Weather Window | Cannibalism on the trail

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Tahoe Daily Tribune
Winter storms were a common cause of death in the 19th century American West.
Courtesy California State Parks |

TAHOE/TRUCKEE — In 1859, a Colorado gold rush lured thousands of greenhorns to the Rocky Mountains. Throngs of hopeful youths, needy farmers, and out-of-work shopkeepers rushed from the Mississippi Valley to Kansas Territory.

The Blue brothers acquired a sinister place in history when one reached the mines only after subsisting on the bodies of his two siblings who apparently died in route.

In the 1846-47 Donner Party incident, the snowbound pioneers experienced a prolonged period without food. In that extreme condition the human brain will shut down from lack of protein. Among the first functions to fail is behavior constrained by a moral and ethical code. At a certain point it became “OK” to consume those who had died.

Louis Keseberg, the last emigrant to make it out of the mountains alive, had subsisted on corpses for nearly two months. But even Keseberg’s grisly reputation as the “Cannibal at Donner Lake” pales in comparison to the lurid tale of Alfred G. Packer. Packer was a 31-year-old Colorado-born prospector, tall and muscular, with coal-black hair and a bushy mustache.

In return for a share in the loot, Packer promised to lead a group of about 20 eager young prospectors from Salt Lake City, Utah, to a new gold strike near Breckenridge, Colorado. The group was well equipped with horses, wagons, and provisions when they left Salt Lake in late November 1873, but by January one of the worst and coldest winters on record had trapped the men at a place now called Cannibal Plateau.

Deep snow kept them from hunting, and the party eventually ran out of food. Packer told his clients that he would get them back to civilization but he himself was lost. Luckily they encountered the tribe of Chief Ouray, a friendly Indian leader, who offered them flour, meat and other vital supplies. Chief Ouray assured the prospectors that they could remain in the tribe’s teepees until warmer weather, but sagely advised the men to forget the gold and return to Salt Lake City.

In early February, several men hiked out into the brutal snow and cold, but survived only by killing an emaciated cow with their bare hands and drinking its warm blood, which gave them the strength to reach a remote government cattle camp.

Meanwhile, their companions back at Chief Ouray’s winter camp convened a council in which ten men elected to return to Utah. Packer laughed in his distinctive high-pitched voice and called them quitters; he persuaded five of the remaining men to accompany him to the diggings where they would all become rich.

That was the last anyone saw of the six men until weeks later when a wild-eyed Alfred Packer staggered into the Los Piños Indian Agency, haggard and alone. Delirious, he told the authorities an incoherent story of murder and survival. Packer explained that the prospecting party had been caught in a series of vicious Colorado blizzards and run out of provisions.

He offered conflicting accounts for the deaths of his partners, but the most consistent and lucid one has him returning to camp one day after searching for a way out of the snow, where he found that a crazed Shannon Bell had murdered the other four men with a hatchet.

When Bell attacked him, Packer shot him dead in self-defense. To avoid starvation, Packer admitted boiling up the meat from his companions and eating it.

In 1989, a forensic team exhumed the bodies of the Packer party. Physical evidence showed that several of the men had been killed by multiple ax blows to the head. Bell’s skeleton bore no bullet marks, supporting Packer’s assertion that he shot him through the stomach. From cut marks on the bones, the team determined Packer had filleted the dead men.

Newspapers dubbed Packer “the Ghoul of the San Juans” and printed sensational headlines like “A Cannibal Who Gnaws on the Choice Cuts of his Fellow Man.” Alfred Packer was imprisoned in a jail cell, but an unknown benefactor passed him a knife blade with which he unlocked his irons and escaped.

He eluded the law for nine years until one of the original prospectors from 1873 recognized Packer’s distinctive voice in a Wyoming roadhouse and turned him over to Colorado authorities that wanted to prosecute him for the killings.

In 1884, ten years after the crime of which he was accused, Packer was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder — eight years for each of his five alleged victims.

During Packer’s sentencing, Judge M. B. Gerry lamented, “Packer, there were seven registered Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!” On January 8, 1901, after 16 years as a model prisoner, Packer was granted parole by outgoing Colorado governor Charles S. Thomas on his last day in office.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at . You can reach him at Check out Mark’s blog:

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