This is a story about a small group of convicts who escaped from a prison and headed off across Australia. Their main problem being food, and so they selected each other to be eaten in order that the others may be fed and so lived.
Cannibalism is something we know about but I suspect many don’t believe it actually happened; perhaps it may be a figment of someone’s imagination. However, this story is perfectly true and did happen.
This, in the main, is a story about a convict called Alexander Pearce, who was an Irish convict. He was born in County Monaghan, Ireland. He was a Roman Catholic farm labourer. He was convicted and sentenced in Armagh in 1819 to 7 years penal transportation to ‘Van Dieman’s Land‘ for theft , (Tasmania, as it is called now). He had stolen six pairs of shoes. He was 29 years old at this time, having being born in 1790.
He committed a number of varied offences in Van Dieman’s Land, mainly theft and on 18th May 1822 he was advertised in the Hobart Town Gazette as an absconder, with a reward on his head of £10 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 Penal Transportation, this time to the new Secondary Penal establishment at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. This was known as a very tough prison. However, Pearce made plans for an escape from it.
Alexander led the escape with seven other convicts: Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather. Greenhill had an axe and appointed himself as the leader of this escape group. He was supported by his friend, Matthew Travers, with whom he had been sent to Macquarie Harbour Prison for stealing businessman Anthony Fenn Kemp’s schooner in an attempt to escape.
About 15 miles into their escape, the men were starving, having not eaten since leaving the prison. They decided that one of the group should be killed and used as food for the others. They drew lots to see who would be killed. Thomas Bodenham (or perhaps Alexander Dalton, the records are not clear) drew the short straw and Greenhill quickly despatched him with his axe.
They all sat around enjoying the freshly killed body. At this point, three of them decamped as the thought of them being eaten by the others in the group didn’t really appeal to them. These three were; Dalton, Kennerly and Brown. They took fright and quickly left.
Prison,starvation and canabalism
Kennerly and Brown managed to make it back to the Prison in Macquarie Harbour, but in a very poor state of health, in fact on the point of collapse. It appears that somewhere while on the journey, going back, Dalton died of exhaustion.
This then left just Greenhill, Travers, John Mather and Alexander Pearce from the original group.
With Greenhill and Travers acting as a team within the group, it seemed it would be either Pearce or Mather’s turn next for the axe. Pearce then appears to have sided with Greenhill and Travers at this point, and so it was Mather’s turn next. It was then that Pearce had some luck. Travers was bitten on the foot by a snake. Greenhill insisted that he be carried, and they did for five days. It was clear that he would not recover from this snake bite and so they killed him. They dined on his body that night; it was easy to dissect the body when there was the axe to use.
After his death it became rather a tense ‘cat and mouse’ game. With Greenhill having the weapon, the axe, and they were all starving again. They also had to sleep and that was the most dangerous game. They all tried to refrain from sleeping but, as they became so tired, they found it impossible not to fall asleep.
In the end, it was Pearce who prevailed. He suddenly managed to grab the axe and with one mighty blow, killed Greenhill and dined on his body. Pearce had a good meal off Greenhill that day.
He later raided an Aboriginal campsite and stole some foodstuffs. The following day, he saw some sheep and knew that he was near a settlement.
Then Pearce’s luck held out once more. He saw a shepherd coming towards them while he was dining on a lamb he had just stolen and killed. Pearce gripped the axe more tightly in case he was attacked by him. As the shepherd got much closer he recognised him as an old friend.
Pearce was then inducted into a sheep stealing ring and, not long after, he was caught together with two other men who ran the sheep stealing ring, namely William Davis and Ralph Churton. Both Davis and Churton appeared at court, found guilty of sheep stealing, bush-ranging and escaping from a military escort. As a consequence they were both hanged.
Meanwhile Pearce was returned to prison in Hobart. In total Pearce had been free for some 113 days, a little less than half of them were spent in the wilderness.
Back in prison
While he was locked up at Hobart he made a confession to Rev. Robert Knopwood, the local magistrate and chaplain. However, Knopwood did not believe his cannibal story and was convinced in his own mind that they were all living as bush-rangers. He firmly believed that Pearce had concocted story as a cover so that the Authorities would not search for them.
Knopwood sent Pearce back then to Macquarie Harbour prison, where he had started from.
It is true to say that there are a number of inconsistencies in Pearce’s story. In fact he made three confessions and each one was slightly different but in each one he clearly indicated the truthfulness on how the other members of the group were killed and eaten. Still he wasn’t believed.
Pearce was quiet for a long time in Prison and behaved himself. But he was planning all the time to escape. Within the year he did escape for a second time, this time with a young convict called Thomas Cox.
Pearce’s luck didn’t hold this time as he was recaptured within just ten days and taken to the Supreme Court of Van Dieman’s Land in Hobart. There he was tried and convicted of murdering and cannibalising young Thomas Cox. Observers noted that Pearce did not look like a cannibal. He was a very small man just 5’3’’ in height. This was below the average height of a man at that time. However, he did have a very wiry frame and looked strong and sturdy. One observer remarked by saying
“He did not seem to be someone who was ‘laden’ with the weight of human blood, and believed to have banqueted on human flesh.”
This was printed in the Hobart Town Gazette on 25th June 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 that he had killed young Thomas Cox because when they reached Kings River, he had discovered that Cox couldn’t swim.
Pearce was the first felon to be executed by the new Supreme Court and also the first confessed cannibal to pass through the Tasmanian Court system.
He was hanged at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on 19th July 1824, aged 34 years old. He received the Last Rites from father Connolly. It was reported that just before he was hanged, Pearce said,
“Man’s flesh is delicious, it tastes far better than either fish or pork.”
Human flesh is that, while rich in protein, it never really satisfies hunger because of the lack of carbohydrates, which provide the energy you need. That is why the men had to kill regularly no matter how much human flesh they had eaten of their companions. It was nowhere enough for the energy they needed on their long energy-sapping journey.
Researched and written by David Rowland.
Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing
David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.