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As Long as We Remember...

January 12, 2004

Food for Thought

Joe Volz

Clearing out my files the other day — I have just moved from the Francis Scott Key Hotel to Worman’s Mill — I discovered an old membership card. I realized I hadn’t been to a meeting of the” Friends of Alferd Packer” in ages.

In fact, since moving to Frederick, I had forgotten that I was even a member of the rare group that used to meet at the National Press Club over steaks and scotch.

But the kind of outrageous activity that made Al Packer a culinary celebrity 130 years ago (long before reality TV) is in the news again.

You might have read a notice that a German is on trial for killing and eating a man who was a willing victim.

Packer, an epileptic Civil War veteran, did it the old fashioned way. He didn’t get permission first. He roasted and ate five of his fellow travelers after they were trapped in a snowstorm.

Packer, who was supposed to be guiding the victims through rugged mountains, was the only convicted cannibal in recorded American history. Cannibalism was not a crime, but killing the rest of his party, a group of gold prospectors, was. Packer insisted his fellow travelers had already frozen to death — with no help from him — before he dined on their carcasses

“I had to have something to eat,” Packer said in his defense. “So I lived on the flesh of my fellow man.”

Cannibalism is not a crime in Germany, either, and the sick victim agreed to be killed, so the best the Germans can get the killer on is some kind of euthanasia charge or, maybe, manslaughter.

Packer, of course, became a folk legend. Books were written about him. Songs have been sung and he is still an attraction for college students. A particularly tasteless group at the University of Colorado, beefing about the quality of their cafeteria cuisine, renamed their dining hall the Alferd Packer Grill.

A group of us Washington reporters, who know a good yarn when we see it, formed our own Friends of Al club 30 years ago. It seemed altogether fitting that we remembered Packer because he used to work at a newspaper himself.

Although Packer was sentenced to death, the ruling was overturned on a technicality and he was sentenced, instead, to a 40-year term.

There were Packer supporters who argued that the defendant was not given a fair trial by the judge, an ardent Democrat, who purportedly told the Packer at sentencing, “There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them.”

The judge later insisted he never said any such thing and court records are silent on the subject. But reporters knew a good quote when they saw it and the legend prevails.

Yet, no one could be absolutely certain as to whether Packer had actually killed the men until a Washington anthropologist, James Starrs, dug up the real story by exhuming Packer's remains a few years ago. Starrs called Packer’s claim that the men died first “hogwash” when he discovered deep marks on the bones — the kind of marks that are inflicted by a heavy instrument like a shovel or ax or by a bullet or two.

Packer got out of jail long before serving his full term, however, thanks to some sob sister reporting by a Denver Post columnist, Polly Pry, who wrote “Out from behind greet stone walls and heavy steel bars, there creeps a cry for mercy, for justice. It is a cry that will not drown.”

Packer went to work at The Post — as a bodyguard.

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