HOBART, TASMANIA — On July 19, 1824, convicted Irish thief and murderer Alexander Pearce accepted his fate at the gallows of the Campbell Street Gaol. When asked if he had any last words, Pearce spoke plainly:
“Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.”
With that, the hangman did his job. Pearce died on schedule, executed for escaping from jail alongside a younger inmate named Thomas Cox, killing Cox while on the lam, and, finally, for eating his companion.
The evidence against Pearce can only be described as strong. When searchers ultimately nabbed him, they discovered gnawed pieces of Cox’s body in the fugitive’s pockets.
Desperate circumstances, of course, can drive virtually anyone to desperate measures. Within the previous year, Pearce reportedly had reached that exact same level of desperation — in fact, even more so — the first time he first broke out of jail in Australia. On that occasion, Pearce was one of seven escapees. He remained at large for 113 days before authorities tracked him down — and could locate no one else who had been among his fleeing party.
Pearce told officials he had eaten the others. He even detailed his countdown to cannibalism, describing how the gang broke loose while engaged in labor down by a harbor and lasted 15 days before drawing lots to see who would be killed for food.
One by one, the weakest men fell prey to the single ax the group had, after which they were cooked and consumed. In time, it came down to Pearce and two others, one of whom suffered a venomous snakebite and begged to be killed. He got his wish.
After that, it was just Pearce and a con named Robert Greenhill, who possessed the ax. For eight days, each starving fugitive dared not sleep over the (completely accurate) fear that the other would slaughter him. Greenhill nodded off first and Pearce struck, becoming the last man standing — and digesting.
Back in custody, Pearce confessed to the cannibalism, but officials figured that the cons had really just slipped farther into the wilderness to live as outlaws known as “bushrangers.” With his second recapture, though, Pearce’s original story took on tremendous credibility.
Ten days after being hauled back in, Pearce paid the ultimate price. In death, he became a ghoulishly legendary figure in Australia, Tasmania, and his native Ireland. He has been the subject of numerous books, songs, and other undertakings. Films about Alexander Pearce include Dying Breed (2008), The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008), and Van Dieman’s Land (2009).
Even Pearce’s very bones continue to captivate the curious. Through unspecified means, controversial American anatomy scientist Dr. Samuel George Morton came to possess Pearce’s skull. Following Morton’s 1851 death, his collection went to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Science. In 1968, the Academy donated Pearce’s skull to University of Pennsylvania Museum. You can still see it there today.
For those keeping score: The original crime committed in Ireland that got Pearce sentenced to seven years of hard labor in Australia was “the theft of six pairs of shoes.”
Main image: Alexander Pearce after his execution, by Thomas Bock [WikiMedia Commons]