Originally created 09/12/99

Did miner kill, cannibalize companions?



Had they not been so greedy, perhaps the small band of prospectors working a claim on the western slopes of the Rockies would have been sensible and left when the first snow fell that winter of 1874.

But their insatiable hunger for gold kept them rooted to their claim, even as savage winds ripped down from the mountains and snowdrifts 5 feet high began piling up around their camp in the San Juan range near Lake City, Colo.

Later, when some of the men finally decided to make a desperate run for it, it was too late. They were trapped. Even worse, a full-scale blizzard had set in, and food was running dangerously low.

The storm that struck Colorado that winter was one of the worst in history. Towns in the higher elevations were shut off from the outside world. Roads disappeared. Rivers and lakes froze. For weeks, not a wagon rolled west of Denver or Colorado Springs; it would be months before even some of the lower passes opened.

No one knows how many people stranded in the high country died that year.

The situation must have seemed particularly grim for the half-starved miners clinging to life in the rugged mountains. Snowbound and out of food, they were sure to freeze or starve long before help could arrive.

What happened next remains one of Colorado's greatest unsolved mysteries. According to the only survivor of the group, a grizzled Union Army veteran named Alferd Packer, the men were on the verge of starvation when he volunteered to hunt for food. When he returned empty-handed five days later, he said he found four of his fellow miners hacked to death with an ax. The fifth miner, still very much alive but crazed with hunger, charged him with an ax when he stepped inside camp. He said he had to shoot his attacker, Shannon Wilson Bell, in self-defense.

On the verge of starvation himself, he later admitted, he cannibalized Mr. Bell's remains by stripping away the flesh with a knife.

When authorities reached the surviving prospector, they found a grisly scene: Human remains boiling in a stewpot, severed arms and legs and dismembered skeletons of the dead five miners strewn about the campsite.

Mr. Packer was arrested and charged with murder. He escaped within a few days and was recaptured nine years later. At his trial in Denver, he swore that he had killed only Mr. Bell -- and that in self-defense.

Mr. Packer theorized that Mr. Bell had killed the other miners with the ax.

He admitted to having eaten Mr. Bell. But he claimed it was Mr. Bell who had killed, then consumed portions of his companions while he was off hunting.

The jury refused to believe him. He was found guilty on five counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Paroled in 1901, he settled in a small town south of Denver, where he died six years later.

Many people believed the miner's bizarre story, but others weren't so sure. His reputation as a notorious liar, petty thief and plunderer during the Civil War weighed heavily against him.

In 1989, a team of scientists led by James E. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University, visited the site of the carnage and unearthed the skeletal remains of the murdered miners. An examination convinced them that Mr. Packer had butchered and eaten them.

"It is plain as a pikestaff that Packer was the one who was on the attack, not Bell," Dr. Starrs concluded.

According to Dr. Starrs, the angle of the blade marks on the bones of the victims indicated that the cuts were all made by the same person -- Alferd Packer.

Others contend there is no way to prove such a finding scientifically. Anthropologist Walter H. Birkby of the Arizona State Museum said a study he recently conducted supported Mr. Packer's story.

E. Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.