July 17, 1989 was hot and muggy in Lake City, Colorado, and sweat dripped from the grad students’ faces as they dug up the skeletons. When they exposed the first skull, a gaping hole in its forehead, the crowd of onlookers let out a gasp and reporters rushed to the town’s four public pay phones to file the sensational story: “Professor Exhumes 100-Year-Old Victims of Colorado Cannibal.”
When the team led by law professor James Starrs finished digging, they had unearthed the skeletons of five men. All were allegedly murdered and partially consumed by a shifty character known variously as Alferd Packer, Alfred Packer, and, most notoriously, the Colorado Cannibal.
There are several versions of Packer’s story, but the essential facts are these: Born near Pittsburgh in 1842, he suffered from epilepsy from an early age—an affliction and stigma that would dog his steps all his days. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War but was discharged due to his frequent seizures.
After the war Packer rattled around the country, landing in Utah in 1873. Late that fall he joined a group 20 prospectors headed to southwestern Colorado. There was news of a gold strike there, and “marvelous tales of enormous fortunes to be had for the mere asking,” according to one newspaper account.
Travel was slow going, especially when winter arrived early and with a vengeance. By late January the prospectors had run out of provisions and were eating livestock feed when they arrived at a Ute Indian encampment. The leader, Chief Ouray, gave the men food and shelter and urged them to stay the winter, warning that no Ute would travel under such severe conditions.
Most of the group prudently accepted the chief’s offer, but six prospectors in the grip of gold fever—Israel Swan, George Noon, Frank Miller, James Humphrey, Shannon Wilson Bell, and Packer—decided to forge ahead. They soon lost their way in the rugged San Juan Mountains and became snowbound.
In mid-April, only one of the six men emerged from the mountains alive. It was Packer, looking suspiciously well fed and flush with cash. He spent over $100 on booze and gambling and seemed strangely uninterested in food.
When questioned about the fate of his traveling companions, Packer was evasive. Finally, under interrogation, he gave the first of multiple contradictory confessions.
“We ate old man Swann first,” he began. The strong ate the weak one by one, leaving their bodies miles apart, until only he and Bell remained. Bell then tried to kill him, Packer claimed, so he shot him dead.
Packer was arrested on murder charges but escaped before going to trial. Meanwhile, a traveling illustrator for Harper’s Weekly made a grisly discovery: the decomposing remains of the five missing prospectors. Four had fractured skulls, one was headless, and all bore signs of butchering. The men had died together in one place, refuting Packer’s confession.
Nine years later, the fugitive Packer was captured in Wyoming and returned to Lake City, where he was tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to die by hanging. But the verdict was overturned on a technicality and the confessed cannibal was spared the noose.
Packer was tried a second time, convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter, and sentenced to 40 years in the state penitentiary. He proved a model prisoner and was granted parole after serving just 15 years.
Decades later, in 1989, Starrs concluded his investigation by pronouncing Packer “guilty as sin.” Case closed.
Or was it? Not everyone who examined the evidence was so cocksure. The late Walter Birkby, a University of Arizona forensic anthropologist who assisted Starrs, stated: "We found nothing to corroborate or refute anything Packer said. We'll never know who did it based on any solid physical evidence.”
If Birkby was agnostic, Michelle Pierce, Lake City’s former town clerk, is convinced Packer did not murder the five men. Her archival research turned up many details that don’t square with the official narrative. And it paints a portrait not of a calculating killer, but of a pitiable soul whose social pathologies stemmed from a misunderstood disease and the harsh judgments of his contemporaries.
“People really disliked him,” Pierce says, “probably in large part because they were afraid of him.”
In the course of time, fear of Packer would be replaced by a kind of dubious fame. Today he is at once the patron saint of Lake City and its antihero, its most celebrated son and, as one newspaperman quipped, its “disreputable relative who keeps reappearing at inopportune moments.”
For a short spell in the 1870s, prospectors flooded into Lake City. But the boom was brief, and nowadays the remote mountain town, elevation 8,661 feet, is home to a few hundred residents. Most visitors come to this wild corner of the Colorado Rockies to hunt, fish, or hike. Some come hoping to catch a glimpse of Al Packer’s ghost.
Cannibal Grill and coffin races
I drive up to Lake City hoping to sift fact from folklore. Strolling the town’s wood-plank sidewalks, I see no signs of ambivalence about Packer—but plenty of unabashed boosterism. Here you can eat at the Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill and stay at the Cannibal Cabins. Over the years the town has hosted an annual Al Packer Day featuring coffin races, mystery-meat eating competitions, and an Al Packer look-alike contest.
When I ask old-timers around town for information about Packer, almost everyone points me to Grant Houston, head of the Hinsdale County Historical Society and editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Lake City Silver World.
“Many people here, myself included, would tell you that Packer was guilty,” Houston says when we chat in his office. “I grew up with the people who had been here at the turn of the century, and their grandparents who had been here, perhaps on the Packer jury even. They believed Packer lured the men up here, because they had money or guns or something he coveted, dispatched them, and then took off.”
While Houston sides with the Packer jury, others have raised doubts about the jurors’ qualifications. Of 57 prospective jurors interviewed, 54 admitted prior knowledge of the case, and 44 stated they had preconceived opinions of Packer’s guilt. Eventually, Judge Melville Gerry had to order the sheriff to “scour the highways and byways” for candidates to fill the jury. He somehow accomplished the job in a few hours.
'Dead, dead, dead'
The Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, built in 1877 and recently restored to its historic appearance, is the oldest operating courthouse in Colorado. As I walk through the two-story structure, the wood floors creak and groan under every step. The walls are lined with Packer memorabilia, including newspaper accounts and official records from the trial.
The second-floor courtroom looks much as it did in Packer’s day—minus the porcelain spittoons and signs ordering “Do Not Spit on the Floor.” A portrait of Packer hangs in a back corner.
On April 9, 1883, the day Packer’s trial began, the courtroom was filled to capacity. The prosecution presented some two dozen witnesses. Otto Mears, a prominent local businessman, testified that Packer possessed valuable Wells Fargo drafts when he emerged from the mountains. Constable Herman Lauter recounted how Packer, when ordered to hand over a knife, instead lunged at him with murder in his eyes.
Preston Nutter, one of the prospectors who waited out the winter with the Ute Indians, testified that Packer had been skulking about trying to discover how much money each man was carrying.
When Packer took the stand, he gave a rambling, long-winded testimony lasting over six hours. According to his telling of events, the fierce weather forced him and the other prospectors to make camp in a ravine that offered some shelter from the snow and wind.
“We ate our goatskin moccasins and subsisted on rosebuds until we were weakened and emaciated and mentally completely distracted,” Packer later wrote in a letter. “Yet if there was any one sane of the six, I was the one.”
One day as the freezing men huddled under their blankets, Packer left camp to look for a way out of the mountains. When he returned, he found Shannon Wilson Bell roasting meat over a fire. As Packer approached, Bell grabbed a hatchet and came after him.
Packer lifted his gun and shot his assailant, then seized the hatchet and finished him off with a blow to the head. To his horror, he discovered that Bell had hacked the other men to death.
Packer freely admitted that he survived on the men’s flesh until he was able to escape the mountains, but he adamantly maintained that he killed only Bell, and that in self-defense.
The jury didn’t buy his story—not only due to the damning testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses, but also because of Packer’s odd performance on the stand. He habitually referred to himself in the third person—as in, “Packer was as much thought of as any man”—and often seemed more interested in settling personal vendettas than proving his innocence. Decrying Constable Lauter as a liar, Packer blustered: “To think that one little Dutchman could take a knife away from me. No, sir!”
The jury wasted little time in finding Packer guilty of murder, and Judge Gerry sentenced him to be “hung from your neck until you are dead, dead, dead.”
Before Packer went to the gallows, however, Colorado’s Supreme Court overturned his death sentence. The alleged crime had occurred before Colorado achieved statehood, and an old territorial statute banning the death penalty took precedence.
Lake City old-timers were outraged and threatened to hang the maneater themselves, so Packer’s second trial was moved to Gunnison, some 50 miles away. There Packer was found guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The smoking gun?
In 1994, more than a century after Packer was marched off to prison, David Bailey, former curator of history at the Museums of Western Colorado, was inventorying a collection of historic firearms when he came across an 1862 Colt revolver, a sidearm commonly used by 19th-century prospectors. Three .38 caliber cartridges were still loaded in the pistol. The yellowed accession card stated: “This gun found at the site where Alferd Packer killed and ate his companions.”
The discovery launched Bailey on a 10-year investigation. He learned that during the 1989 exhumation, a hole about the size of a thimble had been found in Bell’s hip bone. Professor Starrs attributed the hole to a scavenging animal’s fangs, but Bailey wondered if it might have been made by a bullet.
He persuaded the Hinsdale County Historical Society, which still owned the 1989 forensic samples, to share them with Richard Dujay, director of the Electron Microscopy Lab at Mesa State College. Dujay and his team examined Bell’s samples and discovered a tiny fragment of lead. The fragment’s chemical composition matched that of the bullets in Bailey’s old Colt revolver.
Using a similar 1860s pistol, the team fired a bullet into an elk hip bone. The resulting hole matched the one in Bell’s hip, supporting Packer’s claim that he shot Bell. Bailey believed he had cracked the case.
Grant Houston, however, remains skeptical. Back in the day, he says, tourists were always finding old guns and bullets near the massacre site and claiming they belonged to Packer or one of the other prospectors. Even Michelle Pierce, Packer’s staunchest defender, is unconvinced that Bailey’s pistol is the smoking gun.
But in the court of public opinion, Bailey consistently wins his case. Through the years, residents of Lake City, Boulder, and other Colorado towns held mock trials for Packer. Actors played the key roles and audience members served as jurors. When Bailey’s evidence was included, the jurors acquitted Packer more often than not.
“Even though they were mock trials,” Bailey says, “it was kind of vindicating to me.”
Seeking vindication became the goal of Packer’s life after he landed in prison. He made many appeals for a pardon but was refused time and again.
In 1899, Denver Post writer Polly Pry visited Packer at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. “The corroding desire for freedom has eaten into his heart,” she reported, “and the blind injustice of the world has seared into his soul.”
Believing Packer had been unjustly tried and convicted, Pry launched a media campaign to bring attention to his plight. Packer gained many allies who signed a petition calling for his pardon.
“Supposing the man did commit the crime,” one supporter wrote to Colorado Governor Charles Thomas. “After such privations, I do not see how he could be held responsible. The line between sanity and insanity is often very thin, and I don’t think we understand it.”
As his last act in office, Governor Thomas granted Packer parole, but not pardon.
Packer took up residence in Denver but found city life intolerable, so he moved a few miles out to Littleton to be closer to the mountains. He bought some copper claims and went about prospecting again, until his epilepsy got the better of him. He died in 1907, age 65.
The day I visit Packer’s grave in Littleton, purple clouds swirl above the mountains to the west. Previous visitors have left offerings at the foot of his grave: a toy firetruck, a marijuana vape pen, a vase for flowers now gone. A wooden bench invites visitors to sit and reflect, so I do.
Today Packer is regarded mostly as a meme and a punchline. At the University of Colorado Boulder, about 40 miles from where I sit, students can eat at the Alferd Packer Grill, where they’re greeted by a giant portrait of the cannibal and the slogan “Have a friend for lunch!”
Like Lake City’s boosters, UC-Boulder students have hosted Al Packer Days wearing tee shirts with phrases like “Finger lickin' good” and “When you care enough to eat the very best.”
Sitting at Packer's grave, I wonder how many people know how he actually felt about eating human flesh. “Can you imagine my situation?” he wrote in one of many letters he penned insisting on his innocence and seeking a pardon. “My comrades 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.”
I sit staring at Packer’s tombstone until something wet hits my face. The cemetery’s lawn sprinklers are spraying directly on the Packer memorial bench. I take it as yet another joke on the Colorado Cannibal, only this time I can’t help but laugh.
Finally, I rise and bid Packer goodbye. Then I get into my car and drive west on the interstate until the mountains swallow me whole.