Press "Enter" to skip to content

Alfred, or Alferd? and other Packer questions

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Alfred or Alferd?

Most official documents — military enlistments and discharges, veteran pension, tombstone, prison records, court proceedings — refer to an Alfred G. Packer.

However, during his first military enlistment, he had “Alferd Packer” tattooed on his right arm, and often spelled his name that way in later years. The invitations to his scheduled hanging said “Alferd.”

Only convicted cannibal?

At least one history writer, Phyllis Flanders Dorset in The New Eldorado, calls Packer “the only man to be convicted of cannibalism in the United States.”

Packer was never charged with, nor convicted of, cannibalism. His 1883 conviction was for the murder of Israel Swan. After that was overturned in 1885, he was in 1886 convicted of five counts of manslaughter: Swan, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, Shannon Wilson Bell, and George Noon.

Cannibalism was not unknown in the American conquest of the West. The Donner-Reed party in 1846 is perhaps best-known. There were allegations after Frmont’s disastrous expedition of 1848, when eight men died. One Daniel Blue tackled the Smoky Hill Trail to reach Denver in 1859, and devoured his two brothers en route across the Great Plains.

Frontier cannibalism reached such proportions that Mark Twain wrote a short story about men stranded on a train and drawing lots to see who went next to the stew pot.

One suspects that by 1883, American society had decided that the West was too civilized for any more cannibalism, and to discourage further anthropophagy, it was time to make an example of someone, who turned out to be Packer.

Devourer of Democrats

Legend has it that Judge Melville B. Gerry of Lake City, a Democrat, pronounced sentence upon Packer this way: “You voracious man-eating son of a bitch, there was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them. God damn you! I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, Dead, DEAD, as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of Hinsdale County. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sentence you to Hell but the statutes forbid it.”

In fact, that utterance may have been fabricated by Larry Dolan, the Saguache saloonkeeper who testified at the trial. Or it might have been contrived by one of several raffish Denver newspapermen, perhaps Eugene Field.

Gerry was a Democrat, but partisan politics played no part in his solemn sentencing speech. He sounded more like a Sierra Club pamphlet in some places: “At that time [1874] the hand of man had not marred the beauties of nature. The picture was fresh from the hands of the great Artist who created it. You and your companions camped at the base of a grand old mountain, in sight of the place you now stand, on the banks of a stream as pure and beautiful as ever traced the finger of God upon the bosom of the earth.”

Later, Gerry told Packer to “close your ears to the blandishments of hope. Listen not to the flattering promises of life, but prepare for the dread certainty of death.”

During the New Deal, some exasperated Colorado Republicans formed “Alfred Packer Clubs,” with each member promising to dispose of at least five Democrats.

Packer’s menu

The first witnesses to find the five victims’ bodies reported that only two had “pieces of flesh cut out. One out of the breast and one out of the thigh.”

The popular image of Packer roasting a human haunch and subsisting for several weeks on human flesh doesn’t fit the evidence.

Judge Gerry and others believed that Packer’s motive in murder was robbery, not cannibalism, which might have sustained him for a few days at most.


One reason the Packer case retains its fascination is that so much remains uncertain, thus allowing the writer great freedom to contrive new accounts.

Packer made at least three confessions, all of which varied considerably, and his oral accounts at saloons also differed. Since he was an epileptic and showed evidence of other mental disturbances, he may not have remembered his ordeal all that well.

No transcript was made of Packer’s second trial in Gunnison, and many Saguache County records were lost in a courthouse fire at the turn of the century, thus leaving more gaps to inspire creative writing.

Documented parts of the story are in conflict. In most accounts, Packer appears in Saguache County on April 16, 1874, at the Los Pinos Agency. But there is a credible witness who reported seeing him five miles west of Saguache on April 1, walking toward town, and some people recalled seeing him in town then.

Most accounts credit the discovery of the bodies to John A. Randolph, an artist and photographer for Harper’s Weekly Magazine — which made Packer’s case a national sensation, rather than merely Colorado news. But others say that road-builders found the bodies somewhat earlier.

More reading

Just in case you haven’t had your fill, the Colorado History Group recommends The Case of Alfred Packer, the Man-Eater by Paul H. Gantt, published in 1952 by University of Denver Press. I haven’t seen it.

Another good book, full of original material, is Alfred G. Packer: Cannibal! Victim? by Ervan F. Kushner (Platte’n Press, 1980). This was my main source in assembling a Packer tale here.

Some of the flavor of the sensational journalism of the time appears in the Fall, 1983, edition of The San Luis Valley Historian, which carries a reprint of a long article published in the March 23, 1883, edition of the Saguache Chronicle just after Packer was captured and returned to Colorado. I found this for $4.25 at the Saguache Crescent. — E.Q.