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Cannibals of the Old West

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Just the thought of cannibalism, or the eating of human flesh, induces shudders in the living. However, most people would agree that as strong as the cultural taboo is, cases in which people ingested corpses because it was the only available food in order to survive can be forgiven (if not forgotten). The most famous example in American history is the Donner Party, a group of snowbound pioneers who may have resorted to eating their deceased members in 1846-47. On the other hand, those who murder and then eat their victims are viewed with particular horror and contempt.   

Liver-Eating Johnson

John Garrison was born around 1824 in New Jersey. After a stint in the Navy, he headed out West and learned hunting, trapping, and the art of surviving in the mountains from an older mountain man named Old John Hatcher. Garrison changed his name to Johnston around this time, although the "t" was dropped in later accounts of his life. Johnson took a wife in trade from her father, a Flathead Indian. They built a cabin in the wilderness, but when Johnson returned from a solo hunting expedition in 1847, he found the cabin had been burned and his pregnant wife had been murdered by the Crow tribe.

Johnson then set out on an almost 20-year mission to kill Crows. Bodies were found all over the Rockies, scalped and missing their livers, which Johnson ate. This is attributed by some to the mountain custom of eating the fresh liver of hunted animals, but others say it was a direct insult to the Crow, who considered the liver a sacred part of the body, necessary to enter the afterlife. Later accounts put the number of Crow killed at about 300 over the years. This included a posse of twenty men sent to capture Johnson; none of them returned to the tribe. Once, Johnson was captured by Blackfoot hunters who planned to sell him to the Crow, but Johnson not only managed to escape, he killed his guard and chopped off his leg—which he used to sustain himself on his journey home. Contemporary news of Johnson's exploits earned him the nickname Liver-eating Johnson.

Johnson left the mountains long enough to serve in the Union Army in 1864 during the Civil War, then returned to the Rockies. He then made peace with the Crow, and never ate a human liver again. He served as a deputy sheriff in two Old West towns, and died at a veterans' home in 1900. If the first part of the story sounds familiar, it's because Johnson's story was the basis of the 1972 Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson

Alferd Packer

Alferd G. Packer earned the nickname The Colorado Cannibal in 1874. He set out from Provo, Utah, with several other men in that year to look for gold in Breckenridge, Colorado. In February, six men—Israel Swan, Shannon Wilson Bell, George Noon, James Humphrey, Frank Miller, and their guide, Packer—were seen at a Ute camp in Colorado. Two months later, Packer showed up alone at the Los Pinos Indian Agency. He said the others had gone foraging for food after they were stranded by a blizzard and Packer expected them to show up at any time. Oddly, Packer did not seem hungry, nor did he ask for food. More suspicions about his story arose later when he was seen spending money freely. Packer was arrested and taken in for questioning. The tale he told then was quite different: Packer said that while they were stranded, Israel Swan (the oldest of the group) died and the others ate his body. Humphrey died next, of natural causes. Then Miller died of an undisclosed accident. Each of the bodies were eaten by the survivors. Then, according to Packer, Shannon Bell shot Noon in order to eat him. Then Bell tried to kill Packer as well, so Packer killed Bell in self-defense. Not long after telling his story, Packer escaped from jail and wasn't seen again until 1883. Meanwhile, the remains of the other prospectors were found, showing evidence of violence. However, they were all lying near each other, and their feet were bound with strips of blanket.

In 1883 Packer was again arrested and again confessed to killing Bell in self-defense, this time admitting that he took money and a rifle from the dead men. Packer was charged with murdering Israel Swan, supposedly the first of the group to die. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but the conviction was reversed on appeal. Packer was tried again for manslaughter, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years.

In 1897, Packer wrote a third confession. In this account published in the Rocky Mountain News, Shannon Bell went insane from hunger, and killed all the prospectors except Packer, who was out foraging. On his return to the camp, Packer saw what had happened and killed Bell in self-defense. He then told how he took some human flesh from the fire, which Bell had prepared, and used it to sustain himself on the journey to Los PInos. Governor Charles S. Thomas granted Packer a parole in 1901, after serving 17 years. 

The spelling of "Alferd" may not have been his name at birth. It was tattooed on his arm, and there is speculation that he changed the spelling from the original "Alfred" later in life to match the misspelled tattoo.

Boone Helm

The name of Boone Helm is passed down to us with a legend more evil than the previous two cannibals. Helm was born in Kentucky around 1828 and raised in Missouri. By the time of the California Gold Rush in 1849, Helm already had a reputation as a troublemaker, and in fact, had already murdered at least one man, and had spent some time in an insane asylum. In California, he lived by murder and thievery instead of mining, as the miners had tempting pockets of gold. Heading into the wilderness of Oregon in 1853 with a gang of fellow outlaws, they were stranded by bad weather, and one by one they died. Helm and one other survivor, named Burton, tried to reach civilization, but Burton, no longer able to travel, shot himself. Helm carved him up and took parts of Burton to eat while he traveled. Rescued by geologist and explorer John W. Powell, Helm expressed no gratitude for the help, nor did he share any of the hundreds of dollars in his pocket. Powell got off easy, however, as Helm killed two other men who took him in during separate bad times later in his life.

Helm made it to Utah, where he boasted of his exploits and made some money as a hired killer. In Oregon in 1862, he shot and killed a man named Dutch Fred, who was unarmed and made no threat to Helm. It may have been a hired hit. Helm was run out of town, and subsequently had to endure another harsh winter in the wilderness, but he survived by killing a companion and eating him. Helm was eventually tried for the killing of Dutch Fred, but witnesses refused to appear or to testify, possibly because they were paid off by Helm's wealthy brother.

Helm then teamed up with the Henry Plummer Gang, which led to his arrest with several of the gang members. He was led to the gallows on January 14, 1864, in Virginia City, Montana, in front of a crowd of 6,000 people. As the other gang members were hanged, Helm kicked the box he was standing on away, hanging himself before the executioner could get to him. And that was his final murder.    

See also:
6 Horrifying Modern Cannibals
6 More Cannibal Killers
Everything You Wanted to Know About Cannibalism But Were Afraid to Ask

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entertainment
10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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