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Pearce, Alexander (c. 1790–1824)

Alexander Pearce, by Thomas Bock, 1824

Alexander Pearce, by Thomas Bock, 1824

Archives Office of Tasmania, PH30/1/2722

Alexander Pearce (c.1790-1824), a farm labourer, was found guilty at the 1819 Lent Session at Armagh, Ireland, of stealing six pairs of shoes. Sentenced to 7 years transportation he arrived at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), aboard the Castle Forbes in January 1820. He was described as being 5 feet 4 inches (162.6 cms) tall, with a dark ruddy complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes.

Pearce was sentenced to 50 lashes for embezzling two turkeys and three ducks on 16 May 1821. He was sentenced to 25 lashes on 17 September 1821 for being drunk and disorderly and absent from his lodgings. On 26 November 1821 he received 50 lashes for being drunk and disorderly and stealing a wine ?  For stealing a wheelbarrow he received 50 lashes on 29 November 1821 and was sentenced to six months in the gaol gang. In May 1822 he absconded into the woods and remained there a long time and also forged an order. When recaptured he was sent to Macquarie Harbour penal settlement for the remainder of his sentence.

Pearce and seven other convicts — Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennely, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather — escaped from Macquarie Harbour on 20 September 1822. According to Pearce's later testimony Greenhill, who had an axe, appointed himself leader. About 15 days into the journey, the men were starving and drew lots to see who would be killed for food. Thomas Bodenham (or perhaps Alexander Dalton, Pearce's later accounts slightly differed) drew the short straw and Greenhill killed him with his axe. Dalton (or Bodenham), Kennely and Brown – took fright and decamped. Kennely and Brown reached Macquarie Harbour, but Dalton seemed to have died of exhaustion. That left Greenhill, Travers, John Mather and Alexander Pearce. With Greenhill and his friend Travers acting as a team, it was Mather's or Pearce's turn to die next. Mather became the next victim. Travers was then bitten on the foot by a snake. Greenhill insisted they carry him for five days, but when it became clear he would not recover, killed him. Although Greenhill still had the axe, Pearce managed to overpower and kill him — and ate his flesh. He finally reached a settlement and fell in with a shepherd and was eventually arrested.

Pearce had been on the run for 113 days, half of it in the wilderness. He confessed his cannibalistic crimes to Rev. Knopwood, who was also a magistrate, but was not believed. Knopwood thought the other men were still alive and living as bushrangers and sent Pearce back to Macquarie Harbour. In November 1823 he escaped a second time, this time with Thomas Cox. He was picked up within ten days and tried for the murder of Cox (he had also cannibalised Cox but was not charged with this offence). Parts of Cox's body were found in Pearce's pockets. He said he had killed Cox because when they reached King's River, he discovered that Cox could not swim.

Found guilty of murder on 21 June 1824, Alexander Pearce was hanged at the Hobart Town Gaol on 19 July 1824, after receiving the last rites from Father Philip Conolly. His body was sent to Hobart Hospital for dissection and his skull is now held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It is believed it was sold by assistant colonial surgeon Dr. Henry Crockett to American phrenologist Samuel George Morton, via his agent William Cobb Hurry. Morton granted his collection to the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia in 1853. The Academy then gave Pearce’s skull, along with others from Morton’s collection, to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum in 1968.

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Citation details

'Pearce, Alexander (c. 1790–1824)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/pearce-alexander-31474/text38929, accessed 21 June 2021.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Alexander Pearce, by Thomas Bock, 1824

Alexander Pearce, by Thomas Bock, 1824

Archives Office of Tasmania, PH30/1/2722

Life Summary [details]

Birth

c. 1790
Monaghan, Ireland

Death

19 July 1824
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death

executed

Cultural Heritage
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Passenger Ship
Occupation
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Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Armagh (Ireland)
Trial Date: 1819

Pre-transportation

Occupation: farm labourer