A Packer Chronology

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Nov. 21, 1842: Alferd G. Packer born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He works as a printer’s devil, then learns to work leather.

April 22, 1862: Enlists in 16th U.S. Infantry at Winona, Minnesota. Occupation is shoemaker.

December 29, 1862: Honorably discharged at Fort Ontario, New York, “as incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of Epilepsy.”

June 10, 1863: Enlists in 8th Regiment, Iowa Cavalry, at Ottumwa, Iowa.

April 25, 1864: Discharged again as an epileptic, this time in Cleveland, Tennessee. He drifts for some years.

1872-1873: Works in Georgetown, Colo., as a miner’s helper. Loses two fingers on left hand in accident. Moves to Sandy, Utah, and works at smelters. Hears of rich prospects in Colorado, and offers to be a guide.

Late November, 1873: Prospecting party of 21 men leaves Utah, eastbound for Colorado.

January 21, 1874: They arrive at Chief Ouray’s camp near present-day Delta, where party splits up. Most stay, waiting for better weather.

February 9, 1874: Packer and five others head east from Ouray’s camp. Ouray tells them to go to the cow camp (near present Gunnison), then the Los Pinos Indian Agency, then Saguache, where they can catch Mears’ toll road to Nathrop, and cross Frmont Pass to the placer camp of Brecenridge.

April 2, 1874: Preston Nutter and Dr. Cooper leave Ouray’s camp, bound for Los Pinos.

April 16, 1874: Packer arrives at Los Pinos Agency. So do Nutter and Cooper.

Late April, 1874: Packer, Cooper, and Nutter go to Saguache, where Packer spends much time and money at Larry Dolan’s saloon.

May 1, 1874: Charles Adams, Los Pinos agent, arrives as he’s returning to the agency after a trip to Denver. He becomes suspicious of Packer’s story.

Adams suggests Packer lead a search party. They head for Los Pinos.

May 4, 1874: Packer confesses to cannibalism before witnesses, but says he killed no one, except Shannon Bell, and that in self-defense.

May 9, 1874: Adams reports the incidents to Washington, authorizes a search for the bodies to see if Packer’s story is true. Packer is placed in the custody of Herman Lauter, Los Pinos agency constable. They search for several days, Packer seems to be trying to lose them deliberately.

Mid May, 1874: They return to the agency, Adams issues a warrant for Packer’s arrest. Packer is delivered to Saguache County, as there is no place to hold him at the agency. There are no facilities in Saguache, either. Packer is kept at Mears’s home the first night, then at Wall’s ranch.

August 8, 1874: Packer escapes from Saguache County custody. He goes down the Arkansas, works on a ranch east of Pueblo for a few months, and wanders through Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming.

August 20, 1874: John Randolph, sketch artist for Harper’s Weekly, discovers five bodies — one headless — near present Lake City. He notifies Hinsdale County Coroner W.F. Ryan, who convenes a coroner’s jury and an inquest. The bodies are identified as members of Packer’s party. Because the bodies were all together and the men had apparently been killed in their sleep, the coroner decides that Packer had murdered the men, and the motive may have been robbery rather than hunger.

August 22, 1874: Coroner Ryan appears before Orlando A. Messler, justice of the peace in San Juan City, provisional seat of Hinsdale County. Messler issues a warrant for Packer’s arrest, “dead or alive.”

Early 1883: Packer, going under the name John Schartze, is recognized by Frenchy Cabazon, one of the original Utah prospecting party, at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, a few miles west of present-day Douglas. Authorities in Colorado and Wyoming communicate to establish Packer’s identity.

March 14, 1883: Packer is taken into custody at Wagonhound Creek, about 30 miles west of Fetterman, where he had been living.

March 16, 1883: Packer arrives in Denver via train. Attracts a crowd, and the press has a field day.

March 18, 1883: Packer arrives in Gunnison via train from Denver. He is jailed in Gunnison, as Hinsdale County says it can’t afford the extra guards required by Packer.

April 1, 1883: Grand jury empaneled in Lake City, Packer indicted for five murders “on or about March 1, 1874,” but is tried for only one, Israel Swan.

April 9, 1883: Packer’s trial begins in Lake City.

April 13, 1883: Packer convicted and sentenced to hang on May 19. The verdict is appealed.

May 16, 1883: Because a lynching is feared, Packer is moved from Lake City to Gunnison jail as his appeal proceeds. His execution is stayed.

Oct. 30, 1885: Packer’s conviction is overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court on a technicality — the state legislature forgot to re-enact the territorial murder law, so murders committed during a certain time frame were not illegal. However, the manslaughter (killing without premeditation) laws were properly enacted by the legislature.

July 31, 1886: Packer charged with five counts of manslaughter.

August 2, 1886: Packer goes on trial for manslaughter in Gunnison. He is convicted and sentenced to 40 years (eight years for each of his five victims) in the state penitentiary at Cañon City. He is considered a model prisoner. He makes and sells watch fobs to visitors, and has a plot of ground where he cultivates flowers. Attorneys take interest in his case and apply for retrials and pardons.

January 3, 1900: Polly Pry, a “sob sister” reporter for The Denver Post, starts writing about Packer.

January 7, 1901: As his last official act, Gov. Charles Thomas grants a parole to Packer, who departs Cañon City with $400 in savings.

That spring, he builds a small adobe house in the Denver suburb of Sheridan, where he raises chickens and rabbits. He prospects in Deer Creek Canyon, about 20 miles west of Sheridan, and visits Littleton every week for supplies. He gets by on a $25-a-month veteran’s pension.

April 23, 1907: Packer dies and is buried in Littleton.

There is considerable disagreement about many of these dates, especially relating to Packer’s time in Saguache County. For this chronology, I amalgamated the best evidence and guesstimates of a dozen sources to make a reasonable, although certainly not incontestable, reconstruction of events.

— E.Q.