‘Tis the season to be cannibalistic

Max Sparber

We’re coming up on a reflective time: winter, specifically. Winter seems to be off to an early start this year and will be actively seeking to murder us in a few months. And I can’t be the only one who feels the first chill of the coming season on my face and thinks immediately of the grizzled features of Alfred Packer. I’m not alone in this, am I?

Perhaps I am. While Packer’s name is kept ignominiously alive in Saguache County, Colo., where Packer’s strange tale first slipped out, few others seem keen on returning to the terrible story of this pioneer. Packer, you see, took advantage of a cold February in 1874 in the mountains of Colorado to hack up and devour five of his travel mates. Such events were frequent enough in the West. Most notoriously, there was the 1846 Donner Party, in which half of a 90 wagon-long train of farmers and merchants froze to death crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the surviving half dined on their remains. In 1859 a fellow named Daniel Blue survived an arduous trek along the Smokey Hill Trail by devouring his two brothers. Mark Twain was so taken by tales such as these that he wrote a short story detailing a trainload of politicians trapped in a snowstorm. In Twain’s story, the politicians develop a sophisticated political process to decide who will become diners and who will become dinner.

Such was life on the frontier. Sometimes survival demands impossible decisions, and when Packer showed up in Saguache County without any of his five traveling companions, little was made of his explanation, even though he confessed he had eaten one of them after a particularly harsh snowstorm when his “meal” had frozen to death. But Packer was an unskilled liar and a worse murderer, and an illustrator stumbled across the skeletal remains of Packer’s companions in 1883. All of the men showed evidence of foul play. Now it seemed likely that Packer had murdered and devoured his companions – not in a desperate struggle for survival, but simply because Packer had gotten peckish.

So forgive me if I get a little wary as the thermometer plummets. Everybody seems to develop hungry eyes; they positively leer at you at bus shelters. Given a particularly brutal cold snap, we might well revert back to frontier days, noshing on whomever proves weakest. And some might not need to wait for a cold snap. Some, like Packer, might simply be waiting for an excuse to produce their long knives and dine. Some people have secret appetites and are waiting for the chance to indulge them. So November makes me a little nervous; the snow will fall soon and when the snow falls, who knows what hungers might rise?

It is with this in mind that I have composed a small poem about Alfred Packer, which I offer up now as a sort of cautionary tale. I have written it in a folk idiom, with deliberately skewed meter and awkward rhymes, so please excuse my English, which couldn’t be worser. This winter is going to be a cold one, folks, and when the snow starts to fall and a strange look enters the eyes of strangers at the bus shelter, remember my words and run.

Alfred Packer, a man who liked to eat

Israel Swan he was rugged trapping man
Until Alfred Packer cooked him in a iron frying pan
And few was tougher than Shannon Wilson Bell
Tough as salted leather, Packer salted this man well
Then there was Frank Miller, and then there was George Noon
Packer et Frank with a fork and he et George with a spoon
And James Humphrey was the last one from Utah
And Packer’s axe and mouth was the last thing Humphrey saw
There was six men started out with Packer as their guide
And Packer he came back with the other five inside
Packer couldn’t lead a party and could not hunt no meat
But give him an axe and a skillet and Packer he could eat

Colorado folks wanted to give his neck a stretch
They gathered at Lake City and said let us hang the wretch
Judge Melville shook his gavel at Packer’s matted head
And said, “hang him by his neck until he is dead, dead, dead!”
But Packer pled his case and the Supreme Court set him free
O, is it a crime for a man to eat when he gets hungary?
He was a cannibal and murderer and a son of a wretched gun
But given an axe and an appetite, you might do what Packer done
There was six men started out with Packer as their guide
And Packer he came back with the other five inside
Packer couldn’t lead a party and could not hunt no meat
But give him an axe and a skillet and Packer he could eat


Max Sparber’s biweekly column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]