True Grue: The Story of Alfred Packer, The “Maneater” of ColoradoNews Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…
Most horror fans know the story of Alfred “Alferd” Packer from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s feature film debut, CANNIBAL!: THE MUSICAL. Through their musical comedy interpretation of a local legend, interest in the story has risen, slowly becoming one of the most infamous accounts of American Cannibalism outside of the Donner Party. Yet between the mounting rumors and conjectures about Packer, the line between the man and the legend has become blurrier by the year.
So who exactly was Alfred Packer? The son of a cabinet maker, Alfred Packer was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Indiana, eventually joining the Union Army in Minnesota in 1862. After two tours, both cut short by bouts with epilepsy, Packer decided his future lied in prospecting.
In 1873, Packer traveled with 20 other prospective miners out to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Following early problems that included a loss of food and Packer’s questionable position as guide, the group took shelter at Chief Ouray’s camp in Montrose, Colorado. Predicting a particularly terrible winter, Ouray requested the group postpone their excursion until spring. Packer, together with Shannon Wilson Bell, George Noon, Frank Miller, Israel Swan and James Humphrey, was too excitable to take heed however, and headed out towards Cochetopa Creek.
Two months later, without a single word since the departure, Packer resurfaced in Saguache and the Los Pinos Indian Agency without his crew. Packer initially claimed that the group had gotten ahead of him, despite having all of their wallets in his possession. It wasn’t long before suspicious townsfolk began searching for his comrades, only to find what was left of them in what would later be named “Dead Man’s Gulch.” Packer was quickly arrested, as he then changed his story and unwound a tale closer to the truth.
According to Packer, the group had gotten lost within the Rocky Mountains, where rations went quickly and they encountered severe weather daily. Packer stated that each of his compatriots were eaten through different legs of the journey, some of starvation, others out of self-defense. This too was a ploy wielded by Packer to buy more time and cover up the likely truth of the situation: that Wilson Bell had killed and cooked his fellow remaining travelers, and then came for Packer once he returned from finding firewood. Packer, in self-defense, shot Bell twice, and ate the dead to survive for almost two months until he could return to civilization. This account can never be genuinely confirmed.
Shortly after his arrest, Packer escaped from his cell-like sieve, evading the law for almost nine years under the assumed name “John Schwartze.” Packer was caught in Wyoming by a member of the original prospecting party in a saloon. He was swiftly tried for the murder of Israel Swan, with the motive being robbery, and was sentenced to hang until death. Contrary to myth, Packer never was tried or convicted of the acts of cannibalism for which he confessed.
Packer was granted a second trial thanks to a legal loophole that allowed a crime that had taken place when Colorado was a territory to have no statute of limitations once Colorado became a legislated state. Packer was then tried for the voluntary manslaughter of his group by the Colorado State Court, who also found him guilty and sentenced him to 40 years behind bars. But Packer was unaware that the sensational story of his experience would catch on, and soon, a letter from jail recapping the story was published in the Denver Post and he was eventually freed in 1901 from imprisonment, despite having never been paroled.
In 1907, at the age of 65, Packer succumbed to a stroke as a result of his deteriorating health. To this day, his recounted events are cause for contention, with posthumous evidence both corroborating and discrediting the multiple versions of his stories in equal measures