Scientists Revisit Cannibal Massacre

ByABC News
February 6, 2001, 10:11 AM

Feb. 7 -- There is no question Alferd Packer ate the flesh of his five companions while trekking through the barren, snowy San Juan Mountains. The beady-eyed prospector admitted to as much during his trial more than 100 years ago.

But what remains in question at least in some researchers' minds is whether Colorado's most famous man-eater was also a murderer, or merely a man acting in self-defense who then helped himself to the flesh of his already-slain friends.

This week David Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of Western Colorado, hopes to settle the matter once and for all.

After seven years of combing through yellowed newspaper clippings, testimonies and journals for references on the case, Bailey hopes to add X-ray analysis to his collection of evidence, which, he feels, bolsters the notion that Packer killed only one man not five and did so only to protect his own skin.

Who Ate Who?

Alferd Packer (he signed his first name Alferd, although some officials used the more conventional spelling, Alfred) was convicted in 1883 of hatcheting to death and eating his five companions while leading them through the San Juan Mountains in search of California gold. The team, which included a strapping 19-year-old as well as a 58-year-old with severe arthritis, was en route to California when they were trapped by a sudden, vicious storm. They soon ran out of flour, fat and meat. For three days the men survived on pine sap and rosebuds, but eventually hunger drove one of the prospectors to seek heartier nourishment.

During his trial Packer was fingered as the one who first grabbed an ax and butchered all five of his companions. It was Packer, after all, who emerged from the forest days later, while his companions never did. The judge who tried the case was so repulsed by Packer that he sentenced him to be hanged until he was "dead, dead, dead." But Packer escaped death and served only prison time.

Packer, until his dying day, claimed it was another man, Shannon Bell, who began the carnage. In his earliest statements, Packer claimed most of the men had died of natural causes, but in his later confession, Packer said he'd left camp to scout for food and when he returned, he found Bell amid the bodies of the other four, roasting a flank of human flesh.