The human factor

Eating people is wrong - but that hasn't stopped one small town from turning America's most notorious cannibal into an unlikely moneyspinner. By Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent US

In the early spring of 1874, a haggard, windswept man with a long shaggy black beard emerged from the San Juan mountains with ripped blanket pieces for shoes and threw himself at the mercy of the government officials at the Los Pinos Indian Agency in southwestern Colorado. His name, he said, was Alferd Packer; he was part of an ill-fated gold prospecting party that had set out for Breckenridge, 100 miles to the northeast, only to become lost in the bitter winter snow.

In the early spring of 1874, a haggard, windswept man with a long shaggy black beard emerged from the San Juan mountains with ripped blanket pieces for shoes and threw himself at the mercy of the government officials at the Los Pinos Indian Agency in southwestern Colorado. His name, he said, was Alferd Packer; he was part of an ill-fated gold prospecting party that had set out for Breckenridge, 100 miles to the northeast, only to become lost in the bitter winter snow.

At first, Packer said he had become separated from the other five members of his party and had no idea where they were. But then he encountered other prospectors he knew, who remarked that his wallet was surprisingly fat for a man who had been flat broke when they all set out from Utah the previous November. He did not look as emaciated as he should, given his tales of living off rosehips and pine gum and boiled shoe leather. They also noticed that he was carrying a skinning knife belonging to one of the missing men. Under close interrogation, Packer finally admitted that his companions were dead and that he had survived that terrible winter by feeding off their refrigerated flesh.

He was not the first western settler to survive the elements by resorting to cannibalism. A generation earlier, in California's Sierra Nevada range, the same fate had befallen the notorious Donner Party and also the celebrated explorer John C Frémont, whose presidential ambitions were forever compromised by his over-intimate acquaintance with his deceased companions. But Packer's case raised suspicions that the others had not. When the bodies were at last discovered that summer, four of the five showed signs of blunt trauma from a hatchet and the fifth was marked by two bullet wounds. Was his cannibalism really just a matter of grim survival? Or had he, as his accusers charged, actually planned and enjoyed his meals?

Soon, Packer became a subject of notoriety and endless gossip. He escaped from his first jail cell and stayed on the run for nine years before being recaptured in Wyoming. The popular press, which leapt on the story much as the British papers were to leap on Jack the Ripper a few years later, dubbed him "the ghoul of the San Juans", a cannibal "who gnaws on the choice cuts of his fellow-man", a monster with a fondness for "human jerked beef".

He had two trials. At his first, he was sentenced to death and was just days away from the (custom-built) gallows when his sentence was overturned on a technicality. At his second, he was sentenced to 40 years f behind bars. He was, as Dave Bailey of the Museum of Western Colorado put it, "the O J Simpson of his time".

Never mind that the truth of his story was obscured by the newspaper sensationalism. Never mind that the case against him was never more than circumstantial. For the rest of his life - even after public opinion softened and some influential friends managed to secure his parole -- he was known indelibly as "Packer the man-eater", the most famous cannibal in American history.

And the image has stuck. In Colorado they continue to make dark jokes about him. He invented the frozen dinner! His companions gave him the cold shoulder! He liked finger food! In the 1930s, he became an unlikely mascot for the state Republican Party because of an apocryphal line ascribed to the judge in his first trial: "There was only seven Dimmycrats in all of Hinsdale County and you, you voracious, man-eatin' son of a bitch, you ate five of 'em!" (In fact, the line was fed to the popular press by an inn-keeper whose testimony was instrumental in securing Packer's conviction.) The Republicans invited people to join something called the Packer Club, and distributed buttons reading: "Vote Republican. Eat a Democrat."

In the 1960s, a deputy sheriff in Hinsdale County recorded a song in his honour, "The Ballad of Alferd Packer", whose chorus cautions: "It just doesn't pay to eat anything but government-inspected beef." Packer's life is the basis of at least two feature films, including a delightfully low-rent student production by the future creators of television's South Park entitled Cannibal! The Musical (1996). Numbers include the unforgettable uptempo "Let's Build A Snowman" and a rousing finale, "Hang The Bastard".

Packer has also been embraced by the University of Colorado in Boulder, alma mater of South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, where the cafeteria is called the Alferd Packer Grill and where, until political correctness prevailed a few years ago, students participated in an annual eat-yourself-sick contest in Packer's honour. Alumni recall stuffing their faces with pizza, or raw meat, or Rocky Mountain oysters (a euphemism for deep-fried beef testicles), while their fellow students cheered on with placards reading "Barf!", "Hurl!" and "Blow Chunks!"

Admittedly, the remote mountain communities of Colorado have a habit of commemorating the strangest things. In Fruita, on the western slope of the Rockies, an annual festival celebrates Mike the Headless Chicken, who survived a blow from a farmer's axe f 59 years ago and lived on for several years to the amazement of freak-show crowds across the country. The small town of Nederland, 20 miles west of Boulder, has its "Frozen Dead Guy" festival every March to commemorate a Norwegian immigrant preserved under ice in a prefabricated garden shed.

It was probably just a matter of time before Lake City, the venue of Alferd Packer's first trial which lies just two miles from the burial site of his half-eaten companions, devised its own extravaganza. For many years, some of Lake City's more prominent citizens balked at the idea, arguing that cannibalism was too macabre to dignify with a communal celebration. But then the local economy went through one of its habitual dips, some of the more resistant members of the Arts Council left town, and a festival called Alferd Packer Days became a reality. Fliers for the event, which took place at the end of May, promised skull-throwing contests, a coffin race and a "mystery meat" barbecue. Who could resist such a line-up? As the Colorado historian Fred Mazzulla wrote many years ago in the preface to a luridly illustrated history of the Lake City cannibal: "Gastronomically speaking, if blueberry pie and the hot dog are pure America, then Al Packer is pure Colorado."

THE ROAD to Lake City runs through a picture-perfect river gorge with steep flanks dotted with aspens and pines. On a bright late spring day, the scene suggests Swiss chocolate rather than human flesh. Still, the fast-moving clouds and wildly varying temperatures are a reminder of how quickly one could get socked in by fog and snow. In the days before human habitation (Lake City was founded the year after Packer's expedition), it must have been a treacherous spot indeed.

Nomenclature has also contributed to an appropriate sense of atmosphere. A slow-moving glacial tide of sandstone, which Packer - according to his own account - climbed in a last-ditch search for help or food, is variously known as "Dead Man's Gulch" or "Slumgullion Slide". The outcrop above the river where Packer's companions are buried beneath a simple stone memorial is called "Cannibal Mesa".

The town itself, strangely, is a little piece of the American South transplanted to the mountains. It's not a redneck town exactly - although one shaggy denizen goes around in a T-shirt reading "101 Percent Redneck" and has confederate flags sewn into his belt. But it maintains a long association with Texas, which provides most of its tourist traffic (the Texans come here because it's cooler in the unbearable summer months) and quite a bit of its population, too.

Shyness is not a common affliction. At the information centre, an ebullient 50-year-old woman called Lori Winblood explains that she loves Alferd Packer and has been making dolls of him for the past 20 years. She has a Beanie Al, an Al in prison stripes behind bars and - most tasteless of all - a collection of disembodied doll's heads sold in pickling jars.

"We've got to get people into this town somehow," she explains with refreshing candour. "We're dying on our feet up here. The winters are something awful. By February we're all going half crazy." The snow and cold, I assume. "It's not the piled-up snow," she laughs, "it's the piled-up attitudes."

The coming of spring inevitably makes the town think of Packer emerging from his ordeal. One senses they know how he must have felt. Grant Houston, who publishes the town newspaper, runs the museum and acts as official historian, remembers how, as a teenager, he and his friends would scoop up the first roadkill of the season and sprinkle the bones on the Packer gravesite, just for the fun of watching tourists claiming them as cannibal trophies. f

Such was the impish spirit informing the whole weekend. Children, dressed either as prospectors or as Ute Indians, whacked each other with plastic bones when they should have been throwing them, and vice versa. Anti-smoking campaigners distributed chocolate bars with the slogan: "More people taste good than there are people with good taste." A woman called Kathleen Whinnery explained how she and her husband had gone mountain lion (cougar) hunting the previous winter, shot one, skinned it and smoked its flesh - which became the winning entry in the mystery meat contest. "If you didn't know any different," she explained, "you'd swear it was pork."

The Arts Council offered a sneak preview of a summer play - the story of Alferd Packer, of course - staged in the original courthouse where Packer was tried. In a town where everyone has two or three jobs to make ends meet, the characters kept popping up in the unlikeliest of guises. The man playing Packer was spied, a few hours after his performance, head-banging to a live-band rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama". Polly Pry, a crusading Denver Post journalist in the play who helped secure Packer's parole, was serving beers behind the bar.

I kept being told of opposition to the festival by some of the town's more conservative voices, but nobody would spell out exactly who they were. An earlier attempt to set up an Alferd Packer weekend in the 1990s was scuppered, I was told, though it wasn't clear whether the disapproval came from the town's vegeterians (who supposedly objected to the "manburgers" and "manwiches") or Presbyterians (whose church plaque explains that they have been campaigning against liquor and gambling in Lake City since 1876).

Grant Houston, meanwhile, said the biggest uncertainty was the weather, which is maddeningly unreliable, even in late May and early June. Right on cue, the sky darkened, and that same night Lake City was pelted with snow.

The promoters of Lake City's Alferd Packer Days are big champions of their mascot's innocence, believing his story that he ate his companions only out of desperation and deriding his trial as a 19th-century media circus with a biased judge, tainted evidence and witnesses more interested in their fifteen minutes of fame than in telling the truth. In this, they have no greater champion than Dave Bailey, the curator of the Museum of Western Colorado three hours' drive away in Grand Junction, who has made some startling discoveries of his own to corroborate their version of events.

Ten years ago, Bailey stumbled on a modified 1862 Colt pistol that was said to have been found at Cannibal Mesa in the museum's collections. What intrigued him was that just two bullets had been fired from the heavily rusted gun, just as Packer had consistently recounted once he came clean about what had happened. (In Packer's version, another member of his party, Shannon Bell, went crazy with hunger while he was off scouting for help. Bell used his hatchet to kill the other four, then lunged for Packer when he returned to camp. Packer shot him twice in self-defence.)

The problem for Bailey was matching the gun to the scene of the crime, which seemed well-nigh impossible. In 2000, however, he discovered that the Lake City Museum had taken forensic samples from the grave site during an exhumation 11 years earlier. Bailey borrowed the samples from beneath Bell's skeleton and had them analysed by electron microscope at a research facility in Grand Junction. The result, after five months of painstaking searching: a perfect match between a 50-micron bullet fragment found at the scene and the slugs still inside the Colt pistol.

Bailey has been dining out on his discovery ever since, mounting a trio of spoof Packer trials in period costume in different parts of Colorado as an entertaining way of presenting his evidence. The trials were clearly a lot of fun - at one of them, a local city councilman playing the part of Packer took his oath on a copy of The Joy of Cooking. All three times, Packer was found not guilty.

"Packer's original trial was the worst kind of frontier justice, with no evidence and a kangaroo court," Bailey said. "Mark Twain once said that history is 'a lie agreed upon'. Well, we've got to get past that."

The West, after all, is full of myths too convenient for awkward facts to get in the way. Still, Dave Bailey had nothing but good things to say about the cannibal festival in Lake City, and indeed the whole macabre subculture of Packer jokes, games, songs and films. "Cannibalism is our darkest nature," he said, "so you have to laugh about it." Or, as he likes to put it another way, Alferd Packer served mankind - "medium well".