The Denver Channel
As the first fingers of spring started to peel back winter’s hold in 1874, a man staggered out of the mountains and into Lake City, ready to spill a story — or two, or three — that few would believe. He’d quickly become known as the Colorado Cannibal.
It’s a tale as puzzling as it is horrific, and somehow, from the safe distance of about 150 years, humor has wiggled its way in.
His name was Alferd Packer.
Recognize the name, or perhaps know his story? He became somewhat of a Colorado celebrity in the mid-1900s, when you could find the Packer name in everything from a wilderness cookbook title to a festival name to a musical created by CU Boulder students. People learned of his story and instead of turning away in disgust, they leaned into it. Unabashedly embraced it.
An article from April 1984 in The Washington Post captured the absurdity in one of its opening paragraphs: “In the days before bean sprouts and granola, when the West was raw and men ate men, Packer chewed his way into the hearts of Coloradans by devouring five gold-seeking companions.”
Of course, under the silliness is the much darker story of how those five men met their horrific demise in the freezing, lonely mountains.
The particulars around what actually happened are foggy at best. Packer was the only one from the group to live to tell the tale and he told several. And those details are now buried — and in some instances, altered — under 150 years of history. To dig up what happened, we turned to the details in official court documents and the ink-smudged columns of the local newspapers, both from the late 1800s.
These documents have preserved countless moments from the case, such as Packer’s statement about his alleged crimes as he stood in front of a courthouse packed with people who were no doubt fascinated that a cannibal was in their midst and wondering if he’d get his just desserts.
Even in those moments, just before his sentencing, it was not absolutely certain if Packer had planned to eat the men through a twisted, murderous mind or if it just unfolded that way in an equally desperate and reluctant struggle for survival.
But either way, he had surely bit off more than he could chew.
Introducing Alferd Packer, Colorado’s Cannibal
Packer’s story starts in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. According to the April 20, 1883 edition of the Lake City Mining Register, he was born on Jan. 31, 1842, though other reports list his birthdate as Nov. 21 of that year.
Andrew Gulliford, a professor of southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, said Packer was “a little bit of a drifter” and possibly a Civil War veteran. The Washington Post wrote in a June 8, 1989 article that Packer was discharged from the Union Army in 1862 for epilepsy. While he re-enlisted in another regime, he was discharged for the same reason, according to the City of Littleton.
In an unproven story, but one widely spread, a young Packer visited a tattoo artist who made the permanent error of inking “Alferd” instead of “Alfred” on Packer’s skin. He apparently embraced the typo and ended up adopting the name, though his first name, legally, remained Alfred, per court records.
Between 1863 and 1873, Packer moved west to pursue multiple jobs varying from hunting and trapping to guiding and mining, according to the Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City.
Gulliford said Packer was just one of the thousands of drifters who decided to embark on that journey.
In his early 30s, Packer volunteered to guide a group of 21 men through the Rocky Mountains starting in the area around Salt Lake City, Utah, despite having no weapons, little food or provisions, and limited skills. Reports vary on their final destination — most reports say they were bound for the Los Piños Indian Agency outside Saguache, others say they were headed for present-day Breckenridge.
They were set to start the long journey late in 1873.
Just in time for a nightmarish snowstorm.
‘Then, we gave up to die’
Packer’s stories start about the same — all of them.
He led the group to Ute Indian Chief Ouray’s winter camp near modern-day Montrose, arriving in late January 1874, according to the Hinsdale County Museum.
Knowing another party had left the camp and successfully made it to Los Piños Indian Agency, Packer said he thought his group could do the same. Only five others decided to take the risk with him. Those men were Frank Miller, Wilson Bell, James Humphreys, George Noon and Israel Swan.
The six men took advantage of Chief Ouray’s shelter and food for a few days and left to continue the journey in early February 1874.
It was the last time five of those men were seen alive.
On April 16, 1874, as winter gave way to spring, Packer emerged from the mountains, according to reports in the Lake City Mining Register. He was alone.