Unmasking Colorado’s cannibals and cowboy outlaws
Ryan Summerlin January 25, 2007
Summit County CO ColoradoWhen I’m around snow-capped mountains, the first thing I want to do is jump into the car and head on over to an alligator farm, yes siree.And because Ilive in Colorado, this is possible – thanks to the Colorado Gators farm in Mosca, just a stone’s throw from Alamosa. There, at an altitude of 7,500 feet, you can watch the alligators sunbathing in the snow and, I suppose, wondering why the heck they left Florida – although by all accounts, they seem to like it here.In a world that’s seemingly become more and more devoid of a sense of humor, that’s what I like about Colorado: its predilection for the eccentric anomaly – which is a term used in astronomy but I’m stealing it for my own purposes here. In other words, we view the planet from a different angle. We embrace the unexpected. And outside of the realm of stark reality – represented here by banks of snow-covered alligators and fruitcake-toss festivals (in Manitou Springs last week) – Coloradans celebrate urban legends like no one else.
Colorado’s most beloved man-eaterFor instance, if you didn’t graduate from a Colorado college, you might not know that the student cafeteria at CU in Boulder is known as the “Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill,” named after America’s most famous -and Colorado’s most beloved – cannibal.Packer 101 history claims that in 1873, he was snowbound in the San Juan Mountains along with five other prospectors. Packer showed up back in town 65 days later – not starved and emaciated, but rather looking like a healthy candidate for Weight Watchers. This, understandably in a small town with little else to talk about, raised eyebrows.Packer was tried, convicted of eating his colleagues (which he denied doing), and sentenced to hang. But after a few years of prison life he escaped to Cheyenne (where they found him, because everybody and their dog hid out in Cheyenne in those days) and was retried. This time he was given a sentence of 40 years, later shortened by an early parole, presumably because he wasn’t caught eating any of his fellow inmates. Whether or not he worked in the prison kitchen isn’t mentioned.According to colorful Colorado history, at the sentencing, the judge roared, “Packer, you depraved Republican son of a b****! There were only five Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate them all!”That’s not actually what the judge said – unless you live in Colorado. And to be honest, modern forensic evidence shows that Packer didn’t really kill his confreres. He may have chowed down on them a bit, but it was after the fact, if you know what I mean. But in Colorado, he did it. Like the old Alka-Seltzer commercial, he ate the whole thing. Because of course, if he didn’t, they’d have to change the name of the student cafeteria at CU and South Park co-creator Trey Parker couldn’t have written “Cannibal! The Musical!”
Uncovering the real John Wilkes BoothAnd because I live in Colorado, every week my mother calls me up on the phone and asks “Have you found out about John Wilkes Booth yet?” Seems that a lot of people believe that he escaped and lived out his life in Leadville, where he was buried just a little ways from Buffalo Bill’s old pardner, Texas Jack (who survived territorial wars and buffalo hunts but succumbed to the cold weather at 10,200 feet). And yes, there IS a grave marked John Wilkes Booth in the old Leadville Evergreen cemetery. The Leadville JWB, according to accounts, claimed that he was a nephew of the real one. Turns out that the real JWB didn’t have any nephews; his sister didn’t dare name her children after him (nor did anybody else in the country) and it does seem bizarre that anyone at the time would have even wanted to claim kin with Lincoln’s assassin. What makes it even spookier is that, according to a Leadville historian I spoke with, not one of the “facts” in the Leadville JWB’s newspaper obituary turned out to be true. His date of birth, his biography – these were all made up, but by whom? To this day, the story goes that the real Booth descendants won’t let their Leadville “relative” be exhumed and examined for DNA evidence, which might answer some questions.Leadville people believe that their guy is the REAL guy – not because they approved of JWB or his horrendous deed, but because it all fits in so well with Leadville’s reputation as the number-one hideout for a true rogue’s gallery of renegades throughout history. It makes things more interesting up there. After all, Leadville is a very quiet town; you can’t blame them.
I keep telling my mother that it’s probably not the REAL John Wilkes Booth buried under there – that is, not unless you live in Leadville. In a national climate of political correctness, Colorado unashamedly celebrates its history of Wild West desperados. Here, history isn’t rewritten and whitewashed; it’s gleefully exhibited in all its gory glory – the blacker, the merrier. I mean, how many people can say that they can look out their window and see the exact spot where Doc Holliday shot his last man? What other state boasts a whorehouse museum, a coffin race, or historical markers proudly saying how many people Butch Cassidy gunned down in their town?All right, I made the last one up. But now that I mentioned it, someone will do it – mark my words.Ignoble namingSpeaking of Butch Cassidy, according to the folks at Telluride, the town was named by Butch Cassidy and his entourage after a code name they had invented for the place, “To Hell You Ride,” so-called because of the impassable mountains surrounding it. Most cities are named by public officials; but out here, our towns are named by Wild West outlaws. How cool is that?I guess I never thought that, back in my performing days when I was slouched over a microphone singing “Desperado,” I’d one day be surrounded by them.