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  This one is from my father’s unpublished memoirs regarding a bizarre family connection to America’s first convicted cannibal: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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The Amtrak Chronicles

Last fall, I spent a great deal of time with my mom, helping her settle in after some health issues. She has been sharing stories surrounding the years she took care of Grandma. When Grandma became ill, Mom was determined to keep her from entering a nursing home. Creating a unique arrangement with Uncle Jerry, Mom would take care of Grandma for two weeks if Jerry would take the other two weeks. So began her monthly visits, traveling from Battle Creek to Denver by train. Mom found purchasing a seat on the train (not a sleeper) an economical way to travel the country on a regular basis. Over the seven years, she met some interesting people along the way and began to record her stories. Here is one story from what Mom fondly refers to as “The Amtrak Chronicles”:

…One incident began with an extremely unpleasant confrontation with a conductor when he made me change seats in the middle of the night. I suspected that I bore a close resemblance to his ex wife, the one who had taken him to the cleaners in the divorce. His sleepy yet barbed remark that he was on me like “flies on a gut wagon” also probably didn’t endear him to me.

Later, I found myself in the lower section of coach where everyone had two seats. There were two women and four men in the car. Sometime around 2 a.m. after a quick stop in western Nebraska, my “favorite” conductor walked in with a new passenger. My new traveling companion was a man of Mexican descent in tattered tennis shoes and clean but ragged clothing. Being so early in the morning, I nodded a quick hello and tried to sleep a bit more.

Sleeping upright on a moving train is very uncomfortable when the passage of time seems to slow down to its neck cricking, back stiffening, bone tightening, dry mouth misery. The agony of the clock standing still as the train flies through the darkness. The occasional sound of bells and flashing lights reaching out from an empty crossing. The occasional light of a far-off farm house shining out alone in the night. The occasional snore or breathing of someone near you. The smells of coffee, pop and junk food meld with the combined fatigue of all. That wrinkled tired unkempt feeling of unwashed, unbrushed being.

This is the scene into which my new seat partner and I were settled. A sense of uneasiness, some moments of sleep, a stiff neck, a little stretch. Then on the horizon, some cracks of light and the start of conversation. Where are you going? Denver–so am I. You were raised in Denver, so was I. Where did you go to high school? I dropped out of West. Oh, I went to North and Holy Family. Where did you go to grade school– Oh, you probably never heard of it, the little school on Santa Fe Drive. What a small world. We were there at the same time!

Although we were the same age, he was put in third grade. Just coming from Mexico, he didn’t speak English. We reminisced over cups of day-old train coffee. I remembered my wonderful principal who taught the young ladies to hang upside down on the monkey bars (with modesty). He remembered a nice boy in his class. He thought his name was Jerry. Jerry was my little brother. So as the creeping fingers of dawn created a gorgeous sunrise, we rolled into eastern Colorado, rekindling fond memories of the little grade school on Santa Fe Drive. I don’t think it was the scene the conductor envisioned.

momanddad-1

June Bernard Roche was born in Brooklyn, NY, during the depression and spent her early years growing up in Pennsylvania on the campus of Lafayette College. Ironically, she was to live on college campuses for nearly forty years. In 1955, she married George Roche III. They lived in Virginia and Florida while George completed his years of service in the Marines. Later, June taught high school French while George completed his Ph.D at CU Boulder.

They moved to New York in 1965 when George was named Director of Seminars at FEE, the Foundation for Economic Education. June taught French at Dobbs Ferry High School. In 1971, they moved to Hillsdale, MI, where George became the President of Hillsdale College. In June’s words, “We were at Hillsdale until 1999, and we worked very hard to make the college the best institution possible. Since 1999, I’ve dealt with cancer, much memorable travel with family and friends, open heart surgery, the joys of grandchildren and now my first great-granddaughter, and learned how to deal with the winds of change that buffet our lives.”

They’re Crusin’ Like It’s 1909…

steere photo

I was looking through my Aunt Gladys’ memoirs and came across this story written by her husband, Uncle Steere du Montfort Mathew, sharing the small joys of friendship with the boy who owned the only car in the neighborhood and his enthusiasm for the chance of a weekend ride. While no date was provided on the papers, I think the story took place between 1909-1913:

During the warm weather, Saturdays in my home town were always eventful. Chester, the boy next door, owned a steam automobile which he had won in a prize contest conducted by a grocery store in Denver, and on Saturdays the lucky lad who stood in well with Chester was invited to go for a ride in this chariot. Of course, Chester couldn’t run it himself, but his father, who fortunately worked only at night, would be the chauffeur.


A ride in this car was an adventurous journey. In the first place, you didn’t just get in, step on the starter and roll away. First of all, the car had to be pushed out of the shed into the back yard, usually with the help of half a dozen of us boys. Chester didn’t have to help; he was boss. In the daylight, the car, at first glance, looked something like a baby buggy. It had lovely carving dashboards at the front and back. The seats for four passengers were exactly in the middle of the car. Those in the front seat looked forward and those in the back seat saw the scenery receding in the distance.

 
The driver steered with a shiny gracefully curved tiller, and he governed the speed with a round valve handle. His attention was not diverted with speedometers, thermometers, ammeters and all those other gadgets found on modern cars. His only encumbrances were a foot brake and a pump handle conveniently located near his right hand so that he could keep the boiler full especially when going up a hill. All he had to look at occasionally was a vertical glass tube which showed the amount of water in the boiler. A string was tied around the glass at the point which showed that the water was getting dangerously low. When the water reacher this point, the pump was vigorously employed.

 
This was a car. But it still had to be started. That operation required just about three hours. First of all, the garden hose was attached to the boiler, and while it was filling with water, Chester’s father went over the machinery with an oily rag and an oil can. During the filling period, one of us was dispatched to the grocery store for some gasoline. Sometimes the narrow tires on the slender spoked wheels had to be pumped up. This was an honor eagerly sought after by each of us.

 
At last, the boiler was full of water, the tank was full of gasoline, the tires were full of air and the machinery was full of oil. Now to light the burner. This was a job that Chester’s father kept for himself. He usually used a long thin piece of wood in place of a match so that his fingers wouldn’t get scorched in case some gasoline had leaked from the burner.

 
Soon it was alight.

 
Waiting for the steam pressure to rise to the proper height was an interminable period. However, I could follow operations from the window in my kitchen so I went in and had a good lunch which helped to kill the time. Finally, when the suspense was practically unbearable, the automobile was ready to go. That is after the car was maneuvered into the alley party by steam and partly by boy power.

 
Most of the time, level roads were chosen for the trip but who knew just how far we might explore. One day we even went way over to North Denver. Just think! A twelve mile journey up and down hills. That was the day that I was chosen as one of the elect.

 
Then all aboard. Had we the parasols for the ladies, and the bucket of sand to put out the fire which usually started when a long hill was to be climbed? We puffed away and the thrill of looking down from the lofty seat at the swiftly receding ground; the gasps of admiration when we whizzed by a slowly plodding horse; that was the very essence of adventure.
When we went up that long hill with me pushing and the ladies walking alongside and encouraging me, I scorned the forgotten sand in the bucket and scooped it up from the road and threw it on the fire. The return trip, over the same route, was just as much fun except that it was down hill and I felt the adventure was ending too soon.

 
Then home at last. With reluctant feet I clambered down from my magic carpet. The car which moved so easily under the urge of six or a dozen boys now felt like a big freight car and was an almost immovable object which had to be pushed into the back yard again. It was not the simple flip of a switch that ended the business with the car for the day earlier. The fire was turned off and any gasoline remaining was drained into a jug and saved for cleaning. But there was still one more thrill. A hose was connected to the boiler and run through a hole in the fence into the alley. The blow-off valve was opened and with a thunderous roar the escaping steam hid the sunset.

 

 

The roar soon tapered off to a whisper and with the silence which followed came the realization that for another week at least I would have to seek my adventures on foot.

 

 

I asked my mom to write a bit about Uncle Steere:

Steere de Montfort Mathew-Every once in awhile, one meets a person who is so genuinely nice and giving. These are the qualities that characterized our Uncle Steere. Born in 1896 in Denver, Colorado, his father had come to America as a park planner, having been educated in his native England. Steere graduated from East Denver High School in 1913 and went on to the University of Colorado where he earned a degree in the newer field of electrical engineering and belonged to Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
After graduation he married Gladys Hagee, a fellow student at Boulder. He worked tirelessly to support her career in opera, and he became involved in all sorts of offstage projects in the New York Opera Community, as well as being one of the founders of New York Community Opera.
Steere’s electrical engineering background led to a career in radio, which eventually brought him to NBC. He was one of the pioneers of radio and a central figure in the first transcontinental radio broadcast. Upon retirement, he devoted much of his time to developing community opera in New York until his passing in 1966.