Recounting the crazy tales of cannibals in the American Wild West

by DGO Staff

From the legendary Colorado cannibal, Alferd Packer, to the vicious Kentucky Cannibal, here are the stories of the flesh-eating men who once terrorized the Southwest

There is perhaps nothing more disconcerting than the idea of cannibalism. The idea of eating a human being’s flesh is completely and totally appalling to most people, and rightfully so. It’s not exactly a social or cultural norm — and the fact that some species will cannibalize their own is baffling.

But, it happens — and obviously humans aren’t immune to this penomenon. Not only have there been a ton of recent pop culture examples of cannibalism, from Jeffrey Dahmer to the Cannibal Cop — but there are tons and tons of legends about humans killing and eating other humans that have been passed down through time.

As you may have gathered, though, most of the legends aren’t just stories to scare children into being careful (or aware, or whatever the goal of scaring kids may be). There are also chilling truths that lie behind many of the legends. And, what’s perhaps even more horrifying is that not every story of cannibalism features a mentally ill killer like Dahmer, who — while clearly and absolutely culpable for his own actions — gave us some room to feel empathy or understanding for the plight behind the actions.

In fact, sometimes the canni-balism occured for survival purposes, like with the Donner party, a group of American pioneers who migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest. During the winter of 1846, these pioneers fell victim of a number of mishaps, which led them to be stranded in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountain range. And, of course it happened without enough provisions on hand to get through the winter. This led to some of the pioneers resorting to cannibalism to survive — and they ate the bodies of their fellow pioneers who had succumed to the elements, starvation, or illness while stranded on the mountain range.

However, the stories surrounding cannibalism rarely focus on the horrors of necessary cannibalism — which is what occurred within the Donner party. Rather, the stories tend to revolve around those seemingly “normal” people who choose to cannibalize others because they can’t resist their depraved instincts, and rightfully so. We can all, at least in theory, understand the survival instinct that kicks in during times of extreme desperation. Humans are ultimately animals, after all, and at some point the will to live surpasses any rational thought we may have about the idea of eating human flesh. That’s something most of us can reconcile.

What’s significantly more puzzling is that there are humans who just urge to eat other humans, and we tend to tell those stories instead. That’s how some of America’s earliest cannibal killers have continued to be relevant in modern culture, and will likely live on in infamy for the unforeseen future. And that includes a few early cannibals that prowled the Wild West, like the
ones whose stories are below.

Liver-Eating Johnson

John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston was born in New Jersey in 1824, and eventually became a mountain man of the American Wild West who (spoiler alert) killed and ate parts of humans. It was a weird trajectory, to say the least. Here’s ol’ Johnston’s story.

Johnston seemed like he was on the right track when he enlisted to fight in the Mexican-American War, where he served aboard a fighting ship. However, that stint in the war didn’t last long. Turns out Liver-Eat-ing Johnson couldn’t control his impulses and deserted after striking a superior officer. The details of what happened after desertion are a bit sketchy, to say the least, but as the story goes, the soon-to-be cannibal changed his name to John Johnston af-ter desertion and then traveled west to try his hand at gold digging — ultimate-ly landing in Alder Gulch, Montana Ter-ritory. He also became a “woodhawk,” supplying cord wood to steamboats, which was an honest living at the time.

But what happened from there is shocking — and has been the stuff of rumors and legends ever since. And, the most pervasive legend revolves around Johnston’s wife, a member of the Flathead American Indian tribe.

As legend tells it, Johnston’s wife was killed by a young Crow brave and his fellow hunters, which devastated the Jersey native turned mountain man. This turn of events prompted Johnson to embark on a vendetta against the tribe, and he put the muscles he developed cutting wood to work in more sinister ways.

According to historians, he murdered hundreds of Native Americans from the Crow Nation in revenge for the loss of his wife at the hands of a Crow brave. By the end of his killing spree, Johnson had allegedly killed and scalped his victims — and then consumed their livers.

“He supposedly killed and scalped more than 300 Crow Indians and then devoured their livers” to avenge the death of his wife, and “as his reputation and collection of scalps grew, Johnson became an object of fear,” historian Andrew Mehane Southerland said.

One tale in particular is extremely harrowing. According to sources familiar with the story, Johnson went on a trip of over 500 miles in the winter to sell whiskey to his Flathead kin when he was ambushed by a group of Black-foot warriors. The Blackfoot planned to sell him to the Crow, which likely would have earned them a big bounty since Johnson was murdering and eating their people. During the ambush, Johnson was stripped to the waist, tied with leather thongs, and put in a tee-pee with one guard.

But Johnson managed to break through the straps and then knock out the guard with a kick. He took the guard’s knife and — you guessed it — scalped him (and maybe ate his liver? Who knows. Time was probably of the essence.) He then escaped into the woods and fled to the cabin of Del Gue, his trapping partner, a journey of about 200 miles.

In perhaps an even more surprising turn of events, Johnson eventually made peace with the Crow, who became “his brothers.” This led his personal vendetta against them to finally come to an end after 25 years and scores of slain Crow warriors.

And, while there was overwhelming evidence of Johnson committing these murders, he was never charged with a crime. In fact, the United States government sanctioned his genocidal actions and allowed him to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Even more surprising? Johnson was then allowed to work in law enforcement after the war. He eventually died in a veteran’s home in California.

Originally buried in a veteran’s cemetery in Los Angeles his remains were relocated to the town of Cody, Wyoming in the mid-1970s.

The Kentucky Cannibal

Born in 1828, Levi Boone Helm would eventually become known as the Kentucky Cannibal. Despite that moniker, Helm actually only lived in Kentucky for a brief period as a boy. This cannibal was nomadic, spending time in Missouri, California, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Texas, and Montana.

Helm’s story goes like this. He married in 1848, but struggled to settle into domestic life, and by that we mean he had a penchant for getting drunk and beating up his wife. Stellar, stellar human, this one.

Helm’s reputation for heavy drinking and vicious domestic violence was so well-known, in fact, that his own father covered the costs when his wife petitioned for divorce. The courts sided with the wife, ruining what little reputation Helm had left.

In turn, he decided to move on, heading to California in search of gold.

Knowing the journey from Missouri to California would be risky alone, Helm invited his cousin to join him. Helm was angered when his cousin refused — and made the (very rational) decision to stab him in the chest. His cousin died instantly, spurring Helm to flee town.

But the stars were not aligned for Helm, who didn’t make it far before being captured by another relative. He was placed into a mental asylum, but the complacent guards allowed him to escape, and he immediately headed for California instead.

It was during Helm’s quest to make it to California that the initial murder spree started. In some cases, his murders were committed during fights, but many were premeditated. He enjoyed life on the run, partnering with a small gang of fellow outlaws.

And, what’s more is that Helm told his companions that he hadn’t just murdered people, but also had frequently eaten his victims. The band of fellow outlaws almost certainly thought that Helm was just blowing smoke, but they would soon find out exactly how dangerous Helm was.

During an attack on the way to Fort Hall, Idaho, the gang and Helm were forced into the wilderness. It was a difficult journey took their lives one by one, until only Helm survived.

At some point, Helm was found — and he was eating a human leg. To justify this, Helm claimed the man had taken his own life and he didn’t want to waste the meat. Like…what.

And the rest of Helm’s life would continue in a similar way. He would go on the run, seek shelter and companionship, and eventually give in to his murderous instincts. He would also rob, murder, and cannibalize travelers.

Helm wouldn’t be free forever, though. At one point, he was arrested after shooting an unarmed man in a saloon.

That could have ended his horrific killing spree, but family loyalty got
in the way. After the shooting, Helm asked his brother, “Old Tex,” for help. His brother paid off the witnesses, and without those witnesses to convict him, Helm could not be convicted. He was then released and soon returned to his nomadic, murderous life.

Eventually, Helm partnered with Henry Plummer’s infamous gang, “The Innocents.” This is what would prove to be Helm’s downfall.

Not long after Helm joined the gang, the group was arrested and given a secret trial. They were all convicted of their crimes and sentenced to a public hanging.

Thousands of people gathered to watch the notorious gang die on January 14, 1864, in Montana’s Virginia City. Helm’s reign of terror finally came to an end when he willingly leapt off the hangman’s box, shouting “Let ‘er rip!” as he jumped.

The Colorado Cannibal

He may have claimed he only turned to cannibalism to survive, but Alferd Packer was a dangerous man to know. Born in Pennsylvania in 1842, Packer had a contentious relationship with his parents and left home in his late teens. He worked as a shoemaker in Minnesotan-ta until the start of the Civil War, when he joined the Union Army.

Packer served honorably, but was quickly discharged due to uncontrollable epilepsy. He didn’t give up, though, and traveled to Iowa to enlist again. That stint turned out to be a bit more successful, but ultimately Packer served less than a year in the Union Army before his frequent seizures led to a second discharge. This kicked off a pattern of short stints with his subsequent jobs — at least until he started working as a trail guide.

Packer’s skills as a guide were sub-par. He lost his way often and lacked basic survival skills. He was argumentative, lied constantly, and was known to steal.

Despite these failings and a lack of money and supplies, Packer was able to join an expedition leaving from Utah on its way to newly discovered gold fields in Breckenridge, Colorado, in November 1873.

Their journey was slow and arduous, and by January, the party had to temporarily seek refuge at a friendly Native American encampment led by Chief Ouray in Montrose, Colorado. By that point, they were less than 100 miles from their destination.

The party was afraid of being beaten to the gold and wanted to persevere, but the wagons couldn’t cross the icy mountains. This led to the group splitting into two groups, one with 11 men on foot, who were led by Packer, who was hell-bent on trying to navigate the rest of the journey.

The other group, led by a man named Preston Nutter, remained at the camp.

Chief Ouray gave food and directions to Packer’s party, and they set out in early February to try and find the gold fields in Breckenridge. Shortly after leaving, though, the party led by Packer split again after Packer declared he knew the area and was certain that cutting across the mountains would save time.

He didn’t manage to convince everyone, though, and five of the men in the party decided to follow Chief Ouray’s directions instead. Their journey was perilous and they nearly starved, but were rescued just in time. The five men who followed Packer were less fortunate.

Packer’s party was woefully unprepared for the trek across the San Juan Mountains. They lacked snowshoes and heavy clothing. They didn’t even have flint for reliably lighting fires. They carried just a few matches, a pistol, two rifles, a handful of ammunition, some knives, and a single hatchet.

Ultimately, Packer was the doomed group’s sole survivor, so what exactly happened in the San Juans is unknown. What is known is that when Packer stumbled into civilization begging for help he had a rifle and knife on him, along with a satchel and a coffee pot. He said he’d been abandoned by his party after becoming snow blind and had survived on nothing but roots and flower buds.

However, his appearance said otherwise. The people who gave him food and shelter said he certainly didn’t look as ragged — nor did he appear
as though he’d been wandering the wilderness alone for months.

He also appeared to be well-fed, but Packer made it clear he didn’t want
to talk about his experience. He sold his rifle for $10, saying he needed the money to get home to Pennsylvania.

In the first town he came to, Sa-guache, Packer spent hundreds of dollars at the saloon and general store. He drank heavily, and told different versions of his story to anyone who would listen. People grew skeptical when the rest of his party never showed up, and their suspicions deepened when a man named Preston Nutter arrived in town.

Because Packer had a skinning knife that wasn’t his and a seemingly unending supply of money, it led Nutter was convinced Packer had done something to his friends. Nutter and Packer got into a fight, and Packer decided to move on.

While this was happening, the party of five men that had followed Chief Ouray’s directions were almost to Saguache. As they traveled, they heard tales of Packer’s stories and refuted them. They said the men they had known wouldn’t abandon anyone to die. They also said Packer was a notorious liar and should not be trusted under any circumstances.

In turn, the authorities decided to question Packer, but to avoid spook-ing him, they asked him for his help searching for his missing companions. An officer named General Adams held an investigative council to get to the bottom of the matter.

As the hearing began, two Ute hunt-ers rushed into the building, waving strips of dried human flesh. Packer fainted, falling to the floor in a crumpled heap. When he woke, he begged for mercy, swearing he would make a full confession.

Packer’s cannibalistic confession varied significantly over the years. He initially claimed that while they were trapped in the mountains, his companions killed one man for food: Israel Swan. Desperate to survive, Packer joined them in eating Swan and dividing his money and belongings equally.

The meat ran out quickly, though, and two days later the four of them agreed that a man named Miller would die next. Once again, his body and money were divided by the party.

Packer claimed this scenario repeated itself until only himself and a man named Bell were left. They made a pact not to eat each other and continued traveling. Packer said Bell eventually tried to murder him, so Packer killed him in self-defense.

And, because he was still worried about starving, Packer butchered Bell and packed as much meat as he could carry. He claimed he threw away the remaining meat when he saw civilization, but that he did so reluctantly because he’d started to enjoy the taste.

At one point, General Adams launched a search party to find the party’s remains, but was unsuccessful in the mission. This failure led to outrage, with people demanding Packer’s immediate execution.

Packer then changed his story, this time claiming a blizzard had trapped the men for days with no game. Eventually Israel Swan died of starvation. After eating him, it was only a matter of time before the party sacrificed another and another, until again Packer and Bell were the last two alive.

Packer was then imprisoned, but General Adams was hesitant to execute him without physical proof of a crime. That evidence would eventually come to the surface, though.

The bodies of Packer’s traveling companions were found by accident in August of 1874. All of the bodies were found in Dead Man’s Gulch, a short walk from Lake City, Colorado. An investigation determined that all of them were killed with extreme violence.

It was also clear that Packer had desecrated the corpses, but after months of exposure to the elements, investigators couldn’t be certain that cannibalism had occurred. However, there was evidence suggesting the men were killed before supplies ran out, and the authorities theorized that Packer killed them for their belongings before getting snowed in nearby.

For starters, Frank Miller’s head was missing entirely from the campsite, and both Miller’s and Israel Swan’s corpses had been feasted upon by scavengers, leaving little more than scattered bones. Swan’s skull had a jagged chunk missing out of it, and it was theorized that Miller’s head had been carried away by an animal.

The bodies of George Noon and James Humphrey were whittled down to flayed torsos of rotting viscera attached to skeletal legs. However, they were intact and had bearded faces, with Humphrey’s face being slightly more decayed than Noon’s.

Nooon and Humphrey had received blows to the head by what looked to be a hatchet based on the damage done ot their skulls, and their bodies had noticeable broken bones.

Shannon Bell was found with mostly skeletal legs, which were splayed with arms at his sides. Bell’s legs had been crudely cut to the bones, and his torso was also wholly flayed, indicating that he had been skinned. Adding to the theory was the fact that his were still fully covered in skin.

His face appeared to be almost normal, though, complete with a thick red beard and bushy hair. However, the top of Bell’s skull had been ripped open and his brains were lying on the ground beneath him. The lack of noticeable decay in his face suggested that he had been the last to die.

The three men whose bodies were still at least somewhat intact appeared to have had flesh and muscle excised from choice and meaty locations. And, it appeared that no attempt had been made to consume bone marrow or any organs at all.

Officials returned to the jail to confront Packer with the evidence, but security wasn’t exactly top notch back then, and they found that Packer had made an escape.

He managed to evade the law until 1883, when he was finally captured in Wyoming. He had changed his name to John Schwartze and was only caught because one of the original members of the traveling party recognized him.

Packer was then brought to trial in Lake City and was ultimately found guilty. He was sentenced to the gallows, but his lawyers found a loophole that prevented Colorado from sentencing him to death. However, he was still held responsible for the murder of his companions, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

But Packer didn’t actually serve four decades in prison. He filed numerous appeals and was released on parole after serving just 18 years.

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