Civil War Sweethearts and a Character Witness for a Cannibal

Alferd_Packer

 

Once or twice a year, I like to share an earlier, memorable post.  This one is from my father’s unpublished memoirs regarding a bizarre family connection to America’s first convicted cannibal:

…My dad’s family roots were Irish on his father’s side and Scots-Irish and Welsh on his mother’s side. The Roche’s were Baltimore Catholics from County Cork, following the 19th Century lure to the “land of opportunity.” The next generation, my Great Grandfather Roche came to Denver as a young man, following the lure of the West. My Great Grandmother Roche was quite a character. She had been a former girlfriend of General Lew Wallace, Civil War leader, governor of the New Mexico Territory and author of Ben Hur. From all family reports, Great Grandfather Roche remained jealous of Lew Wallace for his entire married life. The colorful General Wallace was a frequent cause of controversy at the Roche dinner table.

Your colorful Great Grandmother Roche had another claim to fame as well. In the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado during the rush of silver and gold strikes in the 1870s, a party of five miners and their guide, Alferd Packer, were trapped in a crushing blizzard and were not seen again that winter. The next spring, Packer walked out of the mountains, alone.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Packer had survived the winter in a cave, where he had killed and eaten the five prospectors. At the trial, the judge, in his summary to the jury, addressed Packer, “There were only seven Democrats in Huerfano County, and damn you, Alferd Packer, you ate five of them!” That summation to the jury became the basis for an appeal and second trial some years later. Packer was already a confessed murderer and cannibal, so the second trial revolved around questions of Packer’s character.

In the famous second trial, a case watched closely across the country and especially closely in Colorado where the trial occurred, his attorney’s defense was based on finding anyone who had known Packer during his life and had a positive comment to make. Great Grandmother Roche had grown up in the same Pennsylvania town as Packer and had known him as a boy. There was nearly a divorce in the family when Great Grandfather Roche discovered that his wife was to testify as a character witness for America’s only convicted cannibal. My Grandfather Roche would seldom mention these stories and when he did, it was always said with a pronounced sigh.

Today, you can see a plaque at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s cafeteria, fondly named by the student body in the 60s, “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill.”

Thanks for reading!

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