Press "Enter" to skip to content

Alferd Packer, the Colorado Cannibal

Article by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Despite two sensational trials during his lifetime and frequent inquiries ever since, Alferd Packer will again face a judge and jury from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Tabor Opera House in Leadville.

It’s all in good fun, according to Tom Noel, one of the organizers, who claims that “new evidence demands a retrial of Colorado’s only convicted cannibal,” and so, arrangements have been made to “resurrect” Packer and various witnesses.

The audience, serving as the jury, will determine whether Packer is guilty of several charges: cannibalism, murder, eating meat on Friday, political discrimination, and camping in a fee area without a permit.

The Packer trial is a production of the Colorado History Group, an informal group — neither dues nor bylaws — of historians, writers, teachers, and history buffs. They meet every fall, and to add spice to some sober papers and presentations, they sometimes stage, or re-stage, a chunk of Colorado lore.

In 1992, for instance, Horace Tabor was tried in Leadville for bigamy and adultery, with a tearful Augusta and a saucy Baby Doe attempting to inflame the jury as Cripple Creek madame Pearl DeVere testified as an expert witness on “family values.” In 1994, a century after women gained the right to vote in all Colorado elections, the history group debated women’s suffrage in Denver.

As in previous trials, modern counterparts will portray historic figures, of which there are plenty with Packer. His notoriety attracted a swarm of media and political attention in the 1880s and ’90s — his two murder trials (first in Lake City and a retrial in Gunnison) were the O.J. Simpson spectacle of that era.

For instance, Jay Ambrose, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, will portray Sen. Thomas Patterson, editor of the Rocky Mountain News at the turn of the century. Chuck Green, former editor of the Denver Post and more recently editor of the editorial pages, will portray Frederick Bonfils, one of the Post’s founders. Polly Pry, a roving reporter of the era, will be portrayed by Patricia Calhoun, editor of West Word, an alternative weekly in Denver.

Others, like Judge Neil Reynolds, will reprise their modern jobs. Noted defense attorney Walter Gerash will lead the defense team, which also includes Tom Noel (co-author of Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis) and Patricia Nelson Limerick (historian, author of Legacy of Conquest and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”)

Packer will be portrayed by historian Lew Cady, and prosecuted by Denver state senator Dennis Gallagher, Larry Bohning, and Marcia “Clark” Goldstein.

Some locals will be involved, too. Lynda La Rocca, a frequent Colorado Central contributor, will portray the widow of Frank Miller, one of Packer’s victims. And I will appear as Amos Wall, the sheriff of Saguache County who allegedly allowed Packer to escape from jail in 1874 — an event commemorated at the Saguache Museum.

Judging by the picture, Amos Wall was a thin and dapper fellow, clean-shaven except for a soup-strainer mustache, rather than a fat and sloppy bearded sort. His involvement, and that of Saguache County in general, is somewhat peripheral to the lurid tales of murder and cannibalism — since Saguache County entered into the Packer story before opportunistic journalists and politicians could sensationalize the tragedy into a legend.

By most accounts, Packer first appears in Saguache County on April 16, 1874, at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, a collection of buildings which served as headquarters for the reservation. The Southern Utes had just been expelled from the San Luis Valley, and were given the Western Slope as a new reservation.

The Los Pinos agency sat about 40 miles west of Saguache, near the junction of Los Pinos and Cochetopa creeks. Affiliated with it was a “cow camp” near present Gunnison, where cattle were raised to provide beef for the Utes.

Alonzo Hartman, who later became a prominent Gunnison County rancher, generally worked at the cow camp. But he spent this winter at the Los Pinos agency, and he was gathering firewood that morning. Hartman saw a stranger approaching with a small pack on his back. The stranger also carried a rifle and a coffee pot, full of hot coals.

“It seemed strange that a man should drop from nowhere so suddenly,” Hartman recalled later. “Are you lost?” Hartman asked the stranger.

“Is this the agency?” the stranger responded. Hartman invited the bedraggled stranger — Al Packer — to the agency mess hall for breakfast. For a man who’d been lost in the winter, Packer seemed surprisingly sleek and well fed, and he even disdained breakfast as he recounted his adventures.

After leaving Chief Ouray’s camp near present-day Delta, Packer said, they had gotten lost before reaching the cow camp. Packer was fatigued, frostbitten, and snowblind; his companions left him. He proceeded alone until he encountered Hartman.

Later that same day, two other members of the original Utah party — Preston Nutter and a Dr. Cooper — also arrived at the agency. They had stayed at Ouray’s camp until April 2, and made it to Los Pinos in only two weeks, while it had taken Packer two months.

After resting a few days at the agency, the three men — Packer, Cooper, Nutter — rode a wagon over Cochetopa Pass to Saguache.

In Saguache, Packer made himself at home in Larry Dolan’s saloon, and suspicions grew.

He was spending money freely — and Nutter and Cooper had known that Packer barely had two nickels to scrape together before leaving Ouray’s camp. Packer carried a skinning knife that had belonged to Frank Miller, one of his party. His story changed often as he consumed Dolan’s liquor.

Packer went to the Saguache store, owned partly by Otto Mears, where he bought a horse and gear so he could leave town. Mears got suspicious when Packer tried to pass a counterfeit bill, then reached for another wallet.

If Packer meant to get away, he didn’t leave soon enough. On May 1, General Charles Adams, the Indian agent in charge of the Ute reservation, came through Saguache on his way back to Los Pinos from business in Denver. He heard Packer’s tale, and he heard the rumors about Packer. Perhaps Packer, Adams suggested, would be willing to guide a search party into the San Juans to find his missing companions, or their remains.

Packer was agreeable, but said he was out of money. Adams offered him an agency job. They headed west for the Los Pinos agency. On May 4, Packer confessed to cannibalism, but claimed he wasn’t responsible for any deaths except Shannon Bell’s, whom Packer killed in self-defense when Bell swung a rifle at him and ended up smashing the gun against a tree.

Adams figured that if they found Bell’s body and the broken rifle, then Packer’s story was true — a tragedy, perhaps, but not a crime.

However, as they neared the area where the bodies should lie, Packer claimed to be lost. Adams decided Packer didn’t want the bodies to be found, since they would contradict his story, and returned to the Los Pinos agency. Adams swore out a warrant for Packer’s arrest and put him into the custody of Herman Lauter, the agency constable. The idea was to hold Packer until the area could be searched for bodies, and then indict and try him for murder.

Since there was no place at the agency to hold Packer in custody, he was put in irons and taken over Cochetopa Pass to Amos Wall, the Saguache County sheriff.

Despite the display in the Saguache Museum — Packer behind bars in an old cell — Saguache County didn’t have a place to hold Packer in custody. The preserved jail cell we see now wasn’t installed until years later.

On the first night of confinement, Packer was kept manacled and under guard in Otto Mears’s house. Then he was moved to a small stone structure on Wall’s ranch.

The legality of confining Packer in Saguache County was questionable, at best. His alleged crimes had occurred in newly organized Hinsdale County, not Saguache County. At the time — the spring of 1874 — there was no evidence that Packer had committed any crime.

Further, Charles Adams, the Indian agent, was a federal official whose authority ended at the edge of the Ute reservation — he had no legal power to order Saguache County to put Packer under arrest or in custody.

Nonetheless, Saguache County acceded to Adams’s orders. Two guards were hired, and Packer spent his nights in a tiny building on Wall’s ranch. Saguache County was stuck with the bill for feeding (no jokes, please) and guarding Packer, who wasn’t charged with any crime.

Otto Mears, who exercised considerable political power, also paid a goodly portion of the county’s property taxes — taxes that would rise with the expense of keeping Packer.

Mears, a Republican, might have been torn between “law and order” and “keeping taxes low.” He apparently picked the latter, for Packer later testified that Mears told him to escape: “You are a fool, you ought to skip, if there is a chance you get.”

Mears never denied that. But Packer did not try to escape right away. Instead he stayed at Wall’s ranch, guarded by an 18-year-old boy named Grimes and “an old man” — a Mr. Heaton, the Saguache town marshal, who also lived at Wall’s ranch.

At the ranch, Packer was kept in shackles, but permitted out during the day. He testified that “We did something though, we hadn’t much to do. We built a pole fence. There was the tools, axes, planes and other tools. I could have knocked Amos Wall on the head. There was butcher knives and a pistol of Wall’s.”

While Packer helped build fence and avoided killing anybody in Saguache County, evidence of murder was mounting over in Hinsdale County, culminating in a warrant issued Aug. 22 for Packer’s arrest “dead or alive.”

But by then, Packer was gone. He escaped from Wall’s primitive jail on Aug. 8, a day that Wall was at the district court in Del Norte “on business.”

How did Packer get out? He later testified, “At last a man came to me fetching me some whiskey and provisions, and a key made of a knife blade and a file, and I sawed off the shackles… This man said to me that `Amos Wall is going to be gone’ and right here I could find a sack of grub. I don’t know whether Amos Wall was implicated in that or not but it looked rather suspicious…

[Dolan, the saloonkeeper] “was interested in getting me away… Dolan sent a man who said `Larry Dolan sent you a bottle of whiskey and wishes you good luck’ and told me of the grub right there. And I left and went into the room I took off my shackles and went to sleep…

“I waked up and dressed myself. It was pretty near morning. I came near sleeping too late and right there sat my sack of grub, boiled ham and beef. Larry Dolan mentioned a stream… It was breaking day and I came out… There were high Chico brush, some call it `grease wood’ I laid down stayed there that day and slept. Just after dark I went right across the country. I went right on and didn’t see anybody and went over the Arkansas and traveled the next day eating my lunch.”

Nowhere can I find the identity of the man who helped Packer escape. Sheriff Wall may not have been involved — his absence could have been just happenstance, and one report has him offering a $200 reward for Packer’s capture — but Mears assisted in Packer’s escape from Saguache County.

We have that from John Lawrence, a rancher, farmer, freighter, and public official known as “the father of Saguache.”

In 1899, Lawrence recalled Packer’s escape:

“After he [Packer] was in the hands of the Sheriff a few days, Otto Mears came to me and talked the matter over in regard to Packer… We were a young poor county. It cost four or five dollars a day for the Sheriff to keep Packer. We had no jail. We had no evidence that the men were dead or that Packer had done any wrong. We agreed to turn Packer loose. In a day or so after, the Sheriff having gone down to Del Norte, after night, Packer was given provisions etc. and turned loose.”

So, Packer’s famous escape from Saguache County was made possible by two of the community’s founding fathers.

The way I see it, Charles Adams, the Indian agent who wanted the county to incarcerate Packer, was a federal official. The murders had occurred on an Indian reservation, properly under federal or Ute jurisdiction, not Saguache County’s. Adams’s order for Saguache County to imprison Packer thus represented an “unfunded federal mandate,” since the county had to bear the costs of jailing Packer without any recompense.

Mears and Lawrence were just years ahead of their time when they decided to spring Packer and avoid further expense to their “young poor county.”

Ed Quillen did not try the “mystery meat” the last time he ate in Hinsdale County.