In 1872, a half-dozen would-be gold millionaires organized in Salt Lake, Utah to prospect in southern Colorado. They made most of their mistakes before they set foot out the door.
They didn't hire a professional guide. They didn't pack enough provisions. They overestimated their skills for survival in the Rocky Mountains and underestimated the weather. And they included in their operation a man named "Alferd" Packer.
Israel Swan, Samuel Bell, George Noon, Jasper Humphrey, and George Frank set out with Packer in the spring through the San Juan range. Almost at once, the party hit deep snow and lost the trail. Fright and cold set in. Blinding storms came on. Their food gave out. For days they lived on rosebuds. They grew desperate, crazed.
Eventually the party emerged from the mountains -- five men short.
Packer explained that the rest had turned back for Utah. But two weeks later, a prospector known as Captain Graham had a party on the Gunison River and there, they came upon the bodies of five men lying in a secluded shelter under a massive old pine tree -- their last refuge in a storm. Four of the bodies had flesh cut from the legs. All had skull wounds, and the scene suggested they'd been killed in their sleep. Their wallets were emptied of funds. J.L. Packer was seized.
The story hit the news telegraphs in the fall of 1874. The headlines -- many of them appearing in the upper left corner, the most prominent spot on a newspaper's front page -- screamed:
A WHITE CANNIBAL.
in the Wilds of the
The leading U.S. tabloid, the New York Herald, ran this telegram from a correspondent:
OMAHA, Neb., Sept. 6, 1874. The particulars of the horrible murder briefly telegraphed on the 1st inst, have been received, and for diabolical ferocity this deed, I think, exceeds anything known in the annals of modern crime.
The newspaper was gentle on Packer, speculating for readers in heart-touching scenes:
He may have meditated asking some to kill the others and eat them ; but fearing he could not bring them to his purpose, kept his counsel and killed all the others. In such a case one would naturally fear being made a victim himself. Even if Packer had taken the responsibility and shot down one of his party, that the others might have food to eat, it is likely the others, fearing their turn would come next, would have killed Packer. We read of lots being drawn in such emergencies to determine who should die, but I never believed these tales, and here is a case in proof that the old law of self-preservation stands first, for one's dying that others may drink his blood or eat his flesh and live.
And the Herald's man wasn't even half finished with tender sympathy for Alferd Packer. The chronicle went on to imagine how Packer felt as he set up a camp near his victims:
It is dreadful to think of this man camping nearby and going every day for two weeks to cut a horrid meal from the bodies of his dead comrades. What were his thoughts through the silent watches of those long, bleak winter nights, with his dead companions, slaughtered by his own hand, lying cold and stiff near him, none but the All Seeing One and himself can ever know.
The State of Colorado was not quite as lenient as the Herald. Packer was put on trial for murder. After two trials, he was convicted of manslaughter. But the charge was eventually overturned and Packer was freed to become a wandering derelict. Packer was officially pardoned in 1981.
A final postscript came in 1989, 115 years later, when a law professor from George Washington University led a team to the mountain town of Lake City, Colorado, to unearth the remains of the five victims. All the long bones of all bodies showed evidence of a brutal killing and systematic defleshing. The grisly details were enough to make some wonder whether Packer weren't rather more lightly regarded than his deeds accounted for.