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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

BOOK OF THE MONTH: "Man-Eater: the life and legend of an American cannibal" and the story of Alfred

I’m going to tell you the story of Alfred Packer, the west’s most infamous cannibal, and the incredible book I read about him a few months ago.

Alfred Packer was born in 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He would go on to serve as an enlisted infantryman in the Union Army during the Civil War, and would be honorably discharged in New York state due to epilepsy after 8 months. There seems to have been some skepticism as to the reality of his disease amongst his contemporaries, but some people who genuinely disliked him said that they saw him have a seizure and they were very real. He would move south to Iowa later and join a cavalry regiment of the Union, but would again be discharged for epilepsy. This is when he went west.

Over the next nine years, he did tons of odd jobs, but his epilepsy in conjunction with his awful ass attitude kept him from ever having a job for very long. By literally all accounts of people who knew him, he was known to steal, he was difficult to get along with, and most people just generally disliked him. Most people who knew him also were under the impression that he was basically a pathological liar. A few people would have a soft spot for him here and there, but that rarely lasted very long and it seems to have usually been people who felt bad for him or didn’t know him very well.

Now, this is where the story gets good, but one could argue it began a long time ago. Anyway, on April 16, 1874, Alfred Packer stumbled up to the Los Pinos Indian Agency in Gunnison, Colorado. He was freezing cold, he had just came out of a snowy tundra basically, and- this is important- he was completely alone. He had left out of a native encampment with five men, with whom he had been travelling for six months so they could all go be miners together, ok? And Alfred was supposed to be their guide, but everyone who knew him knew or came to realize that he was awful at being a guide and really didn’t know where he was going.

Again- six months ago, in November 1873, the team of 21 prospectors left Provo Utah, heading for Breckenridge, Colorado. The gold was to be plentiful and not overly prospected, yet. On the way there, the team was in desperate need of help because they were literally eating horse feed at this point. thankfully they came across Chief Ouray, a Native Chief who was well known in the west, and whose tribe was known for their friendliness to the white men who travelled through. Ouray, full of kindness and good intention, told the prospecters to hold up until the weather hit spring. He offered them space in his camp, because the winter weather makes the mountains super dangerous ya know. This was in january 1874.

A handful of the prospectors were too impatient, though, and snuck off, leaving the camp without the rest of the crew. Alfred tried to follow- but this group told him to f off, and that they’d kill him if he followed. Because, see, here’s the thing- NO ONE LIKED ALFRED. He was annoying, basically, and he was perpetually poor because he had no concept of money management and was constantly begging for money, and he was greedy with food rations, and he was just an ass. Also, they were pissed he clearly didn’t know what he was doing as a guide. One of the group's leaders took a liking to him though, probably because he was a kind man who felt bad for Alfred, and vouched for him so that he could come along on the whole expedition in the first place. So when that little splinter group dismissed him like that, Alfred was pissed. In like revenge, weirdly, he convinced five of the original group to follow him into the wild on a route that he was convinced was faster and safe, but that Chief Ouray advised strongly against. The main leader of their party, Bob McGrue, acted as their guide to take them a little ways into the mountain, but he turned back when the weather and the terrain was too much for his horse. This guide was the last person to ever see the six of them alive.

So then, two months later Alfred turns up totally alone at this very isolated “indian agency” building, asking for help. He literally just stumbled on to it, he had no idea he was as close as he was, which would later become apparent. Also very much makes sense because he was clearly an awful guide. Anyway, the men at the camp asked him what went on, why he was alone, etc and Alfred’s story….. Well, let’s say it changed a few times.

First, he said that they had abandoned him because his feet got frozen and he was too slow. He told the men that he was hard up for cash, and actually sold the rifle he was carrying to one of the guys at the encampment for $10. Some of the guys at the agency offered to take him into town, so he could buy some supplies. During this ride into town, one of the men noticed that Alfred was carrying a skinning knife. This knife, somehow, he realized had belonged to one Frank Miller- one of Alfred’s travelling companions.

At this point, this man started to have a lil seed of doubt about Alfred’s story, but he didn’t tell anyone just yet. The rest of the men were getting their own seeds of doubt sewed into their lil brains, though- Alfred claimed to be flat broke, but he spent $200 in town, and offered to lend $300 more to a saloon owner. Doesn’t sound flat broke to me.

So at this point, they confront him. General Adams was the head of the Los Pinos Indian Agency, and he originally had a little bit of a kind spot for Alfred. He arrested Alfred, rather than letting the other men hang him for lying, and at this point Alfred confessed to what he’d done.

According to the book "Man-Eater", aka today's book of the month, Alfred’s confession reads:

“Old Man Swan died first and was eaten by the other five persons about ten days out of camp. Four or five days afterwards Humphreys died and was also eaten; he had about one hundred and thirty three dollars ($133). I found the pocket book and took the money. Some time afterwards, while I was carrying wood, the butcher was killed—as the other two told me accidentally—and he was also eaten. Bell shot ‘California’ with Swan’s gun and I killed Bell. Shot him. I covered up the remains and took a large piece along. Then traveled fourteen days into the agency. Bell wanted to kill me with his rifle—struck a tree and broke his gun.”

He was arrested, obvi, but actually escaped his cell. Nine years later he was found in Wyoming, working under an alias. This time he signed a different confession, changing his story again, to that the men killed each other and he came back from scouting to find them all but one dead. The last one, he killed in self defense. He then ate them to keep from starving.

So, because of these conflicting stories, a trial was scheduled and it was a hot mess y’all. He was sentenced to hang, but then the Colorado Supreme Court reversed his sentence because it was based on an ex post facto law- aka, a new law that retroactively changes the results of the law that it replaced. So his charges were reduced to manslaughter and 40 years. Which, at this point, would prob still be death. He was actually paroled in 1901, though, during which he got to see a big city- something that he describes as just awe inspiring. He died of dementia at age 65.

This is just like a SKIMMING of what this man’s story is, ok? Like the very highest level. I cannot recommend this book enough- I mean I devoured it. It’s called Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal by Harold Schechter.

First of all, the legal arguments that the book like lightly goes over are so good- for example, it briefly mentions Allan C Hutchinson’s “Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World” which is super interesting and definitely something my friends who are interested in law and probably also anthropology should check out. Schecther, the author of today’s book, does an awesome job talking about the court cases and what was said, as reported by both newspapers and official transcripts. He also talks about the legal teams, drama that went on in the damn newspaper office, and Alfred’s prison break.

Secondly, he just paints a damn picture. Like i feel like I’ve seen some of these places and people now. The drama of the courtroom is palpable from the way he describes everything. Like you get so into the scenes. My mind keeps going back to the newsroom in Colorado that was reporting on Alfred’s case and I feel like I’ve been there, no kidding. And I’ll be honest- he does such a good job with things that even when you know how they’re going to play out- you can’t stop reading.

Schechter also does an incredible job at being very objective throughout- I really could not decide whether or not I thought Alfred had murdered his comrades maliciously until the end of the book, when I had read everything including the author’s opinion. Now like i said, Schechter does tell you what he thinks at the very end- but I’ll leave that for you to discover yourself. You might be shocked. I kind of was surprised honestly.


Link to the book:

But, it’s free with kindle unlimited rn!!!

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