Cannibal Corpse: The Grave of Alferd Packer

September 19, 2014 — We give a lot of love to monsters at this time of year: vampire, werewolves, mummies, witches, zombies, ghosts—boogeymen of all appetites. But there’s one we’ve historically often left out (even if one does have his own TV show these days). You won’t find him in Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash or in Rankin/Bass’s Mad Monster Party?. He wasn’t in Monster Squad and Universal Studios never made him a silver screen icon. And I’ve never once had a kid trick-or-treat at my door dressed as him. I speak of the lowly, but terrible, cannibal.

I mean, every self-respecting monster eats human flesh and blood, but they have pre-existing conditions. For the cannibal, eating people is what defines him as a monster in the first place.

Recently, I was in Denver, Colorado, where there is a lot of cool stuff to see. Top on my list? A cannibal grave. My first ever, I think. It’s the grave of Alferd Packer.

Alferd Packer was born in Pennsylvania, but made his infame in Colorado. He was a gold prospector, and in February of 1874, he and five companions decided to cross the Rockies during the winter to try their luck in Breckenridge. Unfortunately, their luck ran out somewhere in all that cold, barren whiteness. Two and a half months later, Packer was the only one who returned…and his breath smelled funny.

Later, they found the partially eaten remains of his travelling companions. Packer was put on trial, where his defense was that he was not a cannibal, but was in fact a cannibal killer. That he had returned to camp one night after scouting around to find one of his companions, Shannon Bell, had killed everyone and was going all Iron Chef on them (Today’s secret ingredient is…what the?). He said Bell chased after him with an axe because, well, dessert, but Packer shot him dead. Packer then admitted that he did eat some of the man beef afterward to survive. I mean, it was right there after all, ready to go.

Nobody believed him and Packer was found guilty, although some say it was due more to the salaciousness of his diet than any real evidence of murder. Eventually, after a series of legal shenanigans in various Colorado courts that involved signed confessions, an escape, years on the lam, a death sentence, multiple trials and, finally, a prison sentence of 40 years, he spent a much lower 16 years in prison before being paroled in 1901.

He got a job, settled into society (some say he even became a vegetarian), and then died six years later at the age of 65, going down in history as America’s first cannibal. In 1989, the leftovers of his unfortunate companions were exhumed to see if further light could be shed on what really happened out in those mountains, but everything came up pretty inconclusive.

I first came across the story of Alferd Packer years ago from the movie Cannibal! The Musical…which is a ridiculous way to do that. It’s the college movie project of Matt Stone and Trey Parker previous to their South Park fame that got picked up and distributed by Troma. It’s an awkward film experience, and I recommend it, as long as you watch it with the DVD commentary track, as the creators and actors decide to party during its recording and gradually get drunker and drunker throughout. At the other end of the film spectrum, Packer was also one of the inspirations for the excellent 1999 movie Ravenous.

Stone and Parker both grew up and went to college in Colorado, so it’s no wonder why they felt a pull toward Packer. Colorado way digs the Packer story, and commemorates it with a whole slew of Packer-related sites—a memorial to his victims on the site of the massacre, museum exhibits, eatery names. Here’s a rundown of some of them.

I, though, only had time for his grave.

It’s in Littleton, just outside of Denver, at Littleton Cemetery, 6155 S. Prince Street. The grave is under a tree right by one of the gates. The relatively simple gravesite has a few notable features.

First, it’s a military gravestone. Packer actually joined the Union army during the Civil War, but was discharged months later because of his epilepsy. When soldiering didn’t pan out, he turned to prospecting, which also obviously didn’t pan out, but makes for a better pun on a couple of levels. But those few months in blue were enough to get an infantry name on his stone.

Second, it’s set in an oblong block of concrete. Apparently, it used to be a Halloween tradition in the 1960s and 1970s to steal the headstone and put in on somebody’s doorstep. Eventually, the powers that be got tired of replanting it and anchored it in cement, filling in the whole plot in the process since graves of the infamous are particularly vulnerable to bodysnatching. Sick begets sick, I guess.

Third, its upper left corner is broken. That happened during one of the Halloween pranks, and, since it looks for all the world like a bite mark, improves the tombstone 1000%.

Finally, the name on the grave is “Alfred” instead of “Alferd.” Nobody really understands this discrepancy. There’s a good story about a misspelled tattoo that Alferd just went with, but it mostly seems to come from the fact that some of the official documents from his life go with Alfred and others Alferd. Obviously, most people use “Alferd” because that’s a funnier name for a cannibal.

Whatever your first name, Mr. Packer, here’s hoping you go from whatever those two and half months in the Rockies made you to being a full-on metaphor for our worst fears, just like all our best monsters.

Excuse me, you’ve got something in your teeth.