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America's Favorite Cannibal Town.
Lake City welcomes visitors to "Sink Your Teeth into History." Cannibal Salad is a menu item at the Packer Saloon.

America's Favorite Cannibal Town

Field review by the editors.

Lake City, Colorado

The Rocky Mountain town of Lake City has a well-seasoned relationship with its most unsavory character, Alferd Packer. He's a tourist favorite, dead long enough to become a figure of folklore, which is good because Alferd's claim to fame is that he ate people.

America's Favorite Cannibal Town.
Frank Miller's skull chunk has visible hatchet marks.

In the winter of 1874, three miles south of the present town site -- Lake City didn't yet exist -- Alferd became a Wild West legend by cannibalizing his five traveling companions. He then ran from the law for nine years, was caught, hauled into Lake City, and sentenced to hang. Although the press gave Alferd colorful nicknames ("Human Hyena," "Packer the Man-Eater"), he was never in legal trouble for eating people, just for killing them.

According to Grant Houston, president of the Hinsdale County Historical Society, editor of the Lake City Silver World newspaper, and lifelong Lake City resident, the town's embrace of Alferd goes back over 100 years. It was informal at first. The shackles worn by Alferd during his trial were displayed in a Lake City saloon. The noose that had been prepared for Alferd's neck (he escaped death on a technicality) was showcased at the sheriff's office. Enterprising locals would sell old weapons to tourists, claiming that they had been discovered at the massacre site. "Enough rusty revolvers and hatchets have come from that site to equip a small army," quipped Grant.

Courtroom where Packer was sentenced to hang in 1883.
Courtroom where Packer was sentenced to hang in 1883.

Packer finally found a respectable reliquary with the opening of Lake City's Hinsdale County Museum in 1974, and the town officially hitched itself to its cannibal star with its first Packer Days celebration in 1983. Lake City soon found itself offering tourists a smorgasbord of cannibalabilia. Alferd became a kind of cartoon mascot, often depicted with zombie eyes, a bib around his neck, and a knife and fork in his shirt pocket. T-shirts, dutifully preserved as historical objects by the museum, carried slogans such as Alferd Packer: Inventor of the Manwich, and He Liked People and So Do We.

This clock could have ticked off Alferd's last minutes -- but he won a reprieve.
This clock could have ticked off Alferd's last minutes -- but he won a reprieve.

"We had coffin races and hamburgers shaped like people as part of the Packer festivities," said Grant. Their success spurred other Colorado towns with notorious legacies to create their own festivals: the Emma Crawford Coffin Race in Manitou Springs (1994), the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival in Fruita (1999), and Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland (2002).

Packer Fever has cooled since its heyday ("He's here in some years more than others," said Grant) but t-shirts still preach the cannibal gospel (Sink Your Teeth into History), the Packer Days festival now features a 5k "Run For Your Life" and a "Mystery Meat Cook-Off," and tourists can visit the museum and the courthouse to view Alferd artifacts.

The museum's Packer collection is a unique assortment of tributes and relics. There's a replica of the hatchet-scarred skull fragment of Frank Miller, who was on the Packer menu, and buttons from the clothes of various half-eaten bodies dug up at the massacre site. A grotesque stone mask of a leering Packer was apparently a kind of gargoyle on a 19th century Colorado theater. Equally unexpected is an elaborate Colonial Revival dollhouse, built by Packer in the "Old Max" Colorado penitentiary, and presented to the warden's daughter. There's an 1883 design model of the gallows meant for Packer's execution, which was so anticipated by the authorities that they ordered the wood ahead of time, then had to sell it when the hanging was canceled. The Packer shackles are here, but not the noose: it burned up in a fire in 1947. "Every other exhibit in the museum comes and goes," said Grant, "but the one that's never taken down is Alferd Packer."

Elaborate dollhouse was made by jailbird Packer for the warden's daughter.
Elaborate dollhouse was made by jailbird Packer for the warden's daughter.

A block away from the museum is the upstairs courtroom where Packer's trial took place, and it looks pretty much as it did in 1883, except for all the Packer memorabilia on the walls, and the faded minutes of the trial displayed inside a glass case. Items on display include photographs of his three differing confessions, a copy of his death warrant, and an original invitation to his hanging, signed by the sheriff. The courtroom is also where Lake City sometimes stages a locally written drama, "The Last Trial of Alferd Packer," where jury members are chosen from the audience. "Nine times out of ten that jury would find Packer innocent," said Grant. "They thought he got a bum rap."

Such sentiments baffle Grant, as they would have baffled Lake City in 1883, which found Packer incredibly guilty. Grant told us that he'd much rather have his home town known for its trout fishing, or for being the birthplace of John J. Crook, who invented tin foil. But he agreed with us that few people would visit Lake City to see an exhibit on the tin foil guy.

The massacre site, on the colorfully named "Cannibal Plateau," is only a five-minute drive south of town. Grant said that tourists are sometimes confused by its nearness, not realizing that this part of Colorado in 1874 was a howling wilderness, and that Lake City didn't even exist until after Alferd Packer had chewed his way into history. "We get visitors," said Grant, "who'll ask us, 'Why didn't he just come into town and have a hamburger?'"

America's Favorite Cannibal Town

Hinsdale County Museum

130 N. Silver St., Lake City, CO
Hinsdale County Museum. Corner of 2nd and Silver Sts, one block west of Hwy 149.
Summer M-Sa 10-5, Su 1-4:30; fewer hours and days off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Stuffed Bear, Feejee MermaidStuffed Bear, Feejee Mermaid, Ouray, CO - 19 mi.
Ouray Alchemist MuseumOuray Alchemist Museum, Ouray, CO - 19 mi.
Bachelor Syracuse Mine TourBachelor Syracuse Mine Tour, Ouray, CO - 20 mi.
In the region:
True Grit Cafe, Ridgway, CO - 25 mi.

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