(1790 - 1824) (also known as Pierce, see reference cited Mark Jefferies)
was a convict and bushranger who escaped from the Macquarie Harbour
Penal Settlement and is best known for cannabalising his fellow escapees
while travelling through the Tasmanian Wilderness.
Transported to Sarah Island in 1822,
he escaped with seven other convicts. Their plan was to return to
Pearce was captured over 100 days
later near Hobart. When in custody, he made a confession that he and the
other men had cannabalised each other over a number of weeks, with
Pearce being the last to survive. The Hobart magistrate believed this to
be a fabrication and that the other men were still alive and living in
the bush. Pearce was sent back to Sarah Island.
Within a year, Pearce again escaped,
this time with Thomas Cox. He was found within ten days, but with some
of the remains of Cox in his pockets, even though he still had other
food available to him. This time he was taken back to Hobart and hanged.
Pearce was the subject of a song by
Australian rock/folk band Weddings Parties Anything titled "A Tale They
Collins, Paul. Hell's Gates:
the terrible journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman's Land Cannibal.
South Yarra, 2002. ISBN 1-74064-083-7
Alexander Pearce (1790
- 1824) was known as an Irish penal convict in Tasmania who was
hanged in Hobart in 1824, for murder and cannibalism.
He was originally a farm labourer from County
Fermanagh who was sentenced at Armagh in 1819 to penal transportation to
Van Diemen's Land for "the theft of six pairs of shoes". After
committing various offences in Van Diemens Land, on 18 May 1822 he was
advertised in the Hobart Town Gazette as an absconder with a 10-pound
reward on his head. On his recapture he received a second sentence of
transportation, and was sent to the new secondary penal establishment at
Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour.
Alexander Pearce gained a reputation as a bushranger
who had escaped from the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement and is best
known for cannibalising his fellow escapees while travelling through the
West Coast of Tasmania.
Transported to Sarah Island in 1822, he escaped with seven other
convicts, Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew
Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather. Kennerly and
Brown later voluntarily gave themselves up and were taken back to the
settlement, where they died from their privations at the prison's
hospital, but the other six pressed on.
was eventually captured near Hobart and confessed that he and the others
had cannibalised each other over a period of weeks, he being the last
survivor. Pearce and Greenhill had been the final two, each struggling
to stay awake for days out of fear the other would kill him. Greenhill
finally nodded off and Pearce killed him with an axe, then eating him.
Pearce made it to the settled districts, being sheltered by a convict
shepherd until he was captured several months later. The Hobart
magistrate did not believe Pearce's cannibalism story and was convinced
the others were still living as bushrangers. Pearce was returned to
Within a year he escaped a second time, joined by a
young convict named Thomas Cox. Pearce was captured within ten days. His
captors found parts of Cox's body in Pearce's pockets, even though he
still had food left. Pearce confessed that he had killed Cox because he
was a hindrance to him. Pearce was taken to Hobart, where he was tried
and convicted of murdering and cannibalising Thomas Cox. He was hanged
at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on 19 July 1824, after receiving the last
rites from a priest.
Songs and films
Pearce was the subject of a song by Australian
rock/folk band Weddings Parties Anything titled "A Tale They Won't
Believe" as well as The Drones song titled "Words From The Executioner
To Alexander Pearce".
6, 2008, a horror/thriller film about Alexander Pearce was released,
called Dying Breed. It features the entirely fictional descendants of
Pearce. Shot in Tasmania and Melbourne
(including at the Pieman River on the West Coast of Tasmania), Dying
Breed stars writer/actor, Leigh Whannell and Nathan Phillips.
Despite references to the contrary in this film, the
once-common suggestion that the Pieman River was named after Alexander
Pearce is not correct. "The Pieman" was in fact Thomas Kent of
Southampton, a pastry-cook who was transported to Van Diemen's Land in
1816. After a long series of offences in the colony, he was sent to the
Macquarie Harbour penal settlement in 1822 but subsequently escaped, and
was recaptured near the mouth of the river which now bears his
nickname. The river has significant timber, mining and
industrial heritage along its shores.
The Last Confession of
Last Confession of Alexander Pearce was a 2008 film. The film was shot
on location in Tasmania and Sydney in April and May 2008. It was shown
on RTE Ireland on 29 December 2008 and ABC1 Australia on 25 January
Collins, Paul. Hell's Gates:
the terrible journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman's Land
Cannibal. South Yarra, 2002. ISBN 1-74064-083-7
Sprod, Dan. Alexander Pearce
of Macquarie Harbour. Hobart: Cat & Fiddle Press, 1977. ISBN
Kidd, Paul B. Australia's
Serial Killers ISBN 0 7329 1036 6
A journey through hell's gate
October 29 2002
Alexander Pearce fled one of Tasmania's worst
penal hellholes, only to find himself living another nightmare, writes
The man standing in the dock of the Supreme Court of
Van Diemens Land did not look like someone who was, as the Hobart
Town Gazette put it on June 25, 1824, "laden with the weight of
human blood, and believed to have banqueted on human flesh". In fact, he
looked perfectly normal. He was 1.6 metres tall, slightly under medium
height for the early 19th century, and his frame was wiry and strong. He
was 34, but looked older.
There was nothing to distinguish the Irish-born
Alexander Pearce from the procession of convicts who traipsed through
the Hobart Town courts. Except for one thing - he was the first self-confessed
cannibal to have appeared there.
Twenty months earlier, Pearce and seven other
convicts had escaped from the prison settlement of Sarah Island, in
Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania, the most remote penal
hellhole in the British Empire. In the jargon of the time, this was a
place of secondary punishment, where recalcitrant convicts were sent
when they repeatedly fell foul of the law while serving their original
sentences. Pearce was the sole survivor of their nine-week escape
through some of the world's most difficult wilderness terrain.
During their journey, five of his companions had been
killed and eaten by their fellows. Two others died from exhaustion.
Because cannibalism was unheard of among Europeans, Pearce's trial for
murder created a sensation in Hobart Town, London, and even the United
Although Pearce was hanged in 1824, I keep meeting
people who have heard of him. Perhaps it is the song about his exploits,
A Tale They Won't Believe, by the group Weddings, Parties,
Anything that has popularised him. He seems to be entering into popular
consciousness, somewhat like Ned Kelly.
Pearce originally had been sentenced at the County
Armagh Lent assizes of 1819 to transportation for seven years. His crime
was stealing six pairs of shoes, probably not his first offence. Only a
professional thief would steal six pairs.
Pearce quickly distinguished himself as a troublesome
malcontent. Between his arrival in Tasmania in February, 1821, and early
August, 1822, when he was sent to Macquarie Harbour, he had absconded
twice, received four floggings, one of 50 lashes for embezzling two
turkeys and three ducks, one of 25 and another of 50 for being drunk and
disorderly, and another 50 and six months working in chains for stealing
In March, 1822, Pearce absconded again. After three
months he was recaptured. By now the none-too-merciful magistrates of
Hobart Town had had enough of him and he was sent to Macquarie Harbour
for the remainder of his original sentence. He was there about six weeks
when he bolted into the bush with seven others, beginning the
extraordinary journey that has become famous in the history of penal
The whole area of the west coast then was separated
from the settled districts in the centre of Tasmania by difficult and
Both guards and prisoners found Macquarie Harbour
dreary and the weather appalling. The prisoners' main work was cutting
and transporting the Huon pine logs and other fine timber, which grew
abundantly in the area and were excellent for boat-building.
Today the area around Macquarie Harbour is valued
precisely because of its isolation and is protected as one of the most
spectacular wildernesses on Earth. This is a land of cool, temperate
rainforests, the most extensive remnant of the extraordinary vegetation
of the great southern supercontinent Gondwana.
These forests are of myrtle beech, celery-top and
King Billy pine, and the most ancient of all conifers, Huon pine, which
lives for up to 3000 years, and is found only in Tasmania.
On September 20, 1822, the convicts Alexander Pearce,
Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers,
Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather were cutting Huon pine
logs on the eastern side of Macquarie Harbour. Fed up with the rigid
discipline, they planned to escape.
They intended to commandeer a whaleboat, sail north
out of Macquarie Harbour, heading to freedom on a Pacific island, or
even China. They easily overpowered their overseer, but they bungled the
getaway. So they plunged impulsively into the rainforests and mountains
surrounding the harbour. They headed east but they were utterly ill-equipped
for what lay ahead on their 225-kilometre journey.
Nowadays this region is regarded as some of the
toughest country in the world, visited only by experienced bushwalkers
with good equipment. Eight days into their hellish journey and by now
starving, the men realised that their only hope for survival was
cannibalism. Almost impulsively, they killed and ate Alexander Dalton
because, Pearce says, he had volunteered to be a flogger and such men
Next day, fearing that they might be the next victims,
Brown and Kennerly decided to return to Sarah Island. Anything would be
better than being killed and eaten by their fellows in the wilderness.
They made it back to the coast of Macquarie Harbour, but died from
exhaustion soon after.
The other five men continued, led by Greenhill, who
had been a sailor. It was his navigational skills, using the sun and the
stars, that enabled the party to travel for 42 days almost due-east
towards the settled areas. It was an extraordinary feat.
As the journey continued, one by one, the weakest man
was killed with an axe and butchered to provide food for the others.
After five weeks of endless walking, only three men were left: Greenhill,
Pearce and Travers. Most of the killing had been done by Greenhill, but
Pearce and Travers had also participated. At first they cooked the flesh
and innards, but eventually they just ate them raw. By this stage they
had reached less rugged country, but with no knowledge of the bush they
were unable to live off it.
Driven by extreme hunger, Greenhill finally faced the
prospect of having to kill his injured friend Travers, who had been
bitten on the foot by a venomous tiger snake. With Travers' foot now
gangrenous, Greenhill and Pearce half-dragged and carried their injured
companion for five days until Travers begged them to kill him. The only
weapon left was the axe. They killed him in his sleep, and ate his flesh.
But the problem with human flesh is that, while rich
in protein, it never really satisfies hunger because of the lack of
carbohydrates, which provide energy. That is why the men had to kill so
regularly. No matter how much they ate of their companions, it was not
enough for the energy needed on their stamina-sapping journey.
Pearce and Greenhill struggled on for eight days,
playing cat and mouse with each other, desperate to stay awake, fearing
that the other would attack him if he closed his eyes and nodded off. It
was Pearce who kept awake long enough to grab the axe and kill the
sleeping Greenhill with a blow to the head.
The Irishman eventually made it to the settled
districts, was befriended by a convict shepherd, and lived rough for
several months, robbing farms and stealing sheep, before he was
Incredibly, when Pearce gave an account to the
authorities of the nightmare journey and the cannibalism involved, the
examining magistrate and local parson, the Reverend Robert Knopwood, did
not believe him, thinking that Pearce concocted the story to cover for
his mates who were believed to be still at large. Pearce was returned in
chains to Sarah Island, where his fellow convicts treated him as a hero.
Several months later he bolted again from a work
party, this time heading north along the east coast of Macquarie Harbour
with a young man named Thomas Cox, who had pestered Pearce to accompany
him on an escape attempt.
When Pearce surrendered 11 days later near the mouth
of the King River, just south of present-day Strahan, he had human flesh
in his pocket.
Why he felt the need for cannibalism again is a
mystery, since the guards found that he had other food with him. Pearce,
who was clearly a psychopath, said that human flesh was by far
preferable to ordinary food. Obviously he had acquired a taste for it,
and for killing.
Pearce later admitted that he had murdered Cox in a
rage, because he suddenly realised that the young man could not swim,
and was going to be a continuing hindrance to him.
At Pearce's trial, witnesses said he had given
himself up because he had no hope of ultimately escaping, and that he
was horror-struck at his own inhuman conduct. This sounds like a
sanitised account, but we know that he showed signs of repentance at the
time of his execution.
It was very cold - there was heavy snow on Mount
Wellington - in the court room on that winter day, June 20, 1824, when
the cannibal stood trial for murder. The chief justice, John Lewes
Pedder, presided at the trial for the murder of Thomas Cox. Pedder was a
scrupulous judge, but he often hectored the condemned from the bench,
telling them that they should not complain about harshness when
penalties were well known to everyone.
The prosecutor was the attorney-general, Joseph Tice
Gellibrand. Ironically, Gellibrand was to become lost in the bush near
Melbourne in 1837, and was almost certainly killed by Aborigines.
Pearce had no defence counsel and there is no record
that he said anything on his own behalf. The trial was brief and the
inevitable verdict was handed down. The chief justice pronounced the
death sentence and ordered that the body be delivered to the surgeons
Thirty days later, after receiving the sacraments
from the Catholic chaplain, Father Philip Conolly, Pearce was hanged in
the yard of the Hobart Town jail at 9am on July 19, 1824.
Handing over the body for dissection was an uncommon
addendum to the death sentence, but in the logic of 19th-century
criminal justice it made eminent sense: the corpse of the cannibal was
to be cannibalised for science. Thus ended one of the great Gothic
horror stories of Australia's rich convict history.
Paul Collins is the author of Hells Gates: The
Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Diemen's Land Cannibal
Narrative of the escape of
eight convicts from Macquarie Harbour c.1824
manuscript; 26.4 x 22.0cm
Bequeathed by Sir William Dixson, 1952
Dixson Library, State Library of New
pencil drawing by Thomas Bock.