Life in the Wild West was undeniably difficult. Hardships included food shortages, illness, violence and outbuildings. If that wasn't enough to cope with, it seems cannibalism has happened with worrying frequencies.
Cannibalism is divided into different categories; aggressive, sexual, ritual and survivalist. The old West had at least three of these categories. Starting with the infamous Donner Party (spoiler alert: it wasn't a party), here are four stories about cowboy cannibalism.
Donner Party . Both first-hand reports and early journalistic efforts documented the tragic history of the Donner Party. The lively descriptions of hunger and need remain a creepy warning of the brutality of winter in the mountains. The group started from Missouri on the Oregon Trail in 1846 and chose a new route on their journey.
After the 87 pioneers in the Sierra Nevada mountains lost their wagons and most of their livestock in Nevada, the harsh winter slowed progress. They set up camp on a mountain pass and started the winter with low rations. The remaining starving cattle soon died and froze. They soon ate cooked leather and cowhide to survive.
When their companions died of malnutrition and cold, survivors ate the bodies to survive. It took three rescue attempts within three months to get the remaining 47 members of the group out of the mountains. ( Source )
Alferd Packer . Known as "Colorados Cannibals", Alferd Packer's story has become a legend of the old west. In February 1874, Packer disappeared with five prospectors as a leader in the snowy west. Two months later, Packer reached the Los Pinos Indian Agency in southwest Colorado. He carried the gold prospector knives and rifles and splashed money in the limousine even though he was driving into the mountains.
The suspicion arose from his fat figure, even though he was lost for two winter months. He was arrested, fled, and arrested again a decade later before confessing. Packer killed his companions and ate them during the two months he was snowed in the mountains. He spent 15 years in prison before receiving mercy from the governor, and died 6 years later. ( Source )
Levi Boone Helm . In 1850, Helm, the "Kentucky Cannibal," began a fourteen-year killing spree that led him west to California, south to Texas, and Montana, where he was hanged for his crimes in 1864 and held responsible for his crimes.
Runny nose is not the worst thing that Helm did to his friends. He often ate parts of the men he killed or butchered their bodies to take pieces into the wild to survive. A crowd of six thousand gathered to see him hanging. Instead of waiting for the drop, Helm decided to jump off the gallows himself. ( Source )
Liver-eating Johnson . The legend of the liver-eating Johnson begins in 1847 when crow hunters killed his wife, a member of the Flathead American Indian Tribe. Johnson vowed revenge against the crow tribe and went on a rampage. Johnson is said to have killed and scalped 300 crow men for over 25 years. According to legend, Johnson has eaten the liver because the crows believe that the liver is essential for entering the hereafter.
In a later interview, Johnson denied the liver's food and said he wiped his mouth with blood to create the illusion of cannibalism. He later made peace with the crow and became a deputy sheriff in Montana before retiring to California. ( source )
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