A binge too far

An Irishman’s Diary about Alexander Pearce

Alexander Pearce: Any lingering incredulity evaporated when Pearce led them back to the body, stripped of its fleshier bits including “the thick part of the arms, which the inhuman wretch declared was the most delicious food”. Drawing: State Library of New South Wales

Alexander Pearce: Any lingering incredulity evaporated when Pearce led them back to the body, stripped of its fleshier bits including “the thick part of the arms, which the inhuman wretch declared was the most delicious food”. Drawing: State Library of New South Wales

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

I was writing yesterday about the semi-fictional Wild Colonial Boy, commemorated by a pub in Kerry, even though he wasn’t born there, except in song. Today, it may be constructive to compare him with the fully factual Alexander Pearce, who has no bars named after him, although his story was broadly similar.

Pearce was also a wild colonial boy. In fact, by the end of his life, “wild” was an understatement. But it seems to have begun quietly enough, in either Monaghan or Fermanagh, where he was born circa 1790.

The crime that got him transported was unromantic. He stole six pairs of shoes, each of which earned him an average 14 months in the penal colonies – seven years in total. Down under, however, he reoffended and was moved to Macquarie Harbour, in what is now Tasmania.

Escape from Macquarie was considered impossible. Or rather, you might escape, into the island’s interior. The difficult bit was staying alive out there. And yet, as Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, Pearce was to acquire the unique distinction of escaping not once but twice.

He would have been hanged after the first attempt. The trouble was, having lived to tell the horrific tale, he found that the authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe it.

His initial break had been in the company of seven men from various parts of Britain and Ireland. Their plan was to reach the Derwent river, steal a schooner, head downstream to Hobart, and thereafter sail 14,000 miles home.

The plan’s weakness was that, between them and the Derwent was some of Australia’s most impenetrable mountain and rain forest. So days passed without much progress. Then the weather worsened. Then they ran out of food.

To cut a long story short, a man named Dalton was the first of the group to be killed and eaten. After that, the escapee Brown, by now limping heavily, worried he would be next. So did a fellow weakling called Kennelly.

To forestall the inevitable, those two struck out on their own. But that was a death sentence in itself. Sure enough, by the time they made it back to Macquarie, both were too far gone to recover.

As the other five pressed on into the interior, meanwhile, a former highwayman named Bodenham was next on the menu, axed in his sleep by Greenhill, a sailor from Middlesex, who had also killed Dalton. Of the remaining four, a Scottish baker called Mather was the most troubled by cannibalism, refusing his share of Bodenham in favour of fern roots, which he couldn’t digest.

After a fight with Greenhill, he too was killed, although given time to pray first. Pearce conspired by silence in Mather’s death, absenting himself while Greenhill and Travers did the deed. And by the shoe thief’s own account, he was at least a more reluctant killer than Greenhill.

But it finally came down to the two of them (Travers’s fate had been sealed when he was bitten by a snake). Pearce and Greenwhill now watched each other warily, and stayed awake as long as possible. Then one night, near dawn, Greenhill nodded. Pearce seized the axe. After that, as he later confessed: “I took part of his arm and thigh, and went on for several days.”

He survived to experience something like a normal diet again – first chancing upon a campsite with a supply of game. Later he found some sheep and helped himself to raw lamb. But he was caught eventually and returned to jail.

At this point, his misadventures should have ended. Unfortunately, it was deemed more plausible – and desirable – that his story must be a typical convict lie, to cover for fellow escapees still on the run.

So his captors sent him back to Macquarie, where he was now a celebrity, and where an innocent young convict called Thomas Cox soon nagged him into another escape, by a different route.

That was a big mistake. When Pearce was caught again, only a week later, he had already killed Cox and eaten some of him, although he also still had half a pound of prime cuts as a takeaway.

This time the appalled authorities had to believe. Any lingering incredulity evaporated when Pearce led them back to the body, stripped of its fleshier bits including “the thick part of the arms, which the inhuman wretch declared was the most delicious food”.

He was hanged this time, with minimum hesitation. That was in 1824, just as Bold Jack Donohue, aka Jack Duggan, was launching his public relations campaign on behalf of Irish convicts. Despite which, 190 years later, there’s still no Alexander Pearce pub.

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