Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alfred Packer: The Maneater of Colorado

Tried for Murder

Alfred Packer's trial began on April 6, 1883, at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado, for the murder of the elderly Israel Swan. According to witnesses, Swan's remains had shown evidence of a hand-to-hand struggle, implicating Packer in a much more violent episode than shooting a man in self-defense. Besides, it was not Swan he had claimed to shoot, but Bell. So why had Swan appeared to have struggled to save himself?

Hinsdale County Courthouse (photo by Vikki Gray)
Hinsdale County Courthouse
(photo by Vikki Gray)

Judge Melville B. Gerry presided. Preston Nutter, who had identified the five victims in the clearing, testified as a lay witness to what he had seen and what he knew. Using illustrations, he described for the jury the positions of the bodies as they had been found and said that all but one bore hatchet wounds to the head. That lone individual had been struck hard in the back of the head, which was "mashed in."

Oddly, the coroner — the man in the best position to offer a professional analysis — did not testify at all. He wasn't even called to do so. Since he had never recorded his observations of the condition of the remains, there was nothing in writing about the details to which the court could refer. In fact, no one who was experienced in criminal investigation testified at this trial. It was mostly a matter of who the jury would believe, and no one was a true eyewitness of the events save Packer himself.

When recalled later in the trial, Preston Nutter described a hole he had seen in a bone severed from one of the bodies, and in his layman's opinion said it looked like a gunshot wound. He also described how the clothing of the deceased men had been "cut and ripped up." He offered no explanation as to what he meant.

Taking the witness stand, Packer defended himself for more than two hours, and in the process told several significant lies. He lied about his age, the nature of his military service, the fact that he had enlisted twice and been discharged twice, and the cause of his epilepsy, which he said had resulted from walking guard duty.

Addressing the issue at hand, he denied any blame in the deaths of most of the party, but he admitted that he had shot and killed a hatchet-wielding Wilson Bell in self-defense. He also spoke of the deaths of the others, and said that some of those who had survived longer had eaten the others to stay alive (a direct contradiction of his second confession, in which only Bell had done this). However when all of this gruesome activity allegedly had occurred, Packer himself had been scouting for a trail or for food. He returned to find human remains already boiling in a stewpot, although he did admit to taking meat from the bones of two of the deceased (Bell and Miller) to stay his own hunger.

Because he'd offered several versions of his experiences at different times, and had admitted to taking the victims' belongings and money, despite his superficial patter, things did not go well for him. Worse still, on the witness stand, he was quarrelsome and flippant. Some of his fabrications were transparent attempts to save himself.

Alfred Packer prison photo
Alfred Packer prison photo

Like most liars, Packer believed he had made his case with his detailed presentation, but the jury did not accept his version of the tale. On Friday the 13th of April in 1883, nine years after he had emerged from the wilderness, Alfred Packer was convicted of the premeditated murder of Israel Swan.

Legend has it that Judge Gerry then pronounced the sentence as "Stand up yah voracious man-eatin' sonofabitch and receive yir sitince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of 'em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t' be hanged by th' neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin' ag'in reducin' th' Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it."

What Gerry, a literate man, actually said, according to court documents, was, "Close your ears to the blandishments of hope. Listen not to the flattering promises of life, but prepare for the dread certainty of death." He was apparently convinced that the motive for the murder was robbery, not survival or self-defense.

In a long statement, Gerry claimed that the sentence was painful for him to pronounce: "I would to God the cup might pass from me!" He mentioned that the murder was "revolting in all its details" and that the trial had been fair, with a jury of 12 impartial men. Gerry's version was that the five victims laid down to go to sleep and Packer exploited their trust and vulnerability to effect his attack. Although he had been convicted only of the death of Israel Swan, the assumption in Gerry's admonition was that Packer had willfully murdered the entire crew.

"To other sickening details of your crime I will not refer," said Gerry. "Silence is kindness." Clearly, he was referring to the cannibalism of human remains.

He did seem to think that Packer's conscience had bothered him all these years and kept his crimes fresh in his mind. "You, Alfred Packer, sowed the wind. You must now reap the whirlwind... Your life must be taken as the penalty for your crime."

Alfred Packer was condemned to be hanged on May 19, 1883, "until you are dead, dead, dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul."

Contrary to many stories told years later, and even today (see Internet biographies), Packer was never charged with, tried for, or convicted of cannibalism, or crimes related to cannibalism.

But it was not over yet. The Maneater was not about to be hanged, and he had one more version of the story to tell.

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