As generations of schoolchildren were told, Jamestown in 1607 was the first permanent English settlement on what would become the United States. What we learned last week is that those English settlers, confronted by the most severe drought in eight centuries and unfriendly natives, resorted to the most extreme measures to keep from starving to death during the winter of 1609-1610.
They were forced to eat mice, snakes, their own dogs and cats. And Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist (bet you don’t have one in your carpool, either) at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, after examining the partial skull and jawbone of a 14-year-old English girl found in a trash pile at Jamestown, concluded, “It’s clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”
There you have it: In 17th-century Virginia, some “undocumented immigrants” from England actually brought cannibalism to the New World. Just one more argument from history, the prominent talk-show host might point out, for tougher U.S. immigration laws.
Up to now, the only celebrated American cannibal has been Alferd E. Packer, for whom the students of the University of Colorado in 1968 imaginatively voted to name their new student grill. The slogan for the Alferd E. Packer Grill on the Boulder campus is, “Have a friend for lunch.”
Here are the facts as best we know them. Packer was born in Pennsylvania in 1842 and enlisted in early 1862 in Company F, 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War. After eight months, he was discharged because of epilepsy. Not to be denied, he enlisted again the next year in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment, and in April 1864 Packer was again discharged, this time in Cleveland, Tenn., because of his epilepsy.
He went west looking for gold. By the winter of 1873, Packer had sold his services as a guide for a group of 21 in Utah who wanted to go prospecting in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Warned by friendly Chief Ouray, who provided the party with food and shelter, that the brutal winter weather meant they had better postpone their trip until spring, most of the group did just that. But on Feb. 9, Packer and five others — Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, George “California” Noon and Israel Swan — ignored the advice and set off for Gunnison, Colo., and their fortunes.
This group, led by Packer, was assumed to have been lost until later in the spring, when Packer emerged, explaining that the other five had deserted him when he fell ill. His story, which was never fixed, changed after an investigation indicated that Packer had almost certainly killed and certainly eaten his five companions. He was charged with five murders, and then took place what old-timers around newsrooms call “a story too good to check out,” which just means a narrative so colorful and so perfect that you’d rather not question too closely its authenticity.
Packer, who signed a confession in August, was, legend has it, told by Judge M.B. Gerry: “Stand up, you voracious man-eating son-of-a-bitch. When you came to Hinsdale County, there were seven Democrats, but you ate five of them.”
That, Dear Readers, is a quote “too good to check.” Of course, cold-water-tossing scholars now insist that the judge did not speak those words. But the news from Jamestown recalls Alferd E. Packer, who, yes, was convicted not of cannibalism but of manslaughter — but who may well have had five Democrats for dinner.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.