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?
Alexander Pearce, was a farm laborer from Monaghan, Ireland. The land was torn with civil war, famine and insurrection against the English. In 1819, for the theft of six pairs of shoes he was sentenced to seven years to be served at the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania). He was 29 years old.
Three years later he was described as an absconder with a £10 reward posted for his capture. It was only a matter of time before he was in the hands of the authorities, whereupon he was charged with forgery. This earned him another sentence of transportation to the convict settlement on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbor, 18 miles south of Strahan. Recently established by Governor Sorell, it was described as a "place of ultra-banishment and punishment for convicts who had committed further crimes in the colony."
The waters around Sarah Island wrecked several convict ships due to a narrow sea passage called "Hell's Gate", but what awaited the prisoners was worse. Freezing cold weather along with limited supplies made existence there unbearable. Coupled with whippings and hard labor it wasn't long before a group of prisoners made a bid for freedom, despite the camp being surrounded on all sides by tangled jungles. Their opportunity came eight weeks after their arrival when they were sent out to cut Huon pine logs. They overpowered the guard supervising them, and ran off into the rain forest, which even present day is considered hostile, and only trekked by experienced bush walkers.
Their plan to was find a boat in Macquarie Harbor and set sail for a Pacific island.
On September 30 1822, Pearce with fellow convicts Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather escaped into the wilderness. The group was led by Robert Greenhill who had the only weapon, an axe. Matthew Travers who had been sentenced along with him for stealing a schooner was his second-in-command.
The remoteness which had facilitated their escape proved to be an obstacle when the men faced starvation two weeks afterward. A decision was made to cannibalize one of the group and it's not clear whether Alexander Dalton or Thomas Bodenham drew the short straw, but one of them found death with the aid of Greenhill's axe.
Fearing they would soon be on the menu, Dalton, Kennerly and Brown left the group. Dalton died of exhaustion and the other two made it to Macquarie Harbor.
The group had been whittled down to four men, made up of Greenhill, Travers, Mather and Pearce. Since Greenhill and Travers had a united front, this left Mather and Pearce on the chopping block, both figuratively and literally. Pearce joined Team Greenhill, and Mather was dispatched. Then in a random stroke of bad luck Travers was bitten in the foot by a snake. Greenhill insisted on carrying him for several days, however when it became obvious he would not survive, he was killed.
That left two men and one axe. Both had to sleep, but starvation stared them in the face, Pearce got the axe away from Greenhill, who he killed and ate.
Pearce spotted sheep so he knew he was close to a settlement. A raid on an Aboriginal camp allowed him to eat "normal" food, and he took the opportunity to steal a lamb from a flock. Lucky for him the shepherd who found him eating his mutton meal was an old friend who inducted him into a sheep stealing ring.
However his luck ran out when the men were arrested. William Davis and Ralph Churton went on to be face execution by hanging for bushranging.
Pearce was sent to Hobart, where he confessed to Rev. Robert Knopwood, a magistrate and chaplain. Perhaps the story of cannibalism was to difficult to digest, but the good reverend refused to believe him, thinking his companions were living as bushrangers. Pearce was sent to Macquarie Harbor.
Pearce had been on the lam for 113 days, half of them spent in the bush. He made more than one confession, in which there were some inconsistencies. But ultimately the facts were that eight men escaped and three survived.
A year later Pearce escaped with Thomas Cox, another prisoner. Less than two weeks later he was captured and tried for the murder of Thomas Cox. It was difficult to believe that Pearce who only measured 5' 3" in height with his slight, wiry frame could have killed and eaten other men. According to prison records, he had "pock-pitted skin”, brown hair and hazel eyes.
Parts of Cox's body were found in Pearce's pockets. This time there was no reason for eating human flesh since he had regular food on hand. Later he said he killed Cox because when they came to the King River, his companion could not swim, and he decided the man was a liability.
On July 19, 1824, Father Connolly offered Alexander Pearce last rites before his execution by hanging.
Described as a quiet man by the convict ship's doctor who traveled with him for four month as they sailed to Van Diemen's Land, some wonder why Pearce was so willing to confess to the most horrible aspects of his crimes.
As was the custom of the day Pearce's body was dissected. Dr. Samuel George Morton, an American phrenologist eventually acquired Pearce's skull for his collection. In 1853, Morton donated 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.
Was there something about the penal settlement at Sarah Island that drove men to cannibalism? The settlement was closed in 1833, and the ruins were vandalized as building materials were taken to be used in Strahan. However it turns out Alexander Pearce was not the only convict to eat those who escaped with him.
The establishment's first commandant, Lt. John Cuthbertson was ordered to provide, "Constant, active, and unremitting hard labor which is the main design of your settlement.” There were a total of "110 persons were sent to Macquarie Harbour, 44 of bad character and incorrigible conduct, 22 convict tradesmen and eight female convicts accompanied by a military detachment of 17 with three wives and 11 children, with four officers in charge."
The Huon pine harvested on the island was used to build ships. In a dozen years, 131 boats were built by the convict labor.
Despite its reputation as being impossible to escape from, 112 men did attempt it and 71 died in the bush, nine of these were cannibalized.
Almost ten years after the execution of Alexander Pearce, five convicts escaped from Macquarie Harbor. Their names were Richard Hutchinson (AKA Up and Down Dick), Thomas Coventry, Edward Broughton, Matthew M'Avoy and Fagan. They were in the bush for two weeks, and only M'Avoy and Broughton made it out. They described where their companions disbanded after being unable to cross a river and being attacked by aborigines.
The magistrate was suspicious of their story and exhorted them to confess and relieve their conscience.
Broughton, who was 28 years old then, had already been sentenced to death in England for robbery when he was eighteen. One of his victims was his own mother. After two years in gaol he was sent to Van Diemen's Land. Before long he was apprehended for other crimes and shipped off to Macquarie Harbor.
He along with five other convicts were overseen by one constable. By Broughton's own admission, the man was kind to the men under his charge, however when they escaped they robbed him of everything including food, aware that it would be three days until more supplies would arrive from the main settlement. He also said that previous to this he had a hand in trying to kill the guard by letting a tree fall on him.
Once they ate what they stole, they agreed to kill Hutchinson. They drew straws as to who was to dispatch him with an axe. Broughton was tasked with the deed, and soon they were feasting on Hutchinson after cutting the body into pieces. According to Broughton they "ate heartily of it" and carried leftovers with them. The group left behind the hands, feet, head and intestines.
Like what happened with the case of Pearce, once they had come close to consuming what they had, alarm started to spread as to who would be next. With only one axe among them, they were terrified of dozing even for a moment, in case they should be singled out as the next meal.
Broughton and Fagan teamed up to stand watch while the other one slept.
Thomas Coventry, an old farmer was the next to be slaughtered. Most of them were adverse to committing the deed, but Broughton pointed out that since he had killed Hutchinson, one of them needed to commit a crime as bad as what he had done. M'Avoy was given the task, and he struck the first blow on the man's head, just above the eye, however Broughton could not help himself and helped finish him off and cut him into pieces.
Broughton said in his confession, "We ate greedily of the flesh, never sparing it, just as if we expected to meet with a whole bullock the next day."
The remains of Coventry had yet to be consumed when M'Avoy tried to draw Broughton into a plot to kill Fagan as the next victim. Broughton objected, but at this time M'Avoy who was a stronger man had the axe in his possession. Later that night, Broughton described where he had fallen into a doze when he heard Fagan scream out. He opened his eyes to find M'Avoy standing over the man after striking him in the head. Broughton described the scene thus: "You _______dog, what have you done?" He said, 'This will save our lives' and struck him another blow on the head. Fagan only groaned after the scream. M'Avoy then cut his throat with a razor through the wind pipe."
Broughton perhaps realized cooperation was in his best interest and helped strip off the dead man's clothing, even quarreling over his shirt with M'Avoy. He aided in cutting up the body and roasting it. From the beginning all the meat would be roasted which would make it lighter to carry and it would keep longer.
Before they could consume all of Fagan, they came across a kangaroo which had been set up on by wild dogs. They threw away what was left of the convict. Two days later they turned themselves in at Macquire's Marsh.
Both men were hanged on August 5, 1831, and buried in Cemetery Island situated north of Sarah Island.
Macquarie Island lies approximately 932 miles southeast of Tasmania, halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica. The main island measures about 21 miles long by 3.5 miles wide at its broadest point.
About a quarter mile east of Sarah Island is Grummet Island, a small spit of land where women convicts were sent to stay in caves away from the men. Other convicts were sent there as punishment, since the conditions were described as cold and wet.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer