THE BALLAD OF ALFERD PACKER A Colorado Song

Colorado is noted for the majestic beauty of its mountains and the nobility of its people, and those qualities have inspired many wonderful songs.  Like anywhere else, though, there is also a bit of weirdness around these parts; and that, too, has been the subject of a song or two.  “The Ballad of Alferd Packer,” by Phil Ochs, is of the latter category.

Alfred G. "Alferd" Packer

Alfred G. “Alferd” Packer

Alfred Griner “Alferd” Packer was born in 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  When the American Civil War broke out, he twice enlisted in the Union Army, but each time he was soon discharged because of epilepsy.  Legend has it that during his second enlistment, Packer had his name tattooed on his arm, but the tattoo artist misspelled it as “Alferd.”  For some reason, he liked that name better than Alfred, so he began using it.

After his second short enlistment, Packer seems to have headed West and spent the next decade prospecting and working at various jobs in mining camps.  In the winter of 1873, he was in Utah, and joined a party with 20 other prospectors to travel to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.  It was a hard winter that year, and in January of 1874, when the party reached the camp of Ute Chief Ouray, they were advised to delay their expedition until spring.  Most of the miners heeded that advice, but five of them decided to push on through the mountains, and they hired Packer to guide them.

Ten weeks later, in early April, Packer turned up alone at the Los Piños Indian Agency located between the towns of Saguache and Gunnison.  He said that he had been injured and fallen behind his companions.  However, it was reported that he had several wallets in his possession, with rolls of money in each – and none of the other miners had been seen.

About a month later, he began to admit that the others had died or been killed, and that he had eaten parts of their flesh in order to survive.  The details of his story changed considerably over time, so it is not known exactly what happened.  Packer was arrested, but he escaped from the jail and remained free for nine years until he was found in Wyoming and re-arrested.  After a trial, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.  According to the local newspaper, the presiding judge, one M. B. Gerry, pronounced the sentence as follows:

Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it. 

Court records show that the judge was actually much more restrained, but Packer was sentenced to be hanged.  That sentence was appealed and was reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court.  When Packer committed his crime in 1874, Colorado was still a territory. It did not become a state until 1876.  It seems that the crime of murder had not been defined under the territorial law, and that Packer had been erroneously convicted under a later state law.

A second trial was held in 1886 and Packer was again convicted, though this time of five counts of manslaughter as prohibited by the territorial law.  He was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison – five years for each count, which were to be served consecutively.  That may seem light by today’s standards, but at the time it was the longest custodial sentence ever entered in the United States.

In 1897, while in prison, Packer wrote a long letter to the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver newspaper, recounting a different version of the tragic events than he had ever given before.  The media being what it was (and is), a great deal of publicity was generated and the Governor was persuaded to intervene in parole proceedings, which led to Packer’s release from prison in 1901.  He was offered a job in a circus side show, but instead became a guard at another newspaper, the Denver Post, which had generated most of the publicity leading to his release.

One of the attorneys involved in the proceeding was a Denver lawyer named William Anderson.  In January of 1900, Anderson engaged in a vicious argument with the two publishers of the Post – Harry H. Tammen and Frederick G. Bonfils – concerning Packer’s representation.  The argument turned violent and Anderson shot and wounded the other two men.

Criminal charges were filed against Anderson, but his trial ended with a hung jury.  Afterwards, several of the jurors claimed that some officers of the court had attempted to bribe them to vote for conviction, supposedly at the behest of Tammen and Bonfils.  The presiding judge, Judge Mullins, began an investigation and shortly held a trial to determine the guilt of the court officers and Harry Tammen.  However, the trial was just for show, and all charges were dismissed based on the argument that there was no law against attempted bribery in Colorado.

Other newspapers reported on the proceedings with outrage and the Colorado Bar Association called for Mullins’ disbarment.  He was replaced by another judge, Judge Johnson, who convened a grand jury.  Objections were raised by the defendants and the case ultimately reached the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that it was proper to impanel a grand jury.  After eighteen more months of delaying tactics, the grand jury issued its report and the charges were brought once again against Tammen and the court officers, all of whom pleaded either guilty or no contest on the eve of their trial.

While all of that was going on, Anderson was re-tried on the assault charges and was acquitted.

Alferd Packer, meanwhile, left his employment at the Denver Post and moved to the foothills of Jefferson County, Colorado, where he managed two mines for the rest of his life.  Supposedly, he became a vegetarian during his later years.

In 1968, students at the University of Colorado voted to name the remodeled cafeteria grill in the University Memorial Center the “Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill,” with the slogan, “Have a friend for lunch.”  Such was college humor in the ’60s.  It has since been renamed the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill.

Folksinger Phil Ochs heard the story of Packer’s cannibalism and wrote this song, entitled “The Ballad of Alferd Packer.”  It was published in Broadside Magazine in 1964.  The song was not included on any of Ochs’ albums during his lifetime.  After his death, an album called The Broadside Tapes 1 was released, consisting of demo tapes he had made between 1962 and 1964.  “The Ballad of Alferd Packer” was the first song on that compilation.

The Ballad of Alferd Packer
By Phil Ochs

In the state of Colorado
In the year of seventy-four
They crossed the San Juan Mountains
Growing hungry to the core.
Their guide was Alferd Packer
And they trusted him too long:
For his character was weak
And his appetite was strong.

They called him a murderer, a cannibal, a thief;
It just doesn’t pay to eat anything but Government-inspected beef.

Along the Gunnison River
An Indian camp they spied.
An Indian chief approached them,
To stop them he did try.
He warned them of the danger
In the snow that lay around,
But the danger was in Packer,
For his hunger knew now bound.

They called him a murderer, a cannibal, a thief;
It just doesn’t pay to eat anything but Government-inspected beef.

Two cold months went slowly by;
Packer came back alone.
“My comrades they all froze to death,
I’m starving,” he did moan.
The Indian chief knew how he lied,
He spat upon the ground,
For Packer’s belly hung out all over his belt:
He’d gained some thirty pounds.

They called him a murderer, a cannibal, a thief;
It just doesn’t pay to eat anything but Government-inspected beef.

Well for nine long years he ran away
But finally he was tried.
He claimed he didn’t kill them,
He only ate their hide.
That County had six dem-o-crats
Until that man arrived.
Well only one lives on today:
He ate the other five.

They called him a murderer, a cannibal, a thief;
It just doesn’t pay to eat anything but Government-inspected beef.

Eighteen years he stayed in jail,
It was a dreadful fate,
For he suffered indigestion
Every time he ate.
Still, it’s hard to blame this hungry guy
Who went searchin’ for the mines,
For when he ate his friends
He’d never heard of Duncan Hines.

(C) 1964 Appleseed Music; Broadside #48; Universal Music Publishing Group, The Bicycle Music Company.

 For an index of the Colorado Songs in this series, please click here.

4 thoughts on “THE BALLAD OF ALFERD PACKER A Colorado Song

  1. I first came across the legend of “Alferd” Packer when I was ten years old and living in Fort Collins, Colorado. The museum there at that time was not the glittering edifice present today, it was an old pioneer board and batten building in a park downtown. There was a display there recounting Packer’s misadventure as well as a 3-D sculpted display of Custer’s Last Stand. Both were fascinating to me at that age. I was especially impressed with the judge’s language and forthright description of Packer as a “man-eatin’ sonofabitch,” as well as a display of the type of ax he employed at the outset of his culinary explorations. I suppose that’s why the memory has stayed with me while many others have not.

    That park holds another memory as well. In those days there was an old, deep cellar covered over with boards, presumably a leftover from a homestead located there. One day while visiting the museum I rode my bike past it and heard a cat crying down in its depths.

    I rode over to my friend Wayne’s house and we got some rope and after removing some of the boards I lowered him into the cellar and he handed the cat up to me. The cat scratched the daylights out of me and lit out, the savior-scratchin’ sonofabitch.

    When we went back to Wayne’s for band-aids we told his mom what we’d done, she decided that was great and called the newspaper. The upshot of it all was we got our pictures printed in it – along with the rope and our bikes – and lauded as heroes.

    It was my first exposure to media hype. Wayne and I laughed about it later – we knew we were just a couple of kids who found something to do for awhile. It was the grown ups who made all the stupid fuss about it…

    Yes Louis, I’m still out here and following along. Just very busy. One of these days I will update you on our status and whereabouts. Hope you are well. B.

    • Bob, you seem to have had a interesting life growing up – and I guess even now, you are still growing. You should write a book.

      • Judging by the size of my archives I’ve already written several books. I wonder now what the purpose would be if I were to actually write for publication.

        Money and/or recognition are out. The chances of enough monetary gain to compensate for the aggravation of all that editing and composing with market appeal in mind are way too low. I’m pretty sure recognition would also prove to be more aggravating than satisfying. I value my anonymity, which would surely go out the window were I to raise my visibility quotient.

        And the more idealistic notions don’t seem to be worth it either. Pass a torch of wisdom and insight to the next generation? History is full of those, and every possible subject is in those archives already. Somewhere. These days it seems that many are upside down and quenched in buckets filled with ignorance and flame-retardant religious interpretations and political spin.

        Elucidate the specificity of my own particular unique experience in hopes that it would speak directly to whatever few living persons might find their own lives enriched by my story? There aren’t many of them, and I suspect that the majority of them are growing and learning just fine without my help and are more inclined to do it themselves anyway.

        We have a refrigerator magnet here which reads “Ever notice that ‘what the hell’ is always the right answer?”

        I guess I might do it on that basis. But I’d have to think about it, and these days that takes a long time and I only have small bits of time for that, and it does seem to be an over-rated occupation considering that I am more fulfilled looking at trees – or whatever is in front of me – than thinking or, in this context, writing anything about them. Besides, Joyce Kilmer already covered that quite nicely.

        See? Torches are already lit in Lit. And history in general.
        They’re everywhere.

        I think I’ll just have an Oreo, and go fix the toilet. Both require my attention right now.

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