Alfred G. Packer first made headlines in 1873, when he returned from a harrowing journey through the Colorado Rockies ... alone. What happened to his five traveling companions became the stuff of legend, as author Harold Schechter explores in the new Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal.
Detailed and carefully researched, Man-Eater delves into Packer’s early life, the events that led to that ill-fated and ill-timed prospecting journey, the manhunt that ensued after Packer’s apparent mass murder was discovered, his trial, and his strange transformation in the court of public opinion from wild-eyed killer ... to something resembling a folk hero. We caught up with Schechter—a veteran true-crime writer whose previous books take on an admirable range of similarly notorious figures, including Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Jesse Pomeroy—to learn more about this fascinating tale.
io9: You’ve written about a lot of notable criminals in your career. What drew you to Alfred Packer as your next subject?
Harold Schechter: I’ve been very interested in his story for a long time. First of all, and I don’t know what this says about me [laughs], but I’ve always been interested in cases of American cannibalism. In my other life, I’m a professor of American literature, and when I was doing my PhD many years ago, I was vaguely thinking of writing a book about cannibalism in American literature. Herman Melville’s first book, Typee, was about cannibals; Poe wrote about cannibalism in his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Mark Twain has a story, “Cannibalism in the Cars.” And I was always very fascinated by the Donner Party. So, I’d been aware of Packer for quite awhile. Then, I lived in Colorado because I taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year—this is going back 30 years—and the student cafeteria there is named the Alferd Packer Restaurant and Grill. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park guys, were students at Boulder, and they did a movie about Packer.
Anyway, I’d long been interested in his case, as well as very interested in those rare American criminals who become legendary characters. Packer is one of those; he’s sort of this folk figure out in Colorado. They have an Alferd Packer Day and stuff like that.
What do you think it is about Packer specifically that’s made him so legendary? Is it just because he was a cannibal, or is there more to it?
I think it’s a combination of things. Funnily enough, I think one is that he misspelled his own name, “Alferd” Packer. That’s endeared him to a lot of people out West. He was convicted of murdering five men, which made him, in the minds of a lot of his contemporaries, this kind of mythic monster. When he was arrested, they were calling him “the human ghoul” and “the human hyena.” So immediately, that bestowed this kind of supernatural quality on him, because as you know from my book, there were many other cases of survival cannibalism. People were often kind of forgiven for that. But the thing about Packer was, presumably, he’d lured these other five prospectors into the mountains, and then deliberately murdered them and feasted off their bodies for two months. It gave him this larger-than-life quality, and he became a kind of frontier boogeyman.
If enough time goes by, characters like that, especially if they afterwards seem to be kind of regular people, a weird kind of sympathy attaches to them. And they become almost weirdly comical characters in a way. Like Ed Gein, who was the [inspiration for] Psycho—there are comic books about him. Alferd Packer was this cannibalistic frontiersman, but with the passage of time, he’s become one of those Old West criminals who’s become a folk hero. Jesse James and Billy the Kid, these were murderous psychopaths, but now in the folklore of the West, they’ve turned into these heroic figures. And something like that seems to have happened to Packer. Not that he’s been turned into a hero, but he’s become almost a comic-book version of a ghoul.
Why are we so obsessed with cannibals?
My feeling in general is that things wouldn’t be taboo and forbidden if there weren’t some very powerful, primal impulses to commit those acts. I think cannibalism speaks to what psychiatrists call the shadow side of our own personalities. It does stimulate fantasies about how we, ourselves, would behave in those kind of extreme situations.
Everybody I talk to about this, one of their first responses is, “Even if I were starving I would never eat human flesh!” or, conversely, “Yeah, I would do that.” I fall into the latter camp. [Laughs] But again, I think it just touches on something very primitive inside all of us.
What was the most surprising thing you uncovered during your research process?
A lot of what I try to do in my books is separate the myths that grow up around a case from the reality. I mean, I didn’t myself know that his name wasn’t actually “Alferd.” That was just a function of his early illiteracy. There’s also that famous story that I’d always heard that during the sentencing, the judge said something like “Packer, you voracious son of a bitch, there were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them.” That turned out to be completely apocryphal.
One of the most interesting things to me was the role of [journalist] Polly Pry. I hadn’t been aware of her existence, and she turned out to be such a fascinating character that I was a little surprised nobody’s written a biography of her. I knew nothing about her campaign to set Packer free. Really, when I began the research, I just knew the most basic facts about him: that he’d gone off prospecting with these five other guys and ended up eating them all.
If you Google the case, a lot of people claim that he was the only person convicted of cannibalism in the United States. Which is something, years ago, that I thought was true myself. But that’s not true; he was tried and convicted of murder. And it turns out, surprisingly, that cannibalism is only illegal in one state, which for some bizarre reason is Idaho. You can’t even be tried for cannibalism in the United States. You can be tried for things like desecrating corpses, but you can’t be tried for cannibalism.
Another surprising aspect was, it became very clear to me that whether or not he was guilty, he did not receive anything remotely approaching a fair trial. And there’s no doubt in my mind that with a less biased jury, and better legal representation, he never would have been convicted in the first place. There was certainly a lot of reasonable doubt in the case.
In your opinion ... what really happened in 1873? Was Packer a murderer?
Well, there’s Packer’s story, which was that he was off climbing a mountain one day to do a little surveying, seeing where they were. And when he came back, [fellow prospector] Shannon Bell had killed the other four guys and then attacked him, and he killed Shannon Bell in self-defense. Part of me feels there’s something just a little too convenient about that.
I was encouraged by my editor to offer my own opinion. It finally just seemed more plausible to say that Packer did, in fact, kill those other guys. One of the things that I learned in my research is just the incredible psychological effects of starvation, which really reduce even the most civilized person to this very barbaric state. And, you know, Packer probably wasn’t the most civilized person to begin with. But it’s one of those questions, like Lizzie Borden’s ultimate guilt, that’s never going to be definitively answered.
Top images from the Colorado State Archives; Harold Schechter image by Kimiko Hahn; lower image of David Bailey, curator of Colorado’s Western Museum, showcasing a pistol believed to have been used by Packer to kill Bell, displayed as part of a Packer exhibit in 2004, by AP Photo/Ed Andrieski.