Cannibals in the West

Louis Keseberg | Courtesy Sutter Fort State Park

Murder and cannibalism are two of modern society’s most serious legal and cultural taboos. Readers of this column may remember Louis Keseberg, a member of the Donner Party, vilified as a murderous cannibal who relished his ghoulish repast. His reputation was attacked with unsubstantiated allegations made by rescuers, survivors and the press. Keseberg sued two rescuers for slander, but after hearing reluctant testimony by various witnesses, the court awarded him only $1. Although Keseberg was certainly not alone in consuming human flesh to survive, he was ostracized by society for the rest of his life.

Louis Keseberg and Alfred G. Packer went to their graves admitting having eaten their dead companions, but denying that they had killed anyone for food.

Most of those in the Donner Party that resorted to cannibalism did so only after their brains had been starved of protein for so long that the portions of it that dictate morality and ethics had shut down. When those learned, cultural behaviors disappeared, it freed the delusional survivors from the guilt associated with consuming human flesh.

The Donner Party incident isn’t the only example of cannibalism in the West. In 1859, thousands were lured to Colorado when gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains. Eastern newspapers published fantastic tales of the wealth to be had, claiming the diggings far richer than California. Guidebooks professed that nuggets were “scattered around miscellaneously and loosely” and “gold is to be found everywhere you stick your shovel.” Throngs of hopeful youths, needy farmers and out-of-work shopkeepers rushed to the Kansas Territory. These opportunistic ‘59ers grabbed a handcart, backpack or wheelbarrow and headed west. Many narrowly missed death by starvation. The three 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.

Charles Gardner, initially nicknamed “Phil” for his hometown of Philadelphia, earned the moniker “Cannibal Phil” after eating his Indian guide while caught in a blizzard. Gardner surprised everyone by reappearing several days later, but the celebratory mood darkened when Phil unpacked his mule and pulled out a shriveled, half-eaten human leg. Cannibal Phil really secured his gruesome reputation when he survived another mountain snowstorm by consuming his female companion.

The Ghoul of the San Juans
Louis Keseberg’s notoriety 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, Colo. 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 10 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.” 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, 10 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 Jan. 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.

Keseberg and Packer went to their graves admitting having eaten their dead companions, but denying that they had killed anyone for food. Keseberg swore that he committed no crime and Packer claimed he shot Bell in self-defense. Nonetheless, both men spent most of their adult years as outcasts and pariahs, stigmatized by society as cannibals.


Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.