Spending many years on the American frontier attempting to make his way as a wilderness guide or gold prospector, Alferd Packer appears to have shown fairly limited ability in either profession. He was just one of thousands of chancers and grifters that struggled to claw a living in the harsh conditions of the 19th century American West. His name is however remembered due to one incident, where he was the only survivor of a group of prospectors that became hopelessly lost in the snow-bound San Juan mountains of Colorado. He later confessed to surviving for over two months on the flesh of his travelling companions. Whether he was also responsible for the murders of some or all of them remains unproven.
Born in January 1842 in Pennsylvania, Alferd Griner Packer had a troubled relationship with his parents, leaving home in his late teens to seek work in Minnesota. Following the outbreak of the American Civil War Packer enlisted with the 16th U.S Infantry Regiment. He served with the Union army for eight months before being discharged due to being diagnosed with epilepsy. A year later he joined the 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment, but was again discharged due to his condition.
Following the end of his brief military career Packer drifted from job to job, rarely staying in one role for long. Seizures caused by his condition were in part responsible for the transient nature of his employment, while his general difficult personality and argumentative nature also played a part. By the early 1870s Packer was hiring himself out as a guide, but was described by peers as having a poor sense of direction and lacking knowledge of the local land. They also frequently described him as a contemptible character, prone to theft and arguments and a pathological liar.
The series of events that earned Packer his ongoing infamy began in November 1873 when a group of 20 men departed mines in Utah. Their intention was to find work in Colorado after rumours reached them of a large gold strike found there. Around 25 miles into their journey the group came upon Packer, poorly provisioned and seemingly penniless. Initially reluctant to take on an additional travelling companion that was unable to contribute to the wider group, Packer’s claims of expertise as both a wilderness guide and prospector eventually won them round. Most quickly grew to regret their decision, finding Packer greedy, lazy and quarrelsome.
Making slow progress, largely due to the group’s collective lack of knowledge of the route, winter quickly overtook them. Packer’s claims of wilderness expertise were roundly proved false as the group become hopelessly lost. After their initial supplies ran out the group subsided first on horse feed, before slaughtering the horses themselves for meat.
Close to starvation, the group were saved when they came across a tribe of Utes, who kindly took the men in and provided them with food. The Native Americans even went so far as to offer the men shelter until the spring before they continued their journey, counseling that to press on during the winter was suicide.
Fearing that the rich Colorado gold strike was attracting men from all over the country, eleven of the group made the decision to press on in early February, before the heavy snows had broken. Five men chose to follow the Ute’s advice to bypass the mountains. Packer argued that crossing the San Juan mountains was the more direct route, convincing five others to follow him in the attempt. On February 9th Packer set out alongside Shannon Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George Noon and Israel Swan on a 75-mile trek towards the Los Pinos Indian Agency.
Two months later Packer staggered into the Indian Agency, begging for food. After vomiting up the food offered him and instead insisting on several shots of whisky, Packer told the men of the agency that he had been hired to guide five men to Colorado. Claiming that he had become snow-blind in the mountains, Packer said that Israel Swan had made the decision to abandon him, leaving him with just a rifle. He then alleged that he had gradually made his way to the agency, surviving on roots and rose buds. The men were instantly suspicious as despite his claimed period of near-starvation, Packer appeared well-fed and his clothes were in reasonably good condition.
Moving on to the nearby town of Saguache, Packer spent over $100 at the saloon and a similar amount at the general store, a princely sum for a guide at the time. Observers also claimed that Packer appeared to have multiple wallets in his possession. The other five men, however, remained unaccounted for. Once a member of the larger group that Packer had initially traveled with arrived, his story began to further unravel.
The man, Preston Nutter, quizzed Packer, suspicious of his story given that he claimed the five other men had left him with one of just two rifles in their possession. Further, the fact that none of them had any knowledge of the ground made abandoning their guide a strange choice. Nutter also recognised a knife on Packer’s belt as having belonged to Frank Miller.
At the same time, the five men who had set out on the alternative route suggested by their Native American hosts finally arrived at the Los Pinos agency. They immediately dismissed Packer’s version of events, stating that the five men with him would never abandon someone to die and that Packer was a habitual liar. Convinced, the commander of the agency dispatched a cavalry officer to retrieve Packer, under the pretext of recruiting him for a search party to find his missing companions.
On his arrival, Packer was presented with the gathered evidence, including the fact that he had spent several hundred dollars in Saguache despite being penniless when joining the party initially. Several of the items in his possession were shown to have previously belonged to other men in the group. Lastly, the case took a much darker turn when two Ute tribesmen arrived, bringing with them ‘white man meat’ found nearby that was thought to belong to Packer: strips of dried human flesh.
After initially fainting, Packer began one of what would eventually be several, varying confessions, saying that after starving for several days his five companions had become suspicious of each other, driven increasingly desperate by hunger. After leaving the group to collect firewood, Packer returned to find four stood around the corpse of Israel Swan, who had been killed by a blow to the head. The survivors agreed to split Swan’s cash and possessions before butchering and eating him.
Within just two days four of the men, including Packer, conspired to next kill Miller. Chosen as he was the heaviest-built, Miller was struck in the head with a hatchet before being similarly dismembered and eaten. Packer stole his hunting knife, as he had Swan’s rifle. Two other men, Humphrey and Noon, met similar fates shortly after, leaving just Packer and Shannon Bell alive. They initially agreeing to survive together and claim the other men had succumbed to exposure. However, Bell supposedly then attempted to murder Packer, who claims he killed his attacker in self-defence. After taking what meat he could from Bell’s corpse Packer pressed on to Los Pinos, throwing aside what remained once he was close to the agency.
Packer was pressed into guiding a search party for the men’s bodies, but he again quickly became lost. As they began their return to the agency, Packer produced a hidden knife and attempted to stab one of the agency officers. Fortunately, he was overpowered and restrained before he could do so. While subsequently jailed in Saguache, Packer recanted his confession.
Months later, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly stumbled across the grim scene of five skeletal corpses in a shallow gulch. The man, John Randolph, sketched the scene he had come across before alerting authorities. Investigation of the bodies established that ‘extreme violence’ had been used to kill them: one’s head was missing, while another had a fractured skull. Of the three corpses that were still largely intact, signs of flesh having been removed with a knife were found. A rough shelter was found nearby, with signs of a path to the bodies that suggested the occupant had repeatedly returned to the scene to retrieve meat from the bodies.
The scene clearly contradicted Packer’s version of events. At best, Packer appeared to have joined the group after lying about his skills as a guide, before killing his travelling companions rather than starve after becoming lost. At worst, he had deliberately led men into the wilderness so he could murder and rob them. However, in the meantime Packer escaped from jail, presumably having bribed a guard. He would not be captured for nine years, living in Wyoming under a false name.
Packer pled not guilty when taken to trial, now claiming that Swan had murdered the other four men before Packer killed him with a hatchet. After a trial lasting seven days he was found guilty of the murder of Israel Swan and sentenced to death. However, he was spared after his lawyer discovered a loophole, the crime having been committed before Colorado had officially become a state.
Packer immediately faced a second trial where he was convicted of five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. After five unsuccessful attempts at parole he was released in 1901, having served 18 years. He died six years later following a stroke. Given full military honours at his funeral, his grave was later encased in concrete to deter grave robbers. Despite this, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum chain maintain that his skull resides in their San Antonio collection.