In 1824 Alexander Pearce was executed for the crimes of theft, murder and cannibalism. When asked if he had any last words, he unapologetically said, "Man's flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork". Can you imagine how the conversation went between Mr. Pearce and the guard who asked him what he would like for his last meal?
Pearce was born in County Monaghan, Ireland. A Roman Catholic farm laborer. During the late 1700s conditions in this part of Ireland would have been as horrific as Tasmania. The 1790 rebellion had ended, there was famine, civil war and there was insurrection against the English who had a strong grip on the island.
Pearce was sentenced at Armagh in 1819 to penal transportation to Van Diemen's Land for "the theft of six pairs of shoes". He committed various offenses in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania), and on May 18th, 1822 was advertised in the Hobart Town Gazette as an absconder, with a £10 reward for his capture. When caught, he was charged with absconding and forging an order, a serious crime. For this he received a second sentence of transportation, this time to the new secondary penal establishment at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbor.
Escape from Sarah Island was regarded as impossible and futile, yet Pearce and seven others succeeded. On September 20, 1822, Pearce along with convicts of Macquarie Harbor Penal Station: Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather escaped while working on the eastern side of the harbor. Greenhill, who had the axe, appointed himself leader, supported by his friend Travers, with whom he had been sent to Macquarie Harbor for stealing businessman Anthony Fenn Kemp's schooner in an attempt to escape.
About 15 days into the journey, the men were starving and drew lots to see who would be killed for food. Thomas Bodenham (or perhaps Alexander Dalton: see below) drew the short straw and Greenhill despatched him with an axe. At this point three of the company — Dalton, Kennerly and Brown — took fright and decamped. Kennerly and Brown reached Macquarie Harbor, but Dalton seemed to have died of exhaustion. That left Greenhill, Travers, John Mather and Alexander Pearce. With Greenhill and Travers acting as a team, it would be Mather's or Pearce's turn next. Pearce seems to have sided with Greenhill and Travers at this point, and Mather was the next victim. It was then that Pearce had some luck: Travers was bitten on the foot by a snake. Greenhill insisted they carry him for five days, but when it became clear he would not recover, killed him.
After that, it was a cat-and-mouse game. Greenhill had the axe, but they were both starving, and they had to sleep. In the end it was Pearce who prevailed. He grabbed the axe, killed Greenhill and dined on his body. He later raided an Aboriginal campsite and stole more food. When he saw sheep, he knew he had reached the settled districts. He was lucky again, as the shepherd who came upon him eating a lamb was an old friend. Pearce was inducted into a sheep stealing ring, and was eventually picked up with William Davis and Ralph Churton, who were both hanged for bushranging and escaping from a military escort.
In total, Pearce had been on the run for 113 days, a little less than half of which was spent in the wilderness. Locked up in Hobart, Pearce made a confession to the Rev. Robert Knopwood, the magistrate and chaplain. However, Knopwood did not believe the cannibalism story and was convinced the others were still living as bushrangers. He sent Pearce back to Macquarie Harbor.
There are inconsistencies in Pearce's story. He made three confessions — the Knopwood confession; a confession to Lt. Cuthbertson, Commandant of Macquarie Harbor when he was in hospital after the second escape (in this version, Dalton is the first victim); and a confession to Father Phillip Connolly, the colony's Catholic priest, the night before his execution — and some of the details differed. What is incontrovertible is that eight men went into the bush at Macquarie Harbor, and only three came out; and of the four men alive when Dalton, Kennerly and Brown decamped, only one survived.
Within a year, Pearce escaped a second time, joined by a young convict named Thomas Cox. Pearce was captured within ten days and taken to the Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land in Hobart, where he was tried and convicted of murdering and cannibalizing Thomas Cox.
Observers noted Pearce did not look like a cannibal. He was only 5 feet, 3 inches in height, which was under average for that time, but had a strong wiry frame. He did not seem to be someone who was "laden with the weight of human blood, and believed to have banqueted on human flesh" as the Hobart Town Gazette wrote on June 25th, 1824.
His captors had found parts of Cox's body in Pearce's pockets, even though he still had food left, and his guilt was beyond doubt this time. Pearce confessed he had killed Cox because when they reached King's River, he discovered that Cox could not swim. Pearce was the first felon to be executed by the new Supreme Court and the first confessed cannibal to pass through the Tasmanian court system.
Alexander Pearce was hanged at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on July 19th, 1824, after receiving the last rites from Father Connolly. As to why he confessed to his crimes in part is still a mystery, as according to the convict ship doctor, who noted that Pearce didn't talk during the four-month journey to Van Diemen's Land.
Pearce’s skull ended up in the collection of infamous American phrenologist, Dr. Samuel George Morton. In 1853 Morton granted his collection to the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. The Academy then gave Pearce’s skull, along with others from Morton’s collection, to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum in 1968, where it is to this day.
source - alchetron
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