Chilling: Boone Helm, “The Kentucky Cannibal”

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Photo courtesy: Deborah Tilley
Photo courtesy: Deborah Tilley

Through the years, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has been home to some notable individuals and characters, ranging from famed statesmen such as Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln to famous celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Papa John; however, it’s hard to imagine a more infamous Kentuckian than Lincoln County’s Boone Helm.

Born in January 1828 into what was considered an honest and hardworking home, few could have imagined what the quick moving and strong as an ox young boy would grow to become.

As a teenager, Helm would goad men into fights and demonstrated a total disdain for law enforcement.

At the age of 20, Helm married a 17-year-old girl and soon fathered a daughter.  Sadly, the Helm home was anything but peaceful, as the excessive drinker would often ride his horse into the family’s house at a full gallop and then proceed to beat his wife.

According to historians, the domestic violence grew to such an extent that Lucinda petitioned the local court for a divorce and Helm’s father actually paid for the costs of the divorce.

With his family now bankrupted and his reputation ruined, Helm became enamored by tales of the California Gold Rush and set out to make his fortune beyond the Rockies.

Initially, Helm’s cousin had decided to accompany him “Out West”, however, when it came time to leave, the cousin backed out, which greatly angered Helms — so much so that he pulled out his knife and stabbed the man in the chest, instantly killing him.

Helm then headed west alone.

The brother and friends of the man he murdered pursued and captured Helm, but his antics in captivity quickly landed him in an asylum for the mentally deranged. Upon entering the asylum, Helm became taciturn and convinced his guard to take him on walks through the woods. After these walks became routine, Helm was able to take advantage of the guard’s trust, deceive him, and escape.

Helm then headed west to California. On the way, he murdered several men in various altercations, eventually committing premeditated murder. Forced to flee to avoid arrest and vigilante justice, Helm teamed up with six men with whom he confided that in his past Helm had eaten all or part of some of his murder victims. “Many’s the poor devil I’ve killed, at one time or another… and the time has been that I’ve been obliged to feed on some of ’em.” This boastful allusion is the first report of cannibalism on the part of Boone Helm.

An attack by Natives on the way to Fort Hall, Idaho, forced Helm and his party into the wilderness. Short on provisions, Helm and his remaining party killed their horses, ate the meat, and made snowshoes out of the hides. The journey was arduous, winnowing the party down to two men: Helm and a man named Burton. When Burton could go no further, Helm left him only to return in time to hear the pistol shot of Burton taking his own life.

Helm ate one of Burton’s legs and wrapped the other to take with him on his journey. Someone finally discovered Helm at an Indian camp and allowed Helm to accompany him. Despite having over fourteen hundred dollars in coins on his person, Helm reportedly neither paid nor thanked this person for feeding, clothing, and transporting him to Salt Lake City.

Boone became wanted by the law and fled to San Francisco, California.

While in California Helm killed a rancher who had befriended him and taken him in, sheltering him from the vengeance of the law. Helm then traveled to Oregon and resumed robbing people for a living, frequently murdering them. In 1862 after heavy drinking Helm gunned down an unarmed man named Dutch Fred in a saloon and fled. While on the run, Helm ate another fugitive who had been accompanying him. Captured by the authorities, Helm implored his brother “Old Tex”, one of Helm’s twelve siblings, for assistance. With a considerable amount of money, “Old Tex” paid off all of the witnesses. Unable to convict Helm without witnesses, the authorities released him and he accompanied his brother to Texas. Helm soon reappeared at many of the settlements mentioned before, killing many more men in the process.

Finally, Helm was apprehended in Montana.

After teaming up with the notorious Henry Plummer and his gang, Helm and four other gang members were captured, arrested, and tried in secret.

At trial, Helm kissed the Bible and then proceeded to perjure himself, accusing “Three-Fingered Jack” Garner, Helm’s close friend and fellow gang member of crimes Helm himself had committed.

The Montana Vigilantes hanged Helm, Gallager, and other members of the gang in Virginia City, Montana on January 14, 1864 in front of a crowd of six thousand.

Upon seeing his friend Gallager hanged, Helm reportedly remarked “Kick away old fellow. My turn next. I’ll be in Hell with you in a minute.”

When the executioner approached Helm, he allegedly exclaimed “Let ‘er rip!” and then jumped off of the hangman’s box before it could be kicked away.

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