Of Cowboys And Cannibals: Flesh-Eating Fiends Of America’s Old West

When considering cuisine in America’s Old West, what typically comes to mind is pioneers gathered around a pot of beans above a campfire or a gold prospector gnawing on a hard tack biscuit or a perhaps an off-duty cowboy at his favorite saloon indulging in a bowl of antelope stew.

Alas, when times turned lean back then, the likes of beans, biscuits, and bowls of stew could prove precious hard to rustle up. In fact, often these 19th-century settlers and adventurers had nothing to eat at all — and that’s when, sometimes, some of them would eat each other. Like these unsettling settlers.


Departing on horseback in November 1873, Civil War veteran Alferd Packer joined a gold-prospecting expedition deep into Colorado’s San Juan Mountains that can only be described as ill-timed. By the time a particularly icy January set in, most of the travelers accepted an offer from a local Native American chief to camp with his tribe for the rest of winter. Packer took a pass. Instead, he and five others ventured onward. Then, in April, Packer returned to the tribe — alone.

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Initially, Packer claimed the others had ditched him after his feet succumbed to frostbite. That proved tough for the others to swallow, as Packer appeared robust and well-fed, in addition to being loaded with cash and carrying his cohorts’ possessions.

Packer quickly broke under questioning and blurted out that the party had collapsed into hellish mayhem that resulted in hatchet murders. He became the last man standing, and the only man eating … the other men.

Alferd Packer [Wikimedia Commons]

Alferd Packer [Wikimedia Commons]

While leading local law enforcement to his human leftovers, Packer attempted to stab a constable and flee. He didn’t make it. Instead, the lawmen threw him in jail, from which he promptly escaped.

Nearly a decade later, authorities nabbed Packer in Wyoming. After two trials in 1873, a judge sentenced Packer to 40 years behind bars, five for each murder, which was the stiffest penalty in American history up to that point. In 1901, Packer received parole. He died six years later.

Alfred Packer has since become a semi-legendary character, particularly in Colorado. Visitors can peruse a vast collection of Packer relics at the Hinsdale County Museum and enjoy an “El Canibal” burrito at the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Musical tributes include “The Ballad of Alferd Packer” (1960) by Phil Ochs, and death-metal band Cannibal Corpse’s entire 1990 album, Eaten Back to Life, which they dedicated to Alferd.

At the movies, The Legend of Alfred Packer [sic] (1980) is an obscure biopic, and Devoured: The Legend of Alferd Packer (2005) offers a horror take. Most popularly, Cannibal!: The Musical (1993), from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, retells the sanguine saga as a black comedy with song-and-dance numbers.


Inspired by the boundless promise of new freedoms and ripe opportunities, in late springtime 1846, farm brothers George Donner and Jacob Donner led a wagon train out from Independence, Missouri, en route to California.

The Donner Party originally consisted of 23 wagons loaded with 27 men, 17 women, and 43 children. Of those 87 initial emigrants, only 48 ever made it to the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. All the others were dead; an unknown amount of them had been eaten by the survivors.

Related: Serial Killer Cinema — 5 Films Inspired by Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer

Following a fine start, the caravan hit trouble by attempting to use the Hastings Cutoff, a new and unreliable route out west. At the beginning of winter, the group fell prey to massive snowfalls that rendered them immobile for months. Holed up and freezing, the Donner Party rapidly consumed their supplies and switched to eating their dogs, horses, and pack animals. Then those ran out, too.

In mid-December, 15 members of the party attempted to head out on foot for help, in a trek that’s come to be known as “The Forlorn Hope.” Pummeled by the weather, the hikers resigned themselves to cannibalism, even discussing having a duel or staging a human sacrifice for the meat. But nature provided them with fresh corpses quickly enough. Empowered by eating their fellow travelers, in mid-January, seven of the hikers made it to a ranch in California.

Murder also figured into “The Forlorn Hope.” After a pair of Indian guides named Luis and Salvador attempted to flee for fear of being eaten, hiker William Foster shot them dead. The rest of the group then butchered the Indians and consumed them.

The Donner Party by artist Vincent Decourt [Wikimedia Commons]

“The Donner Party” by artist Vincent Decourt [Wikimedia Commons]

Meanwhile, back in the main party’s ice-bound encampment, the emigrants resorted to eating tree bark, boiled leather, and, ultimately, the frozen bodies of those who succumbed to malnutrition. It’s estimated that about half the travelers who lived had engaged in cannibalism.

Relief teams first reached the trapped Donner Party in February 1847. It took two months of nonstop efforts to transport the survivors to safety. Not among them were George and Jacob Donner, for whom the expedition was named. Both men died, along with their wives, and four of their children.

The Donner Party (1992) is a PBS documentary on the tragedy by acclaimed nonfiction filmmaker Ric Burns, while the The Donner Party (2009) and Donner Pass (2012) offer up dramatic recreations.

Guy Pearce in "Ravenous" (1999), publicity photo

Robert Carlyle in “Ravenous” (1999), publicity photo

The best known cinematic variation, however, is the darkly comic horror thriller Ravenous (1999), which combines elements of both Alferd Packer and the Donner Party into an original story. Guy Pearce plays a dashing but troubled Mexican-American War vet, Captain John Boyd, who is exiled to a remote military outpost. There he encounters a lost stranger named F. W. Colqhoun, played by Robert Carlyle (main photo, above), who tricks a rescue team into embarking with him into the snowy mountains in search of trapped travelers. Suffice to say, they never find them.

In addition to an acclaimed late-’80s indie rock band called The Donner Party, musical homages include songs by Alkaline Trio and Giant Squid, as well as the particularly evocative “The Donner Party” by Rasputina.


After serving in the Mexican-American War and then deserting the Navy, New Jersey native John Harrison reinvented himself as a hunter, trapper, and gold prospector named John Johnson in the Montana territories.

The grave of Liver Eating Johnson [Wikimedia Commons]

The grave of Liver Eating Johnson [Wikimedia Commons]

By 1847, Johnson had married a Flathead Indian woman and settled into a cozy cabin.

After returning from a hunting trip one day, Johnson discovered that braves from a nearby Crow tribe had murdered his pregnant wife and burned their cabin to the ground. That was a mistake — on the part of the Crow.

John Johnson exploded into a vengeful rage of murder, mutilation, and cannibalism that is said to have lasted nearly 20 years and taken the lives of 300 Crow tribesman.

Johnson hunted Crow warriors relentlessly, littering the Rocky Mountains with gore and corpses. He scalped his victims and ate their livers as a direct insult to the tribe’s belief that the organ was sacrosanct. Hence the origin of his nickname: Liver-Eating Johnson.

At one point, Blackfoot Indians captured Johnson and threatened to sell him to the Crow. One-man Crow-murdering machine Johnson, however, quickly slaughtered his guard, cut off the Blackfoot’s leg, and escaped into the woods, sustaining himself by continuing to munch on the severed limb.

"Jeremiah Johnson" movie poster

“Jeremiah Johnson” movie poster

Following an 1864 Union Army stint in the Civil War, Johnson returned to the Rockies and made peace with the Crow, ultimately calling them his “brothers.” Late in his life, Johnson served as a deputy sheriff in several Western towns. He died in a Santa Monica veteran’s hospital in 1900.

The popular 1972 western film Jeremiah Johnson stars Robert Redford as a fictionalized version of the Crow killer, minus any explicit liver eating


Boone Helm was a confirmed murderer and apparent madman even before he headed west during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Along the way, Helm apparently got a real taste — in every sense — for serial murder, killing and robbing friends and strangers alike, including his original traveling partner.

Once he arrived in California, then, Helm didn’t waste his time digging for treasure; instead, he killed prospectors and miners and made off with their bounties.

Cover of "The Cannibal Boone Helm: Idaho-Utah 1858-1860" by Tom McDevitt

Cover of “The Cannibal Boone Helm: Idaho-Utah 1858-1860” by Tom McDevitt

With both the law and vigilante justice on his trail, Helm hooked up with an outlaw gang. To them, he reportedly boasted of eating his murder victims, saying: “Many’s the poor devil I’ve killed, at one time or another … and the time has been that I’ve been obliged to feed on some of ’em.”

After an 1853 snowstorm in Oregon killed the gang members one-by-one, Helm carved up the body of the last to die and carried the meat with him to sustain his travels.

From there, Helm murdered a rancher who took him in, robbed and killed an unknown amount of travelers, and fatefully shot down a popular unarmed local named Dutch Fred in an Oregon saloon. He and another criminal fled the scene. While on the lam, Helm killed and consumed his companion.

Helm eventually got caught and tried twice. The first time, he paid off jurors and was let go, whereupon he continued serial slaying. Finally, a group tellingly called the Montana Vigilantes captured Helm and his gang members. After a secret trial, all were sentenced to hang.

While standing on a box with a noose around his neck, Helm is said to have beaten his executioner to the punch by yelling, “Every man has his principles! Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Let ’er rip!” and jumping forward to his death. It’s unlikely that anyone missed him.

Read more:
Mental Floss
Eccentric Shadows
John Liver Eating Johnson
Los Angeles Times
Legends of America
True West

Main photo: Robert Carlyle in Ravenous (1999), publicity photo



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