A museum curator has discovered that Alfred Packer, who wasconvicted of murder because he ate his five companions whenthey were lost in a Colorado winter 130 years ago, mayactually have been innocent.
Robert Weller writes that David Bailey, who works at theMuseum of Western Colorado, has been researching the casefor years and has come to the conclusion that Packer onlykilled to defend himself from a member of their party whohad slain his fellow prospectors and was eating them.
Bailey says, “Curators normally don’t get an opportunitylike this.” Ten years ago, he found an 1862 Colt policepistol in the museum’s collection that was found in 1950 atthe site where Packer and the five prospectors were strandedin the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado in thewinter of 1873-74. This made him wonder if Packer’s storycould be true.
He also found the journal of a Civil War veteran who hadseen the bodies and had said Bell died from two gunshotwounds. He found lead residue on Bell’s clothes, and testswith an X-ray spectrograph showed it matched the lead in thethree bullets still in the gun. Later, a bullet fragment wasfound in a sample taken from under Bell’s body.
Packer said he had gone out to look for food and when hereturned to camp he found Bell “roasting a piece of meatwhich he had cut out of the leg of the German butcher.”Packer said he shot Bell as he attacked with the hatchet.Afterward, he said, he tried every day to find a way out ofthe mountains “but could not so I lived off the flesh” ofthe dead men. He described the men as crying and praying asthey starved, and trying to live off pine gum and rosebuds.
Packer always predicted that someday he would be vindicated.He escaped execution on a technicality, and was granted aconditional parole in 1901, after 18 years in prison. Afterhis release, he lived on his Civil War pension and madedollhouses and handed out candy to children.
“I have always suspected Packer was innocent. That is why itis good that Bailey is digging up fingerprints,” saysColorado historian Tom Noel. “He has done good work.”
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