Ravenous (1999), Part II: Wendigos, Wétikos and the Colorado Cannibal

Recently, I read a review on Ravenous that pissed me off so badly, I wanted to hunt down the reviewer so I could bite him. Hard. Not because he didn’t like the movie–film reviews are, by their very nature, subjective–but because he got every single thing that was possible to get wrong…wrong. It could be that the reviewer really is that stupid, but personally, I think he pulled a Rex Reed–he had an agenda, he had his knives out and didn’t bother watching it at all. So I did what I’ve never done in my life–sent the fraud a scathing, psychologically-damaging email in which I delineated everything that was wrong with his review as well as plenty of wrongs with him, both as a reviewer and a person. Trust me, you can infer a great deal from the sloppy work of a simple mind.

One of his lesser wrongs was his claim that Ravenous is based upon the Donner Party (or as he put it, “the prairie family that got stuck in the mountains and had to eat each other”). NO. WRONG. Ravenous is most decidedly NOT about the Donner Party, in large part because unless you are the sickest, most soulless motherfucker on the planet, you can’t make even the blackest comedy about the Donner Party. Just to confirm that this idiot was entirely wrong, I forced myself to re-read a detailed account about the Donner Party. If you haven’t, trust me—it’s one of the most harrowing, gut-wrenching tragedies you’ll ever read. My humor can run pitch black, but there is not a shade of black dark enough for that sort of humor.

The Colorado Cannibal

But I am twisted enough to be shamefully amused by the story of the Colorado Cannibal (different cannibal, less tragic), who is the particular cannibal that inspired Ravenous…or more precisely, upon whom the character Colqhoun/Lieutenant Ives, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Carlyle, is based: the notorious Alferd G. Packer (not a typo, just a stupid name). I wish I could devote more than just a short blog to this freak, but I have too short of an attention span to write the entire saga of Packer, from ill-fated trek, to accusations, multiple-multiple confessions, one escape, nine years as a fugitive, two different verdicts and a surprisingly short prison sentence, all of which occurred between 1873-1899. Even now, Packer’s guilt–or, more precisely, how guilty–is still an ongoing debate, in which people posit different theories and argue about what occurred that February on a bleak, brutal peak of the San Juan Mountains. Unfortunately, some mysteries will never be solved. The one indisputable fact, however, is that in the summer of 1873, the remains of five thoroughly chomped humans were discovered…and Packer ate at least some if not all of them.

Alferd G. Packer aka Colorado Cannibal
Colquoun/Lt. Ives, fictional cannnibal, sans fancy hair flip

Again, Packer’s tale is so convoluted and detailed that I couldn’t possibly include all of the theories and all of his ever-changing confessions, both trials and the legal slickery that literally saved his neck, so I chose to use the confession which was probably the closest to the truth and which also closely follows the plot of Ravenous…and end Packer’s story when the movie plot diverges. But if you want to learn more, the extremely detailed and well-researched wiki is certainly worth the read.

Alferd G. Packer and Gold Rush Wétikos

Alfred Packer was an ex-soldier, jack-of-all trades and self-proclaimed guide. He was also a useless asshole. While chronic seizures caused his discharge from the army, it was his asshole nature that got him fired from a long line of jobs. He was described in various accounts as argumentative, obstinate, lazy, greedy, a sometime thief, pathological liar and a “whining fraud”—specifically by describing himself as a “seasoned guide” to a group of prospectors he met near Provo who were headed to the mines of Colorado. There were rumors of a major strike in Breckenridge and these men were on their way to join thousands of other self-proclaimed miners to gleefully rape the land, blow holes into the mountains, steal from their neighbors, kill their neighbors for stealing, and maybe kill themselves in their quest for precious, precious gold. Even in the midst of Manifest Destiny, marauding, greedy gold sluts were the Wétiko tutti de tutti of Wétikos.

Gold lust must have made these men lose their damn minds, because they actually thought they could just blithely stroll 400 miles via the San Juan Mountains—which is a polite way of saying the goddamn Rockies—in late November. Once Packer heard the purpose of their trip, he asked if he could go with…even though he had no supplies, no money and nothing to contribute to the group, so…but…oh he was a guide! An expert guide. And he knew exactly how to get to the mines because pfft, he’d gone there a million times, at least. Apparently, these “prospectors” weren’t at ALL familiar with Colorado terrain, because they didn’t seem to have a goddamn clue that the San Juan Mountains are approximately 12,000 feet high and brutally rugged on the best of days, and that there are no best days in late November/early December/January/February/until 400 miles ends, when nighttime temperatures can drop to -30F, or that maybe-probably they ought to at least pack a fucking coat—all of which, apparently, was the precise measure of stupid needed to believe that Packer was a world champion mountain guide. They agreed to let him tag along as the official group guide, probably thinking they were getting a bargain.

Almost immediately, they began to suspect that Packer didn’t know what the fuck he was doing or where the fuck they were going. Also, it seemed like the blameless-but-heretofore-unmentioned regular seizures would be a pretty big liability for a “seasoned guide”. And since he had no money, no supplies, no actual skills, bogarted the rations and was a lazy, argumentative dick in general, that made him pretty goddamn worthless. In no time, they were helplessly lost. Weeks later, too starving to care whether or not they got an arrow up their ass, the men stumbled onto the Ute tribal camp of Chief Ouray aka White Man’s Friend. And he was. A better name would be White Man’s Jesus, because he really did try to save these fools from their own fool selves.

Ute Chief Ouray aka “White Man’s Friend”

Chief Ouray of the Ute tribe aka White Man’s Friend and Anti-Wetiko Jesus.

The men were immediately given food and shelter and the Chief encouraged all eleven of them to stay until spring, as the weather was too severe to travel. Which was pretty goddamn generous, really; basically, Chief Ouray was the anti-Wétiko foil to their Wétiko lust for gold. And these ingrate Wétikos were convinced that while they were wasting time on frivolities like food and shelter and not having frostbite, hordes of voracious, sneaky-ass miners were hoovering up all the gold everywhere. Ouray tried to talk them out of it, said the trails would be covered in several feet of snow, that no Ute was fool enough to even think about hiking that mountain when it was damn February, so what do you think would happen to a white man? Death guaranteed, is all. But Wétikos are gonna get that gold. Finally, Chief Ouray gave the men food for their trip, no doubt muttering “…more like Friend to Dumbass White Man…”, and instructed them to for fuck’s sake at least travel parallel to the river. Just to make sure he got through their gold-addled heads, Ouray, speaking slowly and using simple words, warned them: whatever you do, don’t cut through the mountains. Because you will die. Really. Not kidding. DEATH. YOU. So…just don’t.

12,000 feet of FUCK YOU.

Packer, who had yet to get a single thing right, scoffed and said that Ouray was full of shit. The slightly smarter half of the men replied, no, Packer was full of shit and the group split up. The marginally more intelligent subgroup followed Ouray’s instructions to travel by the river. It didn’t take long before they were overtaken by relentless snow. Once their rations ran out, they wisely returned to Ouray’s camp to spend the rest of that winter glamping, eating food, not dying from exposure and, comparatively speaking, living in the lap of luxury. The remaining Darwinian-challenged five, none of whom had snow shoes or even goddamn winter clothes followed Packer, and—let’s face it—their evolutionary destiny.

Alferd Confesses…and confesses…and confesses…

Two months later, Packer, bare feet covered in rags, staggered into the Los Pinós Indian Agency with a harrowing tale of being abandoned without any supplies except a rifle and a small amount of ammunition. He claimed to have survived by eating on roots, but he looked pretty damn well-fed for somebody who ate fucking roots for two months (and if this sounds just like Swift Runner, why…yes it does). Also troubling was his sudden showy extravagance in the saloons, spending the equivalent of what would now be thousands of dollars from several different wallets. And his story kept changing with every other drunk. Soon after, the subgroup of the five smarter men arrived and called bullshit on every part of Packer’s story, especially when it was discovered he was in possession of one of the missing men’s knife. Finally, they managed to convince the head of the outpost, General Adams, to organize a search party, including Packer, to try to locate the other five. Just then, in a wildly dramatic moment, two Utes ran up, bearing long strips of “white man meat”. Packer “fainted”–probably with a loud girly exhale, like a Southern Belle with the vapors—and came to sobbing and begging for forgiveness. Sheepishly, he said, “It would not be the first time that people had been obliged to eat each other when they were hungry.”

Los Pinós Indian Agency outpost and a lot of people

Alferd confessed multiple times, all with multiple variations: the men were desperate; one man died and they dined. As they moved on, every couple of days, a man would die from exposure and exhaustion. Other times, he would claim that the other men conspired, killed and ate the weaker men until there was only Packer and a man named Bell. Bell, mad from starvation, attacked; Packer had no choice but to defend himself (and then eat him). Suspicious, the other miners and the General forced him to join the search party and show them exactly where it happened; Packer pretended to be lost and then, apropos of nothing, pulled out an enormous knife and tried to stab one of the miners. He was taken to jail, mostly to protect him from being lynched, though there wasn’t much they could charge him with because cannibalism wasn’t illegal (fun fact: it still isn’t…yet necrophilia is…which leaves me with questions I don’t want to have).

The Illustrator, the Missing Five and Alferd’s Escape

An illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar just happened to find THIS, but instead of running away on high velocity cartoon-circle legs and scream-yiking like a normal person, he calmly sketched and THEN went to the authorities.

A few months later and by freakish coincidence, an illustrator with Harper’s Bazaar came across a great big pile of thoroughly dead bodies…five, to be exact, none of them completely assembled. He immediately sketched the very definition of “grisly tableau” before contacting the authorities (goddamn media ghouls). They returned with the coroner and 20 men, including members of the Smart Subgroup Five, who confirmed that, yep, that is definitely Bell’s forearm (okay, I’m being an asshole, but how else do you identify obliterated humans? “Well, the face is kind of gone, but I’d know that hairline anywhere”?). It became pretty goddamn clear that Packer had lied again. In every one of his various confessions, Packer claimed that the men died from exposure and starvation over several days or weeks and most importantly, over miles, but all five bodies and various parts were found in a shallow pit, situated at the end of a beaten down path leading to a makeshift shelter. All five bodies showed evidence of having died violently—each had a fractured skull and multiple broken bones, received most likely from the blow of an axe. Even worse, it appeared that he hadn’t even run out of supplies. And there was a fucking deer carcass near the human carnage; local hunters confirmed that game had been plentiful that winter, which would make people-eating entirely unnecessary. Had Chief Ouray been there, maybe he could’ve explained wendigo psychosis. Psychosis or psychopathy, it was a deeply fucked-up scene—gnawed flesh, discarded brains and guts galore.

Photo credit James Starrs, from Man-Eater: the Life and Legend of an American Cannibal
Yeah, no…this is not somebody who died from exposure.

Before they galloped back to the jail, presumably to hang him, the men developed two possible theories: 1) Packer completely and thoroughly lied about his qualifications as a guide and all five men died because of his reckless incompetence or 2) Packer knew exactly what he was doing and deliberately led the men to an isolated area in order to kill, rob and ultimately eat them. This was based on the rather damning fact that had the Packer-led group descended, they would’ve been in walking distance of a city, yet for some reason, they ascended, instead. On the other hand, Packer spent the entire trip fucking up everything, but especially directions, so it is certainly plausible that he continued the trend. Whether or not he had deliberately planned on eating the men is a mystery, though in one of his many confessions, Packer confided that he regretted dropping those strips of white man’s meat because “he had grown quite fond of human flesh, and found the portion around the breasts to be especially delicious”. Wendigo psychosis…or just a matter of taste? Either way, these men—who probably spent the rest of their lives plagued by nightmares filled with gore and goulash—rushed back to the jail…only to find an empty cell.

Packer never revealed how he managed to escape, but it took them nine years before one of men the original groups of prospectors spotted him in a Cheyenne,Wyoming saloon. Then came the highly publicized, double clusterfuck of trials—a death sentence (the judge ordered that Packer “be hung by the neck until dead, dead, dead”, which cracks me up for some reason), which was overturned by an obscure technicality, so his sentence was downgraded to five counts of voluntary manslaughter. He was actually paroled after only 18 years, which seems lenient by 19th century cannibal killer standards. Legend has it that he became a vegetarian, was well-regarded in his community and loved by all children, especially Tiny Tim. In fact, Packer was better than his word. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…just kidding. Does seem like a suspiciously happy ending, though. No telling what became of Tiny Tim.

Again, I feel as if I’ve crucified this story, because the saga of Alferd G. Packer is very detailed, complex and filled with cameos of colorful people. But if you want to know more, there are plenty of sources, both serious accounts and fictional treatments—at least four non-fiction books, two horror movies, several YouTube documentaries of varying quality, about half a dozen songs and even a musical. In the world of pop culture, even a cannibalistic mass murderer can find redemption.

Damn. I was really hoping to finish Ravenous in two parts, but knowing the background of the actual cannibal upon which it was based just makes it that much better. I think. So…three parts. Part III will be a fun compare/contrast between Packer and Colquhoun/Lieutenant Ives and how their whacky Wétiko ways reflects Manifest Destiny.

One last thing–before you drift off to sleep, remember that technically, cannibalism is legal in all 50 states. Kind of puts that whole legalized marijuana debate into perspective, huh?

Fio

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