Cannibalism is not what comes to mind when one thinks about Colorado’s Old West past. However, one of Colorado’s most well known historical figures is famous for just that, being a cannibal. The man’s name is Alferd Packer who’s horrific tale began when he agreed to serve as a guide for a group of about 20 prospectors who set out from Utah to mine in the San Juan Mountains back in the winter of 1873.
In January 1874 the party made it to the area near Delta, Colorado where the famed Ute Chief Ouray told the party to stay in his winter camp until spring time when the conditions would improve enough to allow safe travel through the mountains. Most of the group decided to stay, but Packer and a group of five other men could not wait until spring to start looking for gold and silver. So they left Chief Ouray’s camp to reach their next destination, the Los Pinos Indian Agency just south of present day Gunnison. Packer obviously wasn’t a very good guide since the party proceeded to get lost by making a wrong turn and following the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River deep into the San Juan Mountains instead of heading further east towards the Los Pinos Indian Agency. This wrong turn caused them to become stranded in deep snow just outside of present day Lake City in February 1874. Since the town was not founded until 1875 the area was still a remote wilderness when Packer and his men arrived.
Lake Fork of the Gunnison River just north of Lake City Colorado.
One thing led to another and Packer eventually ended up eating his five companions to survive. When he arrived in April 1874 at the Los Pinos Indian Agency without his companions other prospectors from Chief Ouray’s camp who recognized Packer immediately asked him where they were. He made up excuses that they left him, but after a couple of weeks of inconsistent stories and the fact he suddenly had a lot of money to gamble with authorities in the city of Saguache arrested and interrogated him. They found that the money he had was stolen from his companions. They were eventually able to get Packer to confess to eating his companions. Here is what he told investigators:
“I believe these men are dead and you know something about it,” the investigator told Alfred Packer. “You might as well tell the truth. If the matter is as I suspect, you are more to be pitied than blamed.”……..
After minutes of silence, Packer finally made a cryptic, disturbing observation: “It would not be the first time that people had been obliged to eat each other when they were hungry.” [Colorado Life magazine]
He however, claimed he only did so after his companions had already died off or were murdered by other companions to eat. He then claimed it came down to him and Wilson Bell and that Bell tried to kill him. He said he killed the guy in self defense and then only ate the bodies to prevent his own death from starvation. He would later change his story to claim that Bell killed them all and tried to kill him too, but then fought him off and killed him instead. No one really knows what the true story is, but the facts that are clear were that five people were dead and that Packer was alive after eating them to survive.
Today the site of the massacre is preserved as a memorial to the five men that perished there in February 1874. The site is easily found by traveling 2 miles south on Highway 149 from Lake City. The large sign designating the turn off can be seen just a short distance passed the turn off to Lake San Cristobal:
After traveling a very short distance on a dirt road that drives across a bluff overlooking the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River down below another sign becomes visible that points towards the massacre site:
The site is very small and is literally just five crosses, a plaque, and a historic marker on the side of the dirt road:
Stay on the dirt road because the bluff is mostly private property with various homes located near the memorial. Here is a closer look at the memorial:
At the site there is a big plaque that remembers the names of the five prospectors that are buried at the site:
The prospectors names were:
The site is now known as Cannibal Bluff and it has a pretty nice view looking north where the 12,933 foot Crystal Peak could be seen rising in the distance:
Here is a closer look at the mountain:
Later that summer of 1874 a newspaper reporter from Harper’s Weekly John Randolph traveled to the area to find the crime scene. His search proved successful as he found the gruesome site of the five decomposed bodies. His investigation of the crime scene indicated that all five people were murdered at once. Here is a marker at the site that shows a sketch of the crime scene made by Randolph:
Here is a closer look at this marker:
With new evidence from the crime scene Packer was to be tried for their murders, but escaped from a jail he was being held in at Saguache, Colorado. After his escape Packer wandered the mountains and eventually ended up in Wyoming. He laid low for nine years before someone recognized him in Wyoming and he was arrested again. He was tried in the Hinsdale County Courthouse in the recently established Lake City:
Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado.
There he was convicted for manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Here is what legend says the judge told Packer at the end of the trial:
Legend has it that Judge Gerry then pronounced the sentence as “Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sitince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.” [TRU TV]
Packer was sent to prison in Canon City and served 16 years before being paroled in 1901 due to failing health and a publicity campaign from reporters at the Denver Post that advocated for his innocence. After he was paroled Packer then went on to work as a security guard for the Denver Post. He tired of living in the city and then moved to Deer Creek, Colorado where he managed two mines. He died April 24, 1907 from a stroke and was buried in a cemetery in Littleton, Colorado. Supposedly the people that knew him in his final years remembered him as a nice old man. Today Packer is just remembered as Colorado’s most famous cannibal where people continue to debate whether he was a cold-blooded killer or just a victim of terrible circumstances. No one will ever know the real truth of what happened, but you can visit the massacre site for yourself outside of Lake City and imagine what it must have been like for Packer and the other prospectors stuck in those terrible winter conditions all those years ago.