Alfred Packer's World: Risk, Responsibility, and the Place of Experience in Mountain Culture, 1873-1907

By Di Stefano, Diana | Journal of Social History, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Alfred Packer's World: Risk, Responsibility, and the Place of Experience in Mountain Culture, 1873-1907


Di Stefano, Diana, Journal of Social History


On the morning of April 16, 1874, the bedraggled figure of a lone prospector appeared at the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison, Colorado. Asking for a drink of whiskey, the man said that he and five others had left a larger party of miners at Chief Ouray's winter camp on the other side of the mountains in January. He claimed that his companions left him behind when due to exhaustion, frozen feet, and a bad case of snow-blindness, he could not keep up with them. He told his audience that he had spent months trapped in the snowy mountains existing off of the land.

But over the next few weeks the prospector's tale unraveled. When members of the original Utah party arrived at the Agency they pressured the man to explain what exactly had happened to his companions. He seemed too well fed for a man who had spent the winter in the mountains and he had more money than any of them had seen him with during the trip. He eventually broke down and revealed a horrible series of events that started ten days after their journey began. The prospector confessed "one after another" the men "had been killed by the remainder to be used as food by the rest." (1) He admitted that he had killed the last man in self-defense not twenty miles from the Agency.

Later that summer a search party led by the prospector failed to find the grisly trail of bodies. Despite the lack of evidence the Sheriff of Saguache decided to arrest the man under suspicion of murder anyway, an inclination strengthened after the discovery of the mutilated corpses in the mountains. The prisoner's claims of innocence weakened after an inquest decided that it looked as if someone had brutally killed the men in their sleep. A new warrant formally charged the prospector with the murder of the five men, but he escaped from jail before he went to trial.

Alfred Packer, sometimes known as Alferd, prospector, cannibal, and possible murderer followed others driven to extreme actions in the Mountain West. (2) The famous cannibalistic Donner Party preceded him by twenty-seven years, and perhaps he knew of the troubles of this group of overlanders caught in early winter snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By the end of the winter of 1846-47, the original eighty-seven members of the Donner Party had dwindled to forty-seven, the few staying alive on the flesh of the dead. (3) Hints of foul play also followed the Donner Party incident. No charges were filed, but similar to the Packer case, while the idea of cannibalism revolted readers, the possibility of murder stirred public outrage more than the disgusting act. In fact, no laws forbade anthropophagism.

Even so, posterity remembers both the Donner Party incident and the Packer case for what they ate, the events attributed to a time when the elements held power over the ill prepared. As such, Packer's misdeeds have sat comfortably within the boundaries of Western legend. His guilt or innocence, as well as dining preferences, have found expression in countless biographies and his court cases have also received scholarly attention. (4) Others have remembered Packer creatively in the form of a song by Phil Ochs ("The Ballad of Alfred Packer", 1964), and three feature length films "The Legend of Alfred Packer," directed by Jim Roberson (1980), "Cannibal! The Musical," directed by Trey Parker (1996), and "Devoured: The Legend of Alfred Packer," directed by Kevin Rapp (2005). The University of Colorado, Boulder, honored Packer, where diners can eat at the Alferd Packer Grill, as well as frolic at the on-again, off-again celebration, Alferd Packer Days. Finally, if none of these options whets appetites, one can always run the Alferd Packer Trail Challenge near Denver and then whip up a meal based on a recipe from Alferd Packer's High Protein Cookbook. (5)

But behind the matter of his guilt or innocence, his place among notorious Westerners, and light-hearted tributes to his history, Packer's story offers an opportunity to complicate tendencies to define pioneers', settlers', miners', and others' relationship with their environment in simple "man versus nature" terms.

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