Creepy Colorado: Alfred Packer
A well-known nickname for our state is, “Colorful Colorado”. It can be seen on signs when crossing the border into our state welcoming visitors. This nickname is derived from the state’s magnificent scenery of mountains, rivers, and plains. While the state may be colorful in its scenery, it has also had a very colorful history. Mining operations, Plutonium warhead plants, and other unique spikes on our states timeline set us aside from any other state. This unique history is not the sort of history you would find in your high school text book. My goal for this series of articles is to touch on the bizarre and obscure history that our state has to offer so look for it monthly titled Creepy Colorado.
In this article we will dissect the little known crimes that occurred in the mountains just outside of Breckenridge in 1873. Seeking wealth in the Colorado Mountains a group of miners pursued their manifest destiny hoping to gain fortune only to encounter a similar fate as the infamous Donner Party. In November of 1873 an expedition of 21 men left Provo, Utah journeying into the mountains of Colorado. Upon entering Montrose, Colorado the team encountered Chief Ouray, a Ute Leader who warned the men of the dangerous winter conditions and weather which lay ahead of them. Chief Ouray even generously offered the men to stay with his tribe until winter had passed. Craving fortune and with visions of gold etched in their minds several men in the party decided to ignore Ouray’s warning and ventured into the snowy mountains. A week after their departure six other men became wrestles and decided to trek onwards into the mountains in route of the previous team. The team of six consisted of Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank “Reddy” Miller, George “California” Noon, and Israel Swan, Alfred Packer, and was led by Bob McGrue. As the terrain got more treacherous and the snow deepened Bob McGrue decided to heed Ouray’s warning and blazed a route back to the Ute camp.
The grizzly details of what happened next are still to this day unknown. Two months after their departure a single man wondered out of the mountains into the Los Pinos Indian Agencies’ camp. When Alfred Packer was asked where his team of men had gone he replied he was unsure of their whereabouts due to them abandoning him in the mountains because of his health. Surprisingly Packer appeared to be well nourished. After a brief stay at the agencies’ camp Packer claimed he wanted to return home to Pennsylvania. Members of the original team which departed Ouray’s camp a week before Packer began to become suspicious after recognizing a knife from Frank “Reddy” Miller, one of Packer’s companions on Packers hip. Suspicion soon grew as Packer began to purchase supplies to return home with large sums of money. Packer was soon accused of murdering the men and a lynch mob started to form demanding the truth of what happened in the mountains.
General Adam’s of the Agency soon coerced Packer into writing a confession. Packer stated that within the first ten days Israel Swan died from the elements, five days later James Humphrey encountered the same fate. Facing starvation the final men resorted to cannibalism eating Swan and Humphrey. Deranged and starving the final members of the team fell apart Shannon Bell shot George Noon. In self-defense Packer killed Shannon Bell after Bell attempted to attack him. Packer then took any previsions he could including remains of several of the bodies to travel through the wilderness to the agencies’ camp.
Hoping for definitive proof of the incident General Adams forced Packer to lead a team of men to the original campsite to investigate the occurrences. After attempting to lead the team of men astray and attacking the constable with a knife Packer was jailed. With being located in such a desolate environment the jail only consisted of a cabin which Packer easily escaped and fled into the night. Packer escaped justice for 9 years till he was discovered in Cheyenne, Wyoming living under the alias John Swartze. After being apprehended Packer made a second confession retracting his previous story and stated that Shannon Bell had killed everyone while Packer was out scouting the trail. Packer was found guilty at his trial of premeditated murder and was sentenced to hang.
A retrial occurred in 1885 by the Colorado Supreme Court and Alfred Packer was resentenced to 40 years after being convicted on five counts of manslaughter. After good behavior Packer received parole in 1901, and became a guard for the Denver Post. Well-liked by his neighbors and co-workers Packer worked for the Denver post for the next six years till he died at the age of 65. His tombstone can be visited in Littleton, Colorado at the Littleton Cemetery. Packer has since become an obscure part of Colorado’s state history with the cafeteria at University of Colorado being named after him in the 60’s as well as Trey Parker and Matt Stone the famed creators of South Park making a low budget film, Cannibal the Musical in 1993. Packer’s case was the first case of cannibalism to be tried in the U.S. Court system and while grotesque shows the inhospitable and harsh conditions which the Rocky Mountains to this day possess. The Rocky’s consist of around 3,000 miles of uninhabited land much of which lies in Colorado. This stretch of wilderness holds many unanswered questions and mysteries which will lay unanswered for years to come.