“Yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch when yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats, but you, yah et five of ‘em, goddam yah.” So quoted a Lake City newspaper of Judge M.B. Gerry in 1883, upon the conclusion of the trial of Alferd Packer for the murders—and cannibalism—of Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank “Butcher” Miller, George “California” Noon, and Israel Swan.
Nine years earlier, Packer had convinced the men, part of a larger party, that he was a mountain guide who could lead them over the San Juan mountains to the Los Piños Indian Agency. In early February, the group left from near modern day Montrose, Colorado after a stay with the Ute leader Ouray in a winter camp. Ouray warned the group that even the Utes, who had been living and hunting in the region for hundreds of years, wouldn’t attempt such a crossing. But the allure of gold was too great a temptation to resist.
The group was under provisioned for the difficult trip; They had no snowshoes, a few matches, no flint, no warm clothes and few weapons. The journey was supposed to take 14 days, but weeks passed and it seemed that the group had disappeared into the rugged and remote Colorado mountains. Two months later, in late April, Packer stumbled across a frozen lake at the Los Piños Agency alone, and surprisingly well fed for having spent months lost in the Colorado wilderness.
Questions arose about his condition, the missing of members of his party, and his possession of several wallets and money when he was nearly destitute at the outset of the journey. When questioned, Packer told various conflicting tales about how other members of the party had killed each other and how they had resorted to eating the bodies for food. He was arrested in Saguache, Colorado, but somehow escaped before a trial could be held.
In August of 1874, John Randolph, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, came upon a grisly scene of five corpses on the banks of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The corpses were in a state of extreme decay and showed signs of butchery. Of the four skulls present, each showed evidence of having been crushed. The remains were examined by local authorities and buried on the site.
Packer was discovered nine years later, living in Wyoming under an assumed name. He was brought to trial in Lake City, the county seat of Hinsdale County, Colorado, in 1883. His original tale of each man succumbing to the elements and being eaten was replaced by various other stories, including coming upon Bell after he had killed all the other members of the party. He was convicted of killing the men and desecrating their bodies. (He was not convicted of cannibalism because it isn’t illegal, per se.)
The quote attributed to Judge Green on Packer’s conviction is a bit of journalistic license. Judge Green was actually very well educated and eloquent. His statement in the court record reads
”Alfred Packer, the judgement of this court is that you be removed from hence to the jail of Hinsdale County and there confined until the 19th day of May, A.D. 1883, and that on said 19th day of May, 1883, you be taken from thence by the sheriff of Hinsdale County to a place of execution prepared for this purpose, at some point within the corporate limits of the town of Lake City, in the said county of Hinsdale, and between the hours of 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. of said day, you, then and there, by said sheriff, be hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul.“
Packer’s death sentence was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court on a technicality. He was retried on five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was eventually paroled in 1901 following a campaign by an acquaintance.
In 1989, the site was excavated and the bodies exhumed for forensic analysis. The analysis was inconclusive, neither corroborating nor disproving Packer’s conflicting stories. It’s unlikely that the murders will ever be definitively solved.
Over time, Alferd Packer has come to be an antihero of sorts in Colorado. His name is used in numerous restaurants and menu items, including the cafeteria grill at University of Colorado in Boulder. Although a bit of a joke, Packer was responsible for leading five men to their deaths through his incompetence.
Know Before You Go
The site of the murders is just three miles north of Lake City on Cannibal Mesa along the banks of Dead Man Gulch. The site itself is on private land and should be respected. A pullout is provided along the site. A sign along Colorado 149 clearly marks the location.