Civil War Sweethearts and a Character Witness for a Cannibal

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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  This one is from my father’s unpublished memoirs regarding a bizarre family connection to America’s first convicted cannibal: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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Food, Family, and Heirloom Recipes

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Food traditions abound in our family. Both the Murphy and Roche Families gifted a love of food with celebrations. Whether the Timinski Family pickle recipe or the Roche Family sausage stuffing recipe, food remains a strong connection to happy memories.

Many years ago when I was having a bad day, my mom, in her unique, upbeat manner, offered some words of wisdom, “You should get in touch with your happy, French Canadian roots!” Mom shared stories of our ancestors, settling in Quebec in the mid-1600s. In fact, she mentioned one particularly obnoxious youth who was sent to be raised among a local Indian tribe (Is that the equivalent of boarding school on the frontier?). I also came across a lovely song book by Ann Arbor based songwriter, Kitty Donahoe, celebrating both Michigan and Canadian history through songs and stories. I even had the opportunity to see her in concert, hearing even more stories.

I was particularly drawn to her tales of the first fur trappers and their survival during the long, northern winters. Apparently, when all the food ran out and the weather was too rough to hunt wild game, many survived on beaver fat and sawdust (Yuck!). In later research, I came across another unique dish, the tourtière.

The tourtière is a meat pie, a French Canadian Christmas tradition. Scholars think the dish, dating back to Quebec in the 1600s, is named after passenger pigeons, or “tourtes,” probably the meat used in the original recipe. The tourtière can also be prepared with any meat, even fish. We have prepared the pie with venison and sweet potatoes, but our favorite remains ground pork with potatoes.

Many versions of this dish can be found on-line. In fact, regional areas across Quebec each offer an individual recipe, some shared and some secret (This reminds me of the many versions of stuffing across the United States at Thanksgiving). Each recipe is a piece of history, offering a glimpse into which ingredients were available or affordable in the various regions. More important, these recipes, handed down to each generation, contain more than food; they contain family memories from long ago, ready for the next generation.

What are some food traditions in your family? Are there any recipes worth preserving for future use? What a fabulous conversation to have with loved ones this holiday season. Thanks for reading!

Lessons from my Lithuanian Grandpa: How I Learned to Cuss

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Mike Murphy, my father-in-law, loves to share humorous stories about the family. He declares himself half-Irish and half-Lithuanian. Here is a memorable tale from the Lithuanian side:

I have lots of memories of vacations at Grandma and Grandpa Ruzgis’s farm. Most involve cousin Jerry and I. We used to get into a lot of trouble with Grandpa. I will share one fun story.

One day Jerry and I got Grandpa really pissed at us (if you can imagine him getting mad at us two little innocent boys). Anyway, we were outside doing something that really made him mad, and he started cussing at us in Lithuanian, and we just laughed at him. He went over to the granary and picked up this big stick and started to chase us, cussing Lithuanian all the way (and he could run faster than we thought). Jerry was in front of me, and I was right behind and Grandpa was right on my tail. We ran toward the barn and across the barnyard, and I tripped and fell. Fortunately, Grandpa fell right behind me, but the big stick hit me right across the rear end.

I was up before Gramps and ran toward the barn where Jerry had the front door open for me. We went into the barn with Grandpa still in hot pursuit. We headed to the side door, opened it and locked it from the outside while Grandpa was still inside. We then went around to the front door, and saw him heading toward us again, slammed the door shut and locked him inside the barn. By this time he was furious and his cussing was at a screaming feverous pitch. There was no way we were going to let him out. So, what to do?? Well, we went to the house and did the only sensible thing we could do. We got Grandma and told her. Jerry and I hid upstairs while Grandma let him out of the barn. I don’t know what she said to him, but they had a heated conversation in Lithuanian, and Grandpa never said any more to us.

Commentary from Aunt Carol: That old barn was just that…..an old barn with one large room for the cattle stalls for milking, hay/straw strewn around for the cow. Had to be cleaned every day, but none the less, it was smelly! The other half of the barn was a stall for the work horses and piles of hay. Certainly not a pleasant place to be locked in!

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

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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.

They’re Crusin’ Like It’s 1909…

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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.