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  This one is from my father’s unpublished memoirs regarding a bizarre family connection to America’s first convicted cannibal: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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A New Year’s Gift

Dear Readers,

As many of you know, this past fall was filled with challenge and loss. Losing a parent is a path we all must walk. On Mom’s final day, we moved to a private room where music played frequently. Sometimes my phone played Thais, Barber, or Chopin. Other times, I would pull out my strumstick and sing songs.

A few days before, my brother shared a memory, one of Mom’s favorite songs. In the early 60s, as Dad was in Colorado earning his PhD, the family frequently had to commute via car. Mom loved listening to music during the long trips. Henry Mancini’s soundtrack to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was a favorite, especially Moon River.

I spent an evening learning the song, so I could surprise Mom. I think she liked it. In the weeks that followed, the song haunted me. However, time can heal, the days are easier, and I enjoy the beautiful music again. So friends, as this year draws to a close, think of your loved ones, enjoy them, be patient, listen, and show them you care.

Here is my New Year’s Gift to you.

Peace, Friends.

Maggie

Cadavers Need Not Apply

Grandad and family

Here is another section from my father’s memoirs. It tells the story of my grandfather (Grandad), George Roche, Jr., and the accident and recovery that shows his fighting spirit:

…During the rest of the 30s, my dad sold X-ray equipment throughout Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The family was doing well. My dad drove to doctors’ offices over a large part of the west, putting 50,000 miles a year on his cars. Coming back from a trip to the Western Slope in 1940, trying to make it home for Christmas Eve, his car slid off the road on an icy curve and turned over several times, completely crushing the top and popping out all the glass. He was able to get help in getting the car back on the road and drove 250 miles into Denver that night in a snowstorm with temperatures approaching 0, WITH NO GLASS IN THE CAR. He made it home for Christmas, but before New Year’s, we rushed him to the hospital with double lobar pneumonia. He was dying for lack of air, and the doctors offered little hope. My mother and I spent every day and half the night at the hospital, where he had been placed in what was then called the “kick-off” ward. Penicillin had not been discovered and the complete filling of the lungs with fluid was a death sentence. My dad didn’t give up and neither did we. It took six months and an operation that left a gaping hole in his back for the rest of his life, but he survived.

Our money was exhausted by mid-1941, and my dad had been told he could never work again, and his X-Ray business had ceased to exist because the government was responding to the threat of the fast-approaching war by buying 100% of all X-ray production. This began some very lean years for the three of us. My mother and I, years later in Hillsdale made a list of the places where we lived during the 1940s-50s and the lines of work which provided our living. Sitting at our table in Hillsdale, we were able to recall 26 places where we lived in that time, many during WWII–a rail yard in Salt Lake City, a Salvation Army Store in Greeley, Colorado, a malt shop on Firestone Blvd. in Los Angeles, a packinghouse in Torrington, Wyoming, a ranch near Salida, Colorado, and many rented homes and rooms in rooming houses.

We were running the Salvation Army Store in Greeley when Pearl Harbor was attacked, living in two rooms above the store which we reached by climbing the fire escape in the alley. That Sunday afternoon, my folks were frying chicken, while I, a first grader, played on the floor in the next room. I can well remember the moment when the first news came over the radio. The next day, my dad went down the street to enlist in the Navy. The Greeley recruiting depot, like similar scenes all over the country, was jammed and in total chaos. The paperwork was being processed while he took the physical. When the doctor saw my father’s chest X-ray, he yelled out the door, “All right! Cut out the grab-ass. I’m too busy for these damn jokes. Don’t show me any more chest X-rays from cadavers!”

While I never met my Grandad, I heard he was a tough, loving, family man. He did live long enough to watch his son’s inauguration as the 11th President of Hillsdale College. While I wasn’t born yet, I can assume that must have been a proud moment for him.

Civil War Sweethearts and a Character Witness for a Cannibal

Alferd_Packer

While I am not ready to share Dad’s entire memoir, I am prepared to share sections. Here is a memorable story about the Irish side of the Roche Family written by my father, George Roche III.:

…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.”

Walter Black Stewart: Cadavers, Catapults, and a Lost Piece of American History

miners in leadville

Many pieces of family history are passed down through oral tradition.  As with this story, there are no longer any family members alive; however, I have “compared notes” with the first generation to hear the tale and looked up a few historical facts.  My Great-Grandfather, Walter Black Stewart, led a very memorable life.  His tale is worth repeating.

Born in 1879 in Roslyn, Nova Scotia, (while I have no records, I would guess that he was several generations separated from the families who were sent to Canada after the Highland Clearances), he attended McGill University in Montreal, and this is where we hear of his adventures.  Walter must have enjoyed a good practical joke because on the eve of his graduation from medical school, he and his entire graduating class were expelled for building a catapult and launching the class cadaver into the dean’s back yard.  I was told that the severity of the case against them was only magnified because the dean’s wife was entertaining guests at the time.

I have no knowledge if he ever graduated, but I do know that he eventually ended up in Leadville, CO, where he married Anna Gertrude Whiting in 1905.  His medical training made him one of the unofficial physicians of the rough mining town.  His daughter (my grandmother, born in 1909) used to tell me stories about what life was like in that rough town.  Granaw remembered her father being called out in the middle of the night many times to tend the massive injuries that occurred from mining accidents.  In fact, one particularly violent night, my grandmother remembered an explosion that shook the house.  Walter just told his wife, “Take the shotgun, take the children in the back room, and do not come out until I get back.”

Walter found work as an engineer in Leadville, working with the owner of the local grocery.  Over a few drinks at the local saloon, they agreed that Walter would work for a reduced wage in exchange for a share of the profits, which they sealed with a handshake. He went to work, looking for the mother lode in the Saint Louis Mine.  Through the hard work of Walter and his mining crew, they discovered one of the largest deposits of free silver ever found in the US at the time.

My grandmother remembers the nightly entertainment when the men would gather around the dining room table and measure the day’s haul.  Granaw’s job was to sweep up the silver flakes, which she was allowed to keep.  She saved her flakes in a vial and eventually gave them to a friend who needed money.

After the miners established a routine, Walter went to his partner and explained that he was going to take his share and treat his family to a trip around the world.  The grocery owner looked at him and explained that he was just a well paid engineer, and he did not own the Saint Louis.  Producing the papers, he told Walter to get back to work.  My Great-Grandfather went back to work and for months continued making a living for his family.  He redrew maps, collapsed tunnels, and explored new veins.

One day, he visited his employer and shared these powerful words, “I found the Saint Louis, and you will never find her again, you son-of-a-bitch!”  

I don’t know much about what happened to Walter after leaving Leadville, nor do I know if the silver was ever located again within the mine.  As was common among the old miners, he did eventually succumb to miner’s lung in his 50s. While among the family he had a reputation as a stubborn, cranky Scot, I wish I had to opportunity to meet my Great-Grandfather.  In my more adventuresome moments, I also wish those Saint Louis Mine maps would turn up again.

In Search of the Elusive Rocky Mountain Orange

photo for orange blog

During this holiday season, I have been thinking about the tradition of finding oranges in Christmas stockings. While this tradition dates back as far as St. Nicholas, I wondered why it was considered such a big deal in my family. Using what I know of family history, American history, and a wee bit of logic, I began to examine the circumstances surrounding Dad’s upbringing in the Colorado mountains in the early 1940s.

While the railroad has transported oranges from California (and even Florida) to the western United States since the late 1800s, even by the 1940s, while oranges were available in most of the country, they were more difficult to locate in the remote mountain regions. In 1944, my grandparents and great-grandparents took a gamble and purchased a neglected, run down piece of property now known as the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, located in Nathrop, Colorado.

While oranges were certainly available 125 miles away in Denver and occasionally 17 miles away in Salida, my grandparents were putting any available money into rebuilding the hot springs. Also, America was still fighting the second World War. Rubber was among the many items rationed, and Grandad’s car had old tires with minimal tread. In the days before snow tires, driving the rough mountain roads with such tires was not only challenging but dangerous. A mountain storm could halt life in the mountains for days, and to preserve the life of the tires, longer trips were limited.

In addition to the remote location, my grandparent’s daily diet was also influenced by Grandad’s first job. At the old age of 14, he entered the Navy in World War I, serving as a ship’s cook. Here, he developed skills as a fry cook. Meat and potatoes were the traditional fare he served. As an adult, Grandad was less likely to serve fresh fruits and vegetables with the exception of cabbage, potatoes, and root vegetables. I think this was probably a combination of life-long cooking habits, the need for rich, hearty meals to provide fuel for a long day of labor, and the habit of purchasing staples with a longer shelf life. An orange on Christmas morning was a rare treat.

But regardless of the lack of money or the remote location, Christmas was always special. It was special because the family was together. They would open their small offerings for each other, and then gather around the fireplace and see Santa’s gifts. In the toe of each stocking, each year, without fail, was an orange. My great-grandmother would gather the oranges for a breakfast fruit salad to accompany the traditional breakfast of coffee, eggs, fried potatoes, and rainbow trout. While I only had the opportunity to spend time with my grandmother (and namesake) Margaret, stories like these help me “get to know” those who have gone before.

Thank you for reading! Nollaig Shona Dhuit!

Wishing you fruitful labors, bountiful blessings, and a healthy 2013!