Alfred Packer, #1389, is one of the most notorious criminals in Colorado history. Known as the "man-eater," Packer was convicted of killing and eating five of his companions on a prospecting expedition from Utah into Colorado.
In 1874 Packer was the guide for an expedition that left Utah with twenty-one people. As the group made their way to Colorado, the weather turned bad and conditions were almost impossible. Packer and five men decided to continue alone against the advice of the rest of the group. The small group of men soon became lost in the San Juan Mountains. The only survivor of the group was Packer. When he arrived at the Los Piņos Indian Agency near Saguache on April 16, 1874, his companions, Israel Swan, George Noon, Frank Miller, James Humphrey, and Wilson Bell were not with him.
Packer was questioned by the sheriff about what had happened to his companions. He had an interesting story to tell, which included the fact that he survived only because he had eaten his companion's flesh after their death. Packer's story changed several times, but he finally gave this statement, which was printed in The Denver Post in 1907:
"When I got back (Packer claimed that he left camp to go ahead and find a way out of the mountains), Bell had killed those men. Killed them. They lay around the fire, four dead men on their backs. He was a big redheaded man, and the strongest man in the party. He came runnin' at me with a hatchet. He had the only hatchet in camp. I could see that he was mad. He made a kind of grating noise. I ran back. I had a revolver. When I got to the snowdrift, I pulled my gun. He came on the run after me, and when I got to the deep snow I wheeled 'round as quickly as I could and fired."
Packer escaped from jail after he was arrested for murder in 1874 and was not re-captured until 1883. On April 12, 1883, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. However, the case was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court where his sentence was changed to five counts of manslaughter demanding eight years in prison for each count to be served consecutively over a period of forty years.
Packer arrived in Caņon City in 1883 during Warden C.P. Hoyt's first term. Hoyt said Packer was a model prisoner and did not cause problems.
Packer made several requests for parole, maintaining his innocence each time. He was not paroled until the end of Hoyt's last term in 1901 having served nineteen years of his forty-year sentence.
Packer had several people on the outside who were instrumental in securing his release. The most noted was Polly Pry, a reporter for The Denver Post. She had the support of the paper behind her, which gave her a great deal of influence with the governor. When Pry visited Packer in Caņon City he reportedly told her:
"You can understand that was a long time ago, and liberty was taken away from me. I felt these men were responsible (One of these men was Otto Mears who had testified that Packer had a lot of money on him when he returned from the death camp where his companions died and Packer threatened to do him bodily harm for lying), and I said many things that I have bitterly regretted. I have lived a thousand years since then, and I want to get out, not to wreak vengeance on any human being, but just to walk one more a free citizen. I am an old man, and I want the privilege of spending the remainder of my days outside of prison walls. I am innocent of the hideous crime with which I am charged and for years the cruel injustice seared my heart, inflamed my brain, corroded my soul, and I cried aloud for revenge. But I have learned better. I do not ask revenge. I do not want to return here or die. I want to live and live free. No man need fear me."
When Packer was finally released, he spent three months in Denver with Ms. Pry. However, he did not like Denver and wanted to leave. He is quoted to have said, "I know nothing of this city life. It is all strange to me. All I want is the freedom of the hills."
He headed for the Littleton area where he spent the remainder of his life. He lived on his $25.00 pension and worked two mining claims he had by Deer Creek. His neighbors found him to be a friendly and kind man.
When he died on April 24, 1907, he still maintained his innocence. In fact he wrote a letter to the governor asking for a full pardon that same year but no action was ever taken. He was buried in Littleton Cemetery and was given an honorable burial as a soldier and scout for General Custer. The inscription on his headstone reads:
16 U.S. Inf.
An interesting conclusion to the Packer story has developed in recent years. In 1989 a team of researchers from Arizona received a grant to dig up and study the remains of Packer's victims. The team led by Dr. James Starr of George Washington University set out to determine whether or not Packer's story was true. They found three of the bodies which had hatchet blows to the head and a forth with lethal hatchet blows but also some blows to his arms and hands where he had tried to defend himself. They could not find the bullet in the fifth victim. They did find knife marks that indicated skin had been carved from the bodies. The scientific team concluded Packer's innocence or guilt could not be determined from the remains, although they were limited by the time allotted on their grant before they had to re-bury the remains.
In 1997 David Bailly, a curator at the Western State Museum in Gunnison, Colorado, found an 1862 colt revolver in the storage room of the museum. When he investigated its history, he found it was from the massacre site where Packer's victims were found. The gun was still loaded with three bullets in the chamber. Bailly feels this discovery is a strong indication that Packer was telling the truth and that the bullet was not found in Bell's body because as Packer had always said the bullet went through his stomach.
Packer's guilt or innocence will probably never be known for sure, but his case remains one of the most fascinating in history for most Americans.
Gantt, Paul H. The Case Of Alfred Packer: The Man-Eater. Denver, Colorado: University Of Denver Press, 1952.
"Packer Is Paroled." Canon City Clipper: 11 January 1901: 1.
Associated Press. "Packer May Have Told Truth: Colorado Cannibal Might Have Killed In Self-Defense." The Denver Post: 26 April 1997.
Lake City (AP). "Row of Stones May Mark The Grave Of Packer Victims." The Pueblo Chieftain: July 1989.
Lake City (AP). "Remains of Five Suspected Victims Of Cannibal Laid to Final Test ." The Pueblo Chieftain: 16 August 1989: 8A.
1 LHC: Photograph of Alfred Packer, Fremont-Custer Historical Society Collection.
2 LHC: Photograph of Alfred Packer, Fremont-Custer Historical Society Collection.