Cannibals of the Old West

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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S-Town Podcast Is Being Turned Into a Movie

S-Town, a seven-part podcast from Serial and This American Life, has all the trappings of a binge-worthy story. It all started when a man from the tiny town of Woodstock, Alabama asked a reporter to investigate a local man from a wealthy family who allegedly boasted he had gotten away with murder.

As for what happens next, “someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man's life,” reads the 2017 podcast’s synopsis, without giving too much away.

Now, that riveting story is being turned into a movie with This American Life’s participation, IndieWire reports. Participant Media acquired the rights to the S-Town podcast, and negotiations are underway to get playwright Samuel Hunter and director Tom McCarthy on board. McCarthy is perhaps best known for directing and co-writing 2015's Oscar-winning Spotlight; he also co-wrote Up and was an executive producer and director for the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

S-Town was downloaded over 10 million times over a period of four days after its release, and it received a Peabody Award for the radio/podcast category, according to IndieWire. Just last month, HBO and Sky announced they would be releasing a documentary series about Adnan Syed, the focus of the first season of the Serial podcast, which is developed by This American Life.

In case you missed S-Town when it premiered, you can go back and listen to it here.

[h/t IndieWire]

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15 Facts About The Staircase, Netflix’s New True Crime Docuseries
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At 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina-based novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911 to report an accident. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down a flight of stairs and was unconscious, but still breathing, in a massive pool of her own blood. Michael, who claimed he had been sitting out by the pool, was not sure how it had happened—he just knew that he needed help. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. But the police weren’t convinced that Kathleen had fallen, or that her death was an accident at all.

Within two weeks, Michael Peterson would be indicted for the murder of his wife, and the case—which stretched on through 2017—only got stranger from there.

There’s not a lot one can say about The Staircase without giving too much away. So if you’ve yet to watch all 13 episodes of the compelling docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bookmark this page and come back once you have. For those of you who have powered through it all and are thirsting for more details on the case, read on.

1. IT’S NEW TO NETFLIX, BUT IT ORIGINALLY PREMIERED IN 2004.

If you had a sense of déjà vu while watching The Staircase, it could very well be because you’ve seen it before—at least most of it. A truncated, two-hour version of the miniseries, which is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, first premiered on Primetime Thursday in the summer of 2004. The completed docuseries made its television premiere one year later, first in England and then in America (on the Sundance Channel). In 2012, de Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up that continued the story. Netflix’s rendition includes all 10 of the original episodes, plus three brand-new ones, which follow some more recent developments in the case.

2. FILMING BEGAN SHORTLY AFTER MICHAEL PETERSON WAS INDICTED.

In 2001, de Lestrade directed the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, which highlighted the case of Brenton Butler, a black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, Florida. De Lestrade was on the lookout for his next project, and he had a very specific idea for his follow-up: another documentary that would dissect the American criminal justice system, but this time from the perspective of a white defendant who could afford a top-notch legal team. De Lestrade told The Ringer that he and his team spent five months reviewing about 300 cases, which is how they found Michael Peterson. (That both Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to offer the filmmakers unfettered access to their preparations for the trial was obviously a bonus.)

But de Lestrade had a feeling that there was something unusual about Peterson’s case that would make for a compelling story. “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade said. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.” Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife on December 21, 2001; shooting on the series began shortly thereafter.

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A TWO-HOUR DOCUMENTARY.

Though de Lestrade knew that there was something different about Peterson’s case, even he couldn’t imagine the number of turns it would take over the next 15-plus years. It didn’t take long for the director to realize that his original plan to make a two-hour documentary on the case would barely even scratch the surface.

“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be,” de Lestrade told Metro. “Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.” Fortunately, the film’s distributors were receptive to the idea of a miniseries.

4. JEAN-XAVIER DE LESTRADE VOWED TO NEVER MAKE ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST SEGMENT.

Michael Peterson in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Reflecting on The Staircase and Michael Peterson’s case for The Daily Beast in 2013, de Lestrade revealed that he never intended to come back to the story once the original series was in the can. “When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film,” he wrote. “I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.”

5. DE LESTRADE HAS NEVER STEPPED AWAY FROM THE STORY.

Though de Lestrade has worked on a handful of other projects since The Staircase’s original release, he has never stopped working on the project since he first began filming in 2002. When asked by Metro what it felt like to “return” to the project, the director was quick to make it clear that, “I never quit The Staircase. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character. It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”

6. FOR DE LESTRADE, IT WASN’T ABOUT PROVING PETERSON’S GUILT OR INNOCENCE.

In April 2018, Netflix’s three new episodes of The Staircase premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the screening, de Lestrade held a Q&A in which he explained that determining Peterson’s innocence—or guilt—was never part of his grand plan for the film. “The purpose has never been to look for the truth,” he said. “Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”

7. BUT FOR THE RECORD: DE LESTRADE DOESN’T BELIEVE THAT PETERSON IS GUILTY.

Though de Lestrade wasn’t looking to uncover the truth about Peterson's guilt or innocence, he did form an opinion: He does not believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife. “We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened,” de Lestrade told the Tribeca Film Festival audience. “We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand.”

8. THE CASE HAS BEEN A FRUSTRATING ONE FOR THE DIRECTOR.

The Peterson family in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Writing for The Daily Beast, de Lestrade admitted that the long road—and contradictory evidence—that has been presented throughout Peterson's seemingly endless legal battles has been difficult to reconcile at times:

“It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.”

9. AS BIZARRE AS THE “OWL THEORY” SEEMS, MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN ITS PLAUSIBILITY.

The Staircase puts forth a number of possible theories about what could have caused Kathleen Peterson’s death, the most bizarre one being that she was attacked by an owl. More specifically: that an owl got tangled in her hair and, in an attempt to extricate itself, ending up causing her death. It may sound strange, but the autopsy report did note that Kathleen had pine needles stuck to one of her hands, clumps of her own hair in both hands, and a few small feathers entangled in one of those clumps.

“When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Mary Jude Darrow, Peterson’s attorney, told Audubon in 2016. “But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.” Several animal experts agreed in the theory's plausibility, as did the film’s director … eventually.

“At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution,” de Lestrade wrote. “Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory. Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, ‘These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.’”

The idea, according to that same surgeon, is that the owl attack happened outside the house, which led to Kathleen fainting, “most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”

10. PETERSON CALLS ACCEPTING AN ALFORD PLEA “THE MOST DIFFICULT DECISION” HE HAS EVER MADE.

Given that the newest installments of The Staircase involve Peterson entering an Alford plea (a plea deal in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) to the charge of voluntary manslaughter, and walking free, it’s doubtful we’ll see new episodes of the series. But Peterson told Dateline’s Dennis Murphy that entering that plea was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life … And I’m talking, you know, joining the Marines, anything I did in my life, this was the most difficult decision I made. And I did it because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to live through that trial and listen to all of those lies and perjuries, the nonsense.”

11. THE DOCUMENTARY’S EDITOR BEGAN A RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL PETERSON.

Though the documentary is full shocking moments and revelations, one of the most surprising events happened off-screen: During the course of production, The Staircase editor Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson fell in love. “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years,” de Lestrade told L’Express. “Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

12. IT'S TAUGHT IN LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOMS.

Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in 'The Staircase (2018)
Netflix

Thomas B. Metzloff, a law professor at Duke University who was one of Michael and Kathleen’s neighbors at the time of her death, told The News & Observer that The Staircase is required viewing for his students—though he disagrees with the documentary’s suggestion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

“I don't think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of 'Oh, my gosh, here's an innocent man who is being victimized,'” he said. “Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of [SBI blood expert] Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”

13. IT HAS A LINK TO MAKING A MURDERER.

The Staircase has a coincidental link to Netflix’s first big true crime docuseries hit: Rudolf was the UNC clinical law professor of Jerry Buting who, along with Dean Strang, defended Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.

14. A PSYCHIC PURCHASED THE PETERSON HOME FOR $1.3 MILLION IN 2008.

Michael Peterson no longer lives in the Durham home he shared with his late wife Kathleen; it has passed through two owners since first being sold for $640,000 in 2004. The second, and current, owner is a psychic named Biond Fury, who said he had no knowledge of Peterson’s trial or the home’s history. According to WRAL, “he was attracted to the house because of its architecture and layout.”

15. NBC'S TRIAL & ERROR IS A PARODY OF THE STAIRCASE.

Anyone who has watched NBC’s Trial & Error, starring John Lithgow, has likely noticed the many nods to The Staircase in the mockumentary sitcom (there was even a reference to the owl theory).

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros … a documentary called The Staircase was going around,” Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof said at the 2017 Television Critics Association. “And I remember I watched it with my wife—and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work—[but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”

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