A Mystery Novel
“On a spring day in 1874, a reporter for Harper’s Weekly traveling with a surveying party on a wilderness road through a remote mountain valley in Colorado’s San Juan mountains, wandered onto an abandoned campsite where he found the mutilated and rotting bodies of five men. Immediately a search began for Alfred Hammit, a hapless drifter and the sole survivor of the ill-fated prospecting expedition, suspected of murdering the five men and living off their bodies during the severe winter that had trapped them. Fascinated by the compelling details of this 120-year-old case, David Walton and his friend Jack Fuller team up to reinvestigate the mysterious events surrounding the prospectors’ deaths and the two trials that led to Hammit’s conviction. Before the end of what at first seems like an academic exercise, Walton and Fuller find themselves digging up graves, trailing a suspected drug dealer through the mountains and dealing with the murder of a local mine operator. Cannibal Plateau is one of those gripping novels so easy to pick up and so difficult to put down.”
“Normally this column does not review fiction set after the end of World War I. This novel is set in 1994. However, it is about what was, for years, one of the most controversial incidents in Colorado history. The fact that the main plot of the novel is concerned not with the modern day but with the historical event brings it within the purview of The Tombstone Epitaph’s Book Bag.
“On February 9, 1874, a party of five men whose names were Bell, Humphreys, Miller, Noon, and Swan, led by a man named Alferd—that’s right, Alferd, not Alfred—Packer, left a Ute winter camp at the junction of Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers in Colorado, headed east for the mining area near Breckenridge. They carried provisions for 10 days. Sixty-five days later Packer, alone, arrived at the Los Piños Indian Agency, 75 miles from the starting point. He claimed his companions had died of cold and exposure, except for Bell, who had attacked him with an ax and whom he had been forced to shoot in self-defense. In September of 1874, the bodies of Packer’s five companions were found under circumstances that indicated they had been murdered and their flesh eaten—by Packer.
“Packer was tried and convicted—twice—of the murders, the judge in his first trial allegedly saying from the bench, ‘There wasn’t but seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you et five of ‘em.’
“To say that Packer’s trials were a mockery of the judicial process is to understate the matter by a considerable stretch. Until very recently, Packer’s innocence or guilt was a matter of heated debate in Colorado—and across much of the West—among historians and history buffs. Mock trials were held, using modern judicial processes, and Alferd Packer was found not guilty several times.
“Then somebody went out and dug up the bones and turned them over to forensic anthropologists for examination. Examination revealed that all five men had been brutally murdered by blows to the head with a sharp-edged instrument, either an axe or a heavy knife, that there was damage to their arm-bones consistent with trying to ward off the blows, and that the long bones of their bodies had been systematically stripped of flesh in a manner consistent with the removal of meat by a butcher. Somebody killed Packer’s five companions and cut the meat off their bones, and Alferd Packer was the only survivor of the party.
“This short novel rehashes the Packer story, changing the name of Alferd Packer to Alfred Hammit, but otherwise changing no part of the tale. Even the names of the original victims are kept. It also includes, as a sub-plot, an entirely unnecessary modern murder, which it is this reviewer’s opinion was included in the story to make it come up to short-novel length—it’s about 50,000 words—thereby making it long enough to justify publishing it as a book. The story is very well written, though Wise indulges the passive voice in the early chapters to the extent that my old high-school creative writing teacher, Eloise Roach, would have had his scalp on a pole. There’s also a treatise on trout fishing with dry flies early in the book which brought to mind Field & Stream’s tongue-in-cheek review of the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was finally published in the US. The reviewer stated that there was a great deal in the book about English gamekeeping practices which could possibly be of interest to Field & Stream readers, but the reviewer was forced to wade through much extraneous material in order to find it. All in all, there’s nothing particularly new about the Packer case in the book, but that doesn’t keep it from being a good evening’s read.”
—C.F. Eckhardt, “The Book Bag,” The Tombstone Epitaph