It was not that many years ago Utah was being ridiculed as the fraud capital of America. But few of those 20th-century con men could hold a candle to Alferd Packer - a fast-talking swindler who not only defrauded his victims of their worldly possessions but may have actually eaten them.
It was late in 1873 when word leaked out about new gold discoveries in the San Juan area of Colorado. And like a flu virus in a day-care center, gold fever was epidemic.Preston Nutter (who would later adopt Utah as his home state and become one of the United States' largest cattle barons) was one of scores of prospectors who packed their picks and shovels to make the trip to Colorado. As Nutter's daughter, Virginia Price, would later write:
"When they (Nutter and a friend) got to Provo, they met 19 other prospectors preparing for the same trip. Winter was approaching and it is doubtful that the group would have considered going into a higher elevation before spring if the frenzy for gold had not been present to urge them on."
The frenzy for gold, as well as one Alferd Packer. Packer claimed to be well-acquainted with the Colorado country, as well as the rugged canyon country between Provo and Colorado.
"Packer was so convincing that he persuaded the group to hire him as their guide, and the party took off in the face of one of the worstwinters on record," wrote Price.
It didn't take the gold prospectors long to realize that Packer was a "whining fraud." In fact, Packer had been lost almost from the time the group had left Provo.
Upon reaching a Ute Indian reservation just across the border in western Colorado, most of the group decided to spend the rest of the winter with Chief Ouray, who predicted dire consequences should they continue into the San Juan Mountains in the dead of winter.
But Packer insisted Ouray was only out for their money and eventually persuaded five men to continue on with him. The rest, including Nutter, stayed behind.
"Nutter arrived at Los Pinos Agency, Colorado Territory, early the next spring about the same time Packer arrived in camp looking fat and flourishing," Price writes. "He also had money jingling in his pockets."
But Packer's five traveling companions were not with him, and when Nutter questioned Packer about their fate, Packer's accounts were so varied that Nutter forced Packer to return to the San Juan Mountains in search of them.
The remains of the five men were discovered the next spring after the snow had melted. Their bones had been defleshed and showed signs of butchering.
Of course, all evidence pointed at Packer, who was charged with killing and eating the men. The first trial, in which Nutter was the prosecution's chief witness, ended in a hung jury.
Packer was later convicted during a second trial and was sentenced to life in prison. He was later pardoned because of what was viewed as "sketchy evidence" used during his trial.
Packer lived out the rest of his life in Wyoming, where he died in 1907.
"There may have been some question he did it," says Roy Webb, assistant manuscripts curator of Special Collections at the University of Utah's Marriott Library. "But there was no question there was some cannibalism. It just couldn't be established who did it. The bones had been cut and flesh had been eaten."
Packer maintained he had survived the winter by eating coyotes and wild roots and that one of the other men in the group had cannibalized the others. When the cannibal came for Packer, Packer maintained, he killed the man in self-defense.