28, 1999

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Alferd Packer wandered into the wilderness as an unknown and came out a Wild West legend.

Alferd G. Packer 

A shrill galoot from Pittsburgh, Packer put Dead Man's Gulch and Cannibal Plateau on the map. He single-handedly forced a rewriting of territorial homicide laws. He even became the namesake of the student grill at the University of Colorado.

Packer did it all by doing the unthinkable: He ate five gold miners during a lost winter 125 years ago in Colorado.

The question of whether he murdered the members of his prospecting party before feasting on them is still being debated by forensic scientists, museum curators and history nuts.

"Of course he did it. He was brutal - the lowest of the low," said James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University.

Starrs reached his conclusions by digging up the victims' bones. The remains, in Starrs' analysis, revealed a story of defenseless men beaten with a hatchet until their bones shattered. They were skinned and cannibalized, their skeletons left in a mass grave.

The physical evidence, he added, helped explain how Packer emerged so well-fed after a horrific winter in the San Juan Mountains.

Packer has defenders, too. Many of them believe he killed only one fellow prospector with a bullet to the stomach, fired in self-defense.

Packer told many stories about what happened, but he most often said that a roaring, redheaded miner named Shannon Wilson Bell was the real villain.

With Bell crazy from cold and hunger, Packer said, he went on a killing spree. Packer claimed he pulled a pistol and shot the madman in the belly after Bell had done in the others.

David Bailey, historical curator of the Museum of Western Colorado, believes relatively new physical evidence supports this account. A rusted, 1862 Colt Police Model pistol was found in 1950 near the miners' grave. It went unnoticed until 1997, when the pistol was traced to the mountain killing site, three live rounds still in its chambers.

Starrs buys none of it. He said the only bullet wound Bell ever suffered was of the elbow, and that it was inflicted during his service as a Union soldier during the Civil War.

Regardless of the physical evidence, Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, believes most people have been unfair to Packer by ignoring his peculiar circumstances.

"What he did was a matter of survival and of common sense," Noel said. "What would you do in his situation?"

Packer made three confessions and changed his story more times than anybody could count. He knew the truth, but nobody can be certain if he ever told it.

The beginnings

Born in Allegheny County on Nov. 21, 1842, Packer seemed ordinary enough. His birth records were washed away in the Pittsburgh flood of 1936, but it is known that he did farm work as a boy. Then he set out to be a shoemaker and leather worker. He twice enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, joining units from Minnesota and Iowa. But he mustered out each time because of epileptic fits.

Starrs said there were darker reasons for Packer's meager military record. Soldiers who enlisted in wartime received a bonus. Starrs believes Packer was con man enough to bolt one unit on a claim of sickness, then join another six months later so he could collect a second bonus.

Starrs also has unearthed suggestions that Packer was overtly crooked. In the aftermath of a battle in Mississippi in 1863, he said, Packer was accused of robbing dead Union soldiers of their valuables. But, Starrs said, Packer's epilepsy again flared, relieving him of further military responsibility. He fled to the West.

By November 1873, he had landed in Provo, Utah, where he found work as a guide. Packer, now 31, had the job that was about to take him down the road to infamy.

The rush for gold

Packer and 20 other men left by wagon train for Breckenridge, Colo., where the Rockies were supposedly teeming with gold.

On Jan. 21, 1874, the group reached the Ute Indian country of southwestern Colorado. Chief Ouray, who welcomed the prospectors to his encampment, wisely suggested that they postpone their journey until spring, when the San Juan Mountains would be passable.

Everyone agreed. But Packer soon grew restless. He and five others decided after 19 days to disregard the chief's advice and challenge the wilds, where there was gold for the taking.

They left with provisions that might last 10 days, thinking they could reach another outpost in that span. In less than a week, they knew they had made a mistake, perhaps a fatal one.

Their food was gone, the cold was unrelenting and fresh snow had covered their tracks, making it impossible to double back.

"Starvation had fastened its deathly talons upon us, and was slowly but most torturously driving us into a state of imbecility," Packer said later in an account that may have been embellished for him by a newspaper reporter.

The cover stories

In April 1874, Packer stumbled out of the thawing San Juans alone. He found his way to Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison, Colo., his first brush with civilization since February.

Once inside, Packer declined an offer of breakfast, this after describing how he had survived the past 66 days without food. Packer said he had scraped by eating rosebuds, pine gum and his own moccasins. The old leather worker said he had roasted the shoes to make the rawhide easier to swallow.

When questioned about the five men who had been with him, Packer first insisted that they had left him behind because he couldn't keep pace. But his story fell apart when he was found with the meager possessions of the others. It turned out that Packer had stolen their pocketbooks and money.

Under pressure, he spun a new tale. This time he said the wicked weather had caused the deaths of two men. Packer said he and the others turned to cannibalism to survive. They began killing off the weak, starting with the oldest man and then the fattest.

Finally, only Packer and Bell, the redhead, were left. Packer said he killed Bell to save himself. He skinned the body, packed himself some carry-out steaks and set out to rediscover the world.

This story had holes, too. In August, an artist from Harper's Weekly discovered all five bodies in one spot, not scattered along the zigzag trail that Packer had described.

The grave site, along the Gunnison River at an elevation of 8,671 feet, was named Dead Man's Gulch. The overlook became Cannibal Plateau.

Packer went from survivor to suspect. The mountain man from Allegheny County was arrested and charged with being a man eater.

The escape

The miners' remains were found Aug. 8, 1874. That night, Packer escaped from jail in Saguache, perhaps after the sheriff or a sympathetic jailer slipped him a key.

Packer enjoyed nine years as a fugitive, roving the West under the assumed name of John Schwartze. His freedom ended in a Wyoming saloon, where a member of the original 21-member prospecting team recognized his tinny voice and high-pitched laugh.

Packer went on trial in Hinsdale County, site of Dead Man's Gulch, in April 1883.

He was suspected of killing all five of his companions - Bell, Israel Swan, Frank Miller, James Humphrey and George "California" Noon, who was 16.

After a trial and deliberations lasting a week, Packer was convicted by a jury.

The most enduring legend of the case is that Judge Melville B. Gerry excoriated Packer for eating Democrats. Trial records show that Gerry never mentioned politics. Instead he said:

"Whether your murderous hand was guided by the misty light of the moon or the flickering blaze of the campfire, only you can tell. He sentenced the cannibal to "be hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead."

A saloonkeeper, possibly with a belly full of his own booze, rushed from the courtroom and gave this erroneous but lasting account of the judge's words:

"They was seven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County, and ye et five of 'em. I sentence ye to be hanged until yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin' ag'in reducin' the Dimmycratic population of the state."

The reversal

Packer was never hanged. His conviction was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court in September 1885. The justices found that the state's murder statute had inadvertently been left off the books when Colorado went from a territory to a state in 1876.

Packer got a new trial. This time he was prosecuted on five counts of manslaughter and convicted on each. The judge sentenced him to eight years in prison for each conviction, a total of 40 years.

A model inmate, Packer grew flowers in the prison garden, wrote letters professing his innocence and regularly gave money to other convicts. He had applied for and received a military pension while behind bars. With the warden's support, Packer was paroled in 1901, after serving 15 years.

He died at age 64, on April 23, 1907. He may have had a stroke, but the death certificate listed the cause as "senility, trouble and worry."

Packer went to his grave insisting that he had been wrongly convicted. "I am more a victim of circumstances than atrocious designs. No human being can say that I, in cold blood with evil intent, murdered my companions on that awful occasion."

But people do say it and maybe they always will. Dead Man's Gulch and Cannibal Plateau are Alferd Packer's legacy.

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