Cannibal of the West

Sarah Island / Gordon River Cruises

The Story of Alexander Pearce

In 1820, Alexander Pearce, a notorious shoe-stealing convict from Ireland, was sent to Van Diemen’s Land – now known as Tasmania – to serve a seven-year sentence. Little did he know he would become one of Australia’s most notorious cannibals.

In Pearce’s first two years on the island, he quickly became known for his criminal ways. He escaped the prison in Hobart twice and embezzled turkeys, ducks and wheelbarrows. The Hobart Town Gazette placed a bounty on his head for 10 pounds, which lead to his swift capture. He was charged with absconding and forging an order – a serious crime.

This time Pearce’s punishment was harsh – he was sent to the infamous Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, the penal hellhole that swallowed souls on the west coast.

Alexander Pearce
Sketch of Pearce after his execution / Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office

Together with seven inmates, Pearce hatched a (somewhat absurd) plan to escape Sarah Island and head to Hobart to commandeer a whale boat before sailing home to London. The plan involved an arduous nine-week journey across the rugged wilderness and mountainous terrain of the Western Wilds. They faced horizontal scrub and rainforest filled with snakes, river rapids and unpredictable weather. What was the worst that could happen?

The inmates quickly came to the stark realisation that their ill-prepared escape was more difficult than anticipated. On day 15, food supplies ran out. Everyone was frustrated and haggard with hunger.

Cannibalism seemed like the only option. The men decided to draw sticks to see who would be murdered and devoured first…

After the first was killed three others quickly decamped. Slowly but surely, the remaining men were either killed for their flesh or died from exhaustion or snake bite. Pearce killed the last man in his sleep, dined on his flesh and continued his fearless escape.

Pearce was on the run for 113 long days – half of that in the wilderness – before being picked up by the authorities. He returned to the familiar confines of a jail cell in Hobart confessing everything to Rev. Robert Knopwood who scoffed at such madness. Knopwood believed the others were still out there living as bushrangers. Pearce was sent back to serve at remote Sarah Island.

Within a year the temptation to escape was too much for Pearce. He took off into the Western Wilds with young convict Thomas Cox. Little did Cox know he would suffer the same ill fate as Pearce’s previous victims.

Pearce was finally caught. Law enforcers found rotting body parts in his pockets. The flesh was that of Thomas Cox and Pearce confessed. This was enough evidence for him to be trialled for murder.

In 1824, Pearce made his steps to the gallows at the maximum-security Hobart Town Gaol. He was the first person in Tasmania to be hanged for cannibalism. During his last moments, he recalled the bodies he feasted on that led him there and, so the folklore goes, he uttered a final gruesome remark:

“Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.”

Sarah Island / Rob Burnett

Western Wilds / Matt Cherubino

Hobart Convict Penitentiary / National Trust Tasmania