Alexander Pearce was a convict in the Macquarie Harbour “secondary punishment” penal colony when he and seven others made their escape. Being sent to “secondary punishment” means that these men who had already been convicted in Britain and transported to Van Diemens Land, and had then misbehaved sufficiently to be singled out for additional punishment in harsher conditions.
The other convicts: Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather. Brown and Kennerly soon gave up and turned back. They were recaptured by the Macquarie Harbour authorities and died in the prison infirmary. The authorities more or less gave up the search at this point, reasoning that the elements or the natives would kill them. They were wrong about this, but just how wrong they wouldn’t know for more than another year.
Pearce and his five fellows – Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, Matthew Travers, Robert Greenhill and John Mather – had been on the run, exposed to the elements and without food for eight days. They were desperate, cold and starving. Robert Greenhill, who had carried an axe since the escape and, as the only member of the group able to navigate by the stars, had basically become the leader. Supported by Travers, he led the gang in deciding to resort to cannibalism.
The men drew lots, and Alexander Dalton came up short. Greenhill killed him with the axe, and then the five remaining men butchered the corpose, cooked the meat and, well, ate him. That much at least is probably true.
But we have only the word of self-confessed murderer and cannibal for all of this – and Pearce tends to embellish a little to diminish his own guilt. On the other hand, given the extraordinarily heinous nature of the crimes he did confess to, you have to wonder what he thought he’d gain by lying.
By this point in their escape – after eleven days on the run – the five remaining escapees reached the Franklin River. Swollen with early spring run off, the river ran high and fast. And of the five men in the group, only three could swim. They crossed easily, but the other two had to be more or less dragged across, clinging to branches.
You almost wonder why they bothered to drag Thomas Bodenham across, given that shortly afterwards they’d be killing him and eating him – leaving two uneasy duos facing off. Alexander Pearce and John Mather were one pair, while the ‘leaders’ of the group, Robert Greenhill and Matthew Travers, were the other pair. It was going to be tense trip to Hobart Town.
AFter 113 days of freedom, about half of it spent making the deadly trip from Macquarie Harbour to Hobart Town through the trackless wilderness of the southern Tasmania, Alexander Pearce was captured again outside of Hobart. Pearce, no stranger to this process, sang like a canary. An at times inconsistent canary, but certain themes emerged.
Pearce had escaped with seven other men. Two had turned back and been recaptured. The rest…
…the rest had killed and eaten each other one at a time, until finally only Pearce and another man, Robert Greenhill, were left. Pearce claimed to be innocent of all the killings except Greenhill, which he made a fairly convincing case was self defence. He did, however, claim to have eaten at least part of each of the five.
Of course, Pearce was an Irishman and a convict, which meant that getting the authorities to believe him would be quite a job.
Alexander Pearce had committed many crimes – the original theft that saw him transported to Van Diemens Land from Ireland, sundry minor infractions in Hobart Town including at least one escape attempt, and assorted infractions after he was sent to Macquarie Harbour. But on this day, he stood before the court charged with escaping Macquarie Harbour and making his way overland to Hobart Town.
He had left Macquarie Harbour with seven others, two of whom had turned back and surrendered to the authorities there. The other five were unaccounted for, except by Pearce’s remarkable tale of cannibalism among the six, whittling down their numbers until he was the last left alive. The judge, of course, knew this for the lie it was. Pearce was sent back to Macquarie Harbour and the watch for the other five, still at large, was redoubled.
The only problem was, Pearce had told the truth. He really had participated in the murder and consumption of five other men. But no one would believe him until he did it again.
Alexander Pearce escaped custody for the last time in the company of one Thomas Cox. However, their escape was due to be short-lived. Pearce remembered all too well how difficult his overland trip the previous year had been, and he wasn’t about to do the same thing again. His plan was to steal a boat and travel north along the coast until they could find a settlement, from whence they could hopefully get to the mainland.
Unfortunately, Cox could not swim, let alone sail – which was why Pearce had taken him along in the first place. As it happened, this escape would last less than a week, and lead to the deaths of both men. But along the way, they would end up confirming some of the things that Pearce had claimed about his previous escape.
Thomas Cox was probably foolish to try escaping alone with Alexander Pearce. While the authorities might not have believed that he was a cannibal who’d eaten the last group of men whom he escaped with, it seems likely that the other convicts did. But perhaps Cox thought it was just the extremity of the situation that drove Pearce to it.
He must have been surprised when Pearce assaulted and killed him, although he would have been too dead to be surprised that Pearce then cooked and ate him. And he would no doubt have been astonished at Pearce’s deliberate surrender to the authorities and instant confession of what he had done to Cox. This time, the authorities believed Pearce – and when he faced trial again, this time he was sentenced to hang. The saga of Tasmania’s cannibal convict was at an end.