Thursday, July 5, 2012

Packer's pistol

On a recent episode of "Mysteries at the Museum," I learned that storied "Colorado cannibal" Alferd* Packer (1842-1907) was vindicated using modern forensic techniques. Here is a timeline:

Six men intending to prospect for gold tried to cross Colorado's San Juan Mountains in winter, against advice. That spring, Packer was the only one to emerge. His fellows were found murdered, and there were signs that their bodies had been cannibalized. Packer was arrested, but afraid of being lynched, he escaped from jail and remained on the run for 8 years. When he was finally tracked down in Wyoming and put on trial, he testified that prospector Shannon Bell had attacked him with a hatchet after killing the other men. Packer then shot and killed Bell. Packer reluctantly admitted to eating the flesh of his companions to avoid starvation, and blamed that admission for his conviction and 40-year sentence. Packer was paroled after 16 years in prison and died 6 years later, still maintaining his innocence of murder.

While at the Packer massacre site on Cannibal Mesa near Lake City, Colorado, historian Ernest Ronzio of  Western State College unearthed a 1862 Colt Police Model pistol (photo here), which he loaned to the Western State College Museum for study and display. It was in poor condition: the grips were rotted off, the main spring was broken, and the rusted cylinder still had .38 caliber bullets in 3 of the 5 chambers. The gun was later purchased and donated to the Museum of Western Colorado.

A team led by James E. Starrs of George Washington University's National Law Center, exhumed the bodies of the 5 victims on the site of the Colorado massacre and examined the bones in an anthropology lab. They found cuts to the arm and hand bones possibly indicative of defensive wounds, in addition to nicks suggesting that the bodies had been defleshed. Starrs photographed the skeletons and took samples, which remain with the Hinsdale County Historical Society.

As curator of History at the Museum of Western Colorado, David P. Bailey took on the task of documenting their collection of firearms. He was intrigued by the pistol and its yellowed accession card, which read, "This gun was found at the site where Packer killed and ate five of his traveling companions." He verified the provenance of the pistol and set out to shed light on Packer's case, which resulted in strong corroboration of his claim of self-defense:
  • The gun matched the time frame and location of the massacre.
  • It had never been introduced as evidence because it was lost in the snow after Packer's desperate fight with Bell.
  • The Colt had 2 empty chambers, and an 1873 statement confirms that only Shannon Bell had been shot (the other victims had all been killed with a hatchet), with a bullet hole seen through his wallet and a severe wound from a 2nd bullet to the pelvis. 
  • Comparison of a 50-micron piece of lead in the soil samples collected from beneath Bell's skeleton with a bullet that remained in the gun under an electron microscope and an x-ray spectrograph showed that it was an exact match in structure, size, and composition!
This confirms that Bell was killed by a bullet shot from Alferd Packer's gun and suggests, but does not confirm the motive. Bailey concludes, "Although this new information was over a century too late to help vindicate Packer, it is never to late for the truth."

*Not a typo - he spelled it this way.
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