Alfred Packer, A Man Who Liked to Eat

June 29, 2008 6:33 PM

Part of my Old Songs project: An uptempo country ditty from 2004 about a Colorado cannibal, and, later, Astro Zombies neighbor in New Orleans' French Quarter.

IN 2002, alongside working as a theater critic at City Pages in Minneapolis, I had somehow also managed to get myself a job as arts editor at the University of Minnesota's student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily. I was in my early 30s at the time, which made me about a decade older than most of the people I worked with, and I came into the job having already been editor-in-chief of a newsweekly in Omaha, so I was absurdly overqualified for the job. The rest of the paper seemed to view me as an amusing curiosity, and they let me write and assign pretty much anything I wanted to, and I took advantage of that to indulge in writing stories that amused me, but might not interest anyone else. I must have read about Alfred (sometimes spelled "Alferd") Packer, the Colorado Cannibal, during this time, because I got it into my head I would write a little bit of newspaper doggerel about the man, and so I did.

The next part of this story is sort of hard to explain, but I shall do my best. Walking along Lake Street in south Minneapolis, I passed a saddle and tack shop called Schatzlein's. Out of curiosity I wandered in, and there beheld a glorious red cowboy shirt emblazoned with gold musical notes. I put off buying it for a week, and then decided I must have it. Soon, I had bought myself two reproduction Colt revolvers and a leather belt, and taught myself how to twirl the guns like a movie cowboy. Then I taught myself how to yodel. A few months after purchasing the shirt, I had remade myself as a singing cowboy, and, when I moved back to Omaha during that time, I began to perform in this role at a local theater. That's just how things sometimes happen with me, and is why I must be very cautious when I go into new stores.

While I was doing my singing cowboy show, I got it into my head that I might turn my Alfred Packer poem into a song, and I did. Now that I listen to it, I realize that I borrowed some of the melody from "Song of the Cane Toad," which I had written more than a decade earlier, but, considering the subject of the song, a little bit of musical cannibalism seems appropriate.

There is a strange coda to this odd little tale. After I lived in Omaha, I moved to New Orleans, and while I was there I visited the Ripley's Museum in the French Quarter, just a few blocks from my apartment. While wandering through the museum, I spied a preserved human head in a case, and I went to examine it. It was Alfred Packer's head. I was flabbergasted. I had not known that Packer's head had been taken from his body, and nothing I read had mentioned the fact either. I contacted the museum, but they weren't sure quite how or when Robert Ripley had come into possession of the head. I visited the head often when I lived in the quarter, and stared at the thing's tiny teeth, which had once chewed the bodies of Packer's travel companions and inspired my song. I occasionally ran into, and even worked for, celebrities while I was in the Quarter, but Alfred Packer's severed head was the only thing that really felt like a celebrity, and was the only one who really impressed.


Israel Swan he was a rugged trapping man
Until Alfred Packer cooked him in an iron frying pan
And few was tougher than Shannon Wilson Bell
Tough as salted leather; Packer salted this man well
Then there was Frank Miller, then there was George Noon
Packer et Frank with a fork and he et George with a spoon
And James Humphrey was the last one from Utah
And Packer's ax and mouth was the last thing Humphrey saw
There was six men started out with Packer as their guide
And Packer he came back with the other five inside
Packer couldn't lead a party and he couldn't hunt no meat
But give him an ax and a skillet and packer he could eat

Colorado folks wanted to give his neck a stretch
They gather at Lake City and said let us hang the wretch
Melville shook his gavel at Packer's matted head
And said "Hang him by the neck until he is dead, dead, dead"
But Packer pled his case and the Supreme Court set him free
O is it a crime for a man to eat when he is hungary
He was a cannibal and a murderer and a son of a wretched gun
But given an ax and an appetite, you might do what Packer done
There was six men started out with Packer as their guide
And Packer he came back with the other five inside
Packer couldn't lead a party and he couldn't hunt no meat
But give him an ax and a skillet and packer he could eat

posted by Astro Zombie (2 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:06 AM on June 30, 2008

Heh, nice story. I learned about Alferd from The Alferd Packer Memorial String Band in Lawrence, (locally) famous for playing the post office every tax day.

Nice song.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:52 AM on July 1, 2008

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