Case of the Colorado Cannibal
Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Andrew Curry
Alferd Packer may have eaten his snowbound fellow prospectors, but did he murder them?
There's at least one thing all the experts agree on: Alferd Packer was a hungry guy. Ever since the well-fed guide walked out of the San Juan Mountains in 1874, more than two months after his prospecting party had gotten lost in a snowstorm, the case of the Colorado Cannibal has horrified--and captivated. Though Packer was convicted of murdering his five companions in 1873, he claimed till his dying day that another member of the party, Shannon Bell, went crazy and killed the others with an ax. Packer then shot the ax wielder in self-defense and ate all five--not a crime in desperate circumstances.
In the decades since Packer's death in 1907, the Colorado Cannibal has become a fixture in the lore of the Wild West, inspiring books, songs, memorials, and even a musical. In recent months, his appetite has moved from the realm of bad puns and cannibal kitsch to archaeological debate, with new evidence that some say proves the hapless prospector may have been a man-eater, but he wasn't a murderer.
Though a technicality let Packer slip the noose, he spent 18 years in jail. Paroled in 1901, Packer died six years later of "trouble and worry," according to his death certificate. He maintained his innocence until the end.
Time turned the hungry prospector into an unlikely Western folk hero. The Colorado Cannibal was a strange source of pioneer pride and quickly became one of the best-known and documented American cannibalism cases. Soon Packer's name started popping up all over the state. Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder have been eating at the Alferd Packer Grill since the 1960s--the El Canibal burrito is a favorite--and in 1982 a bust of the prospector was installed in the Colorado State Capitol.
But it wasn't until 1989, when George Washington University law professor James Starrs decided to dig up the victims' bones in the interest of science, that Packer's case transcended colorful frontier lore and became the center of a scholarly debate.
Andrew Curry is an associate editor at U.S. News and World Report.
© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America