Legend has it that when Judge Melville B. Gerry handed down a death sentence on Alferd Packer, he used these words, "There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale Country but you, you voracious man-eatin' son of a bitch, you ate five of them. I sentence you to be hanged ... as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of this state". According to the actual trial records, Judge Gerry was more succinct (and apolitical) in his death sentence, stressing that Packer would be "hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!".
If Judge Gerry was upset with Alf Packer, he was hardly the only one. As the sole survivor of a six-man prospecting expedition that had become snow-bound in the Colorado Rockies in 1874, Packer's story was that one of the other prospectors, Shannon Bell, had gone mad and killed the others before Packer killed him in self-defense. The fact that Packer admitted to cannibalism, had changed his story several times, and had money belonging to the other prospectors with him when he was arrested counted against him, though. While in custody awaiting a hearing, Packer escaped from jail (nobody ever found out how) and spent nearly nine years on the run before being rearrested. In the meantime, the bodies of the other prospectors had been found with evidence that they had been bludgeoned to death.
On March 14, 1883, Alf Packer was arrested at Wagonhound Creek where he had been living under the name of John Schwartze. Since cannibalism isn't actually a crime in most states (only Idaho has an actual law against it on the books), Packer/Schwartze went on trial for murder. Despite his own account of killing Bell in self-defense, neither the jury or Judge Gerry found his version of events credible and Packer received a death sentence. Given the amount of public hatred directed against him, authorities arranged for him to be transferred to another jail to avoid possible lynch mobs and the execution was stayed.
It's hard to understand why Packer was so hated since accounts of cannibalism weren't all that rare. Given the brutal winters found in that part of the country and the tendency of isolated groups to be snowbound for months, desperate measures were often needed to avoid starvation (much like the famous Donner party of the 1840s). Local and national newspapers certainly played a role in shaping the way that the public viewed Packer (one described him as a "Human Ghoul who Murdered and Grew Corpulent on the Flesh of his Comrades").
While Packer was awaiting execution, the legal wrangling dragged out for years. One lawyer pointed out that Colorado was still at territory when the crime occurred and argued that the murders were not illegal at the time under territorial law. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction although Packer was later tried and convicted of five counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced for forty years in the state penitentiary at Canon City.
Not that the story ended there. A model inmate in prison, Alf Packer (aka "Prisoner 1389") became the focus of numerous legal appeals and applications for pardons by a string of attorneys. The "Free Packer" movement gained its greatest champion in Polly Pry, a columnist for the Denver Post, who wrote numerous columns on Packer's "unjust" imprisonment. Pry's crusade was directed at Colorado governor, Charles S. Thomas who finally gave in and ordered Packer to be paroled as his last official act before leaving office on January 1, 1901.
After his release, Alf Packer worked as a security guard at the offices of the Denver Post. Growing tired of city life and suffering from Bright's Disease (he had been diagnosed in prison), he moved back to Colorado and spent the last years of his life as a mine caretaker. Despite his notoriety, Packer was a favourite with the local children and he often regaled them with stories about the Old West (they just considered him to be a "nice old man"). His liver problems worsened and a state game warden found him unconscious near his home in 1906. He spent the last few months of his life as an invalid although he wrote a letter to the governor pleading for a full pardon (it wasn't granted). Alf Packer died on April 24, 1907. According to one local news story, his last words were, "I am not guilty of the charge". The cause of death was believed to be a stroke although his death certificate listed his condition as "senility - trouble & worry". He is buried in the Prince Avenue cemetery in Littleton, Colorado at government expense (he was a veteran) and his gravesite has attracted thousands of visitors over the years.
The actual debate over Packer's guilt dragged on for decades after his death (requests for a pardon were repeatedly denied).In 1989, the case became news again when a team of forensic scientists, led by James Starr of George Washington University, unearthed the bodies of Packer's fellow prospectors (the place where they had been buried is still known as Cannibalism Plateau in Colorado). After a forensic analysis of the bodies, Starr concluded that Packer had lied about killing Bell in self-defense and that Alf Packer was "as guilty as sin and all his sins were mortal ones".
Later forensic disputed Starr's conclusions and one determined curator, David Bailey, launched his own project to prove Packer's innocence based on a rusted Colt revolver believed to have been used by Packer to kill Shannon Bell in self-defense. In an amazing feat of forensic science, the fragments of a lead bullet found at the death scene were matched to Packer's revolver. Although the research is ongoing, the question of Alf Packer's guilt seems unlikely to be resolved.
In the meantime, Alf Packer has found his way into American folklore. Not only is he an unofficial mascot of the University of Colorado (the student cafeteria was named after him) but his bust is still on display in the Colorado state capital building. He's been the subject of several movies and musicals as well as a semi-humourous Alferd Packer Society (their motto is "serving our fellow man since 1874"). Lake City, Colorado still has an annual celebration of the Packer story and the local tourism based on Packer's cannibalism tends to be popular (not to mention macabre).
The Alf Packer legend lives on.