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Was cannibal a murderer? Maybe not

More than 130 years after Alferd Packer ate his five companions to survive a Colorado winter, a museum curator is making a case that the notorious cannibal was innocent of murder.
David Bailey, curator of the Museum of Western Colorado, holds a pistol at an Alferd Packer exhibit inside the museum in Grand Junction, Colo. Bailey believes Alfred Packer used the gun to kill Shannon Bell after Bell killed the other four members in their party and attacked Packer with a hatchet. The painting in the backgound shows Packer defending himself. Ed Andrieski / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than 130 years after Alfred Packer ate his five companions to survive a Colorado winter, a museum curator is making a case that the notorious cannibal was innocent of murder.

Years of research on a 142-year-old pistol and detective work at the site where Packer was stranded seem to support at least part of his story: that he only killed to defend himself from a member of their party who had slain his fellow prospectors and was making a meal of human flesh.

“Curators normally don’t get an opportunity like this. We usually are in the museum piecing things together,” said David Bailey, who has been pursuing the case while working at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

Packer was convicted of murdering the five men — all prospectors he was guiding — but always insisted he had killed only one of them, Shannon Bell. Packer said he shot Bell after Bell killed the four others in the party and then attacked him with a hatchet.

Gun provides a clue
Ten years ago, Bailey happened upon a gun in the museum’s collection that was marked as having been found where Packer and the five prospectors were stranded high in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado in the winter of 1873-74.

Bailey said his research confirmed the gun in the museum’s collection, an 1862 Colt police pistol, had been found in a 1950 dig at the site where Packer was accused of killing the five men. Then Bailey began wondering if Packer’s story could be true.

“When we started the case we just wanted to know either way,” he said.

The museum staff began looking at documents, and found the journal of a Civil War veteran who had seen the bodies and said one of them, Bell, had died of two gunshot wounds.

Bailey and other staff made several expeditions to the remote site near Lake City, 130 miles (208 kilometers) from the nearest interstate highway in Hinsdale County, which covers 1,120 square miles (2,900 square kilometers) and has a full-time population of 790.

Among other things they found was lead residue on Bell’s clothes. Tests with an X-ray spectrograph showed it matched the lead in the three bullets still in the gun. (Two chambers were empty.) Later, a bullet fragment was found in a sample taken from under Bell’s body.

Reviewing the trial
At his trial, Packer said he had gone out to look for food and when he returned to camp he found Bell “roasting a piece of meat which he had cut out of the leg of the German butcher,” Frank Miller.

Packer said he shot Bell as he attacked with the hatchet. Afterward, he said, he tried every day to find a way out of the mountains “but could not so I lived off the flesh” of the dead men.

He predicted that someday he would be vindicated. He told a story of the men crying and praying as they starved, trying to live off pine gum and rosebuds.

“I have always suspected Packer was innocent. That is why it is good that Bailey is digging up fingerprints,” said Colorado historian Tom Noel. “He has done good work.”

Last month Bailey was honored for his work by the American Association for State and Local History.

Still some skepticism
Forensic anthropologist Walter Birkby of Tucson, Ariz., who was involved in an exhumation of the bodies in 1989, remains skeptical. He said there was no evidence of a gunshot wound, and that what appeared to be a bullet hole was the result of an animal gnawing on the bones.

Noel wasn’t the only one who suspected Packer was innocent. Under pressure from a campaign led by Denver Post columnist Poly Pry, Packer was granted a conditional parole in 1901 after 18 years in prison. He had escaped execution only on a technicality.

After Packer’s release he made dollhouses and handed out candy to children, living on a pension from his service in the Civil War.