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The Execution of Alexander Pearce 1824

Hobart gaol

The Execution of Alexander Pearce 1824

These crimes occurred at a time in Australian History when newspapers were in there infancy and accounts of these events are sparse by modern standards. Alexander Pearce had been sent to one of the most notorious hell holes of a penal colony in the history of Australia.

The after the initial shock of transportation, Convicts in Australia felt that they had landed on their feet there was many letters sent to the homeland encouraging family members of Convicts to steal something and get themselves sent out to Australia. The British establishment decided to send a harsher Governor. In 1822 Governor Brisbane established a penal colony in Morton Bay to be a Prison within a Prison. This colony had a weather pattern so pleasant it kind of defeated its purpose. Governor Brisbane next established a Penal colony in the inhospitable and geographically isolated Macquarie Harbour on the western coast of Tasmania. Bleak is not putting a too fine a point on this place. This is where Alexander Pearce was sent as he was a repeat offending absconder.

To quote Mark Twain, Australian History is made of the most delicious lies, or rather  that the truth is stranger than fiction, to imagine that a prisoner confessed to eating his fellow escapees to be not believed and sent back to the prison camp to do it again is one of those particular and peculiar Australian historical moments.

The newly established Supreme Court of Tasmania cast it first death sentence on Alexander Pearce and was hung in Hobart gaol 1824.

young hobart

THE TRIAL

Hobart Town Gazette
25/6/1824
THE SUPREME COURT,
OF VAN DIEMEN’S LAND.
Alexander Pearce, a convict, was arraigned for the murder of a fellow-prisoner named Thomas Cox, at or near King’s River, in the month of November last, and he pleaded—Not Guilty.
The circumstances which were understood to have accompanied the above crime had long been considered with extreme horror. Report had associated the prisoner with cannibals; and recollecting as we did, the vampire legends of modern Greece, we confess, that on this occasion, our eyes glanced in fearfulness at the being who stood before a retributive Judge, laden with the weight of human blood, and believed to have banquetted on human flesh! It was, therefore, with much satisfaction we heard His Majesty’s ATTORNEY- GENERAL, whilst candidly opening his case for the prosecution, entreat the Jury to dismiss from their minds all previous impressions against the prisoner; as, however justly their hearts must execrate the fell enormities imputed to him, they should dutiously judge him, not by rumours—but by indubitable evidence.
The Learned Gentleman then proceeded to detail, certain confessions made by the prisoner, before the late much-lamented Lieutenant CUTHBERTSON, (Commandant at Macquarie Harbour), and at his examination by the Rev. ROBERT KNOPWOOD—confessions which, although in some respects inconsistent, would yet, when coupled with all the facts, merit the most serious attention.

From them it appeared, that as other evidence would prove the prisoner and the deceased, on the 13th November, absconded from their duty into the woods, each of them taking his axe, and the prisoner being heavily ironed;—that they for several days wandered on without provision and reduced by weakness, until, on the following Sunday evening, the deceased and prisoner arrived at King’s River;—a quarrel then arose because the deceased could not swim, and after prisoner had struck him on the head three times with his axe, the deceased seeing him about to go away (his irons having been knocked off), said, in a faint voice, “for mercy’s sake come back, and put me out of my misery!” Prisoner struck him a fourth blow, which immediately caused death; he then cut a piece off one thigh, which he roasted and ate, and after putting another piece in his pocket, he swam across the river, with an intent to reach Port Dalrymple.
Soon afterwards, however, he became so overwhelmed with the agonies of remorse, that he was constrained to recross the river, and, on seeing a schooner under weigh from the Settlement, he made a signal-fire, which on being seen, induced the pilot boat to put off and take him on board. He was then conveyed to the harbour, where he publicly owned the murder, and said “he was willing to die for it.
The Attorney-General concluded a thrilling tale of almost incredible barbarity, by calling Thomas Smith, who swore, that in November last he was coxswain to the Commandant at Macquarie Harbour; he knew the prisoner and the deceased; they absconded from Logan’s gang on the 13th; on the 22d, Pearce made his signal fire on the beach, near King’s River, and was taken back to the Settlement; he said Cox had died, and he had cut off a bit of his flesh to show what had become of him.
Witness, on the following day was ordered by the Commandant to go with prisoner, and get Cox’s body; he went, and it was found. The head was away, the hands cut off, the bowels were torn out, and the greater part of the breech and thighs gone, as were the calf of the legs, and the fleshy parts of the arms. Witness said to the prisoner, “how could you do such a deed as this?” he answered, “no person can tell what he will do when driven by hunger.” Witness then said, “Where is the head?” the answer was, “I left it with the body.” Witness searched for and found it a few yards off under the shade of a fallen tree; witness then picked up what appeared to be the liver of the deceased, and an axe stained with blood, on which prisoner was asked “if that was the axe with which he had killed Cox,” and he answered, “it was.” The fragments of the body were quite naked; near them were some pieces of a shirt, and the cover of a hat.
There had been a fire near the body, and not far from it lay a knife, which witness picked up. The body was then placed in two rugs, and witness, with the prisoner, returned to the Settlement. Prisoner on being asked “where Cox’s hands were,” said “he had left them on a tree where the boat landed;” a search was then made for them, but they could not be found.

Prisoner said, “he had cut off Cox’s flesh to support him on his intended journey to Port Dalrymple, but when he had crossed the river, something came over him, and forced him to return; he threw the flesh into the river, made a sign, and gave himself up.”

William Evans, of the Waterloo schooner, had gone on shore to take the prisoner, who said, ” Cox was drowned in the King’s River.” Prisoner’s hands were fastened, and his pockets searched, in one of which was a piece of flesh; he was asked “what that was?” and said, “it’s a piece of Cox, and I brought it to show that he is lost.”Witness heard the Commandant say to prisoner, “tell me, Pearce, did you do the deed?” prisoner answered “yes, and I am willing to die for it.” Witness asked him “why he had killed Cox ?” he said, “I’ll tell no man, until I am going to suffer.”

Many other witnesses were then called, who corroborated the above depositions in every essential point; and proved, that the clothes and hat, worn by the deceased when he absconded, were those which the prisoner wore when he was taken on board the pilot boat; but that the hat covering had been taken off.

The prisoner’s written confessions were afterwards most fairly commented on by the CHIEF JUSTICE, who addressed the Jury at considerable length with much solemnity, and submitted to their consideration, whether or not it was fully proved that the deceased had died from blows inflicted by the prisoner? and then, even if he had so died, whether, as a quarrel had been stated to have occurred before death, the prisoner was guilty of the crime charged, or of manslaughter? The Jury retired for a short time, and found a verdict of—Guilty.

alex pearce d sent

THE HANGING
24/7/1824
Hobart Town Gazette
Executions.—On Monday, Alexander Pearce, for murder, and yesterday, John Butler, for sheep stealing, John Thompson, Patrick Connolly, James Tierney and George Lacey, for burglary and highway robbery, were executed in this town pursuant to their sentence

Pearce’s body was, after it had been suspended the usual time, delivered at the hospital for dissection. We trust these awful and ignominious results of disobedience to law and humanity will act as a powerful caution; for blood must expiate blood and the welfare of society imperatively requires, that all whose crimes are so confirmed, and systematic, as not to be redeemed by lenity, shall be pursued in vengeance and extirpated with death !

We have reason to expect that by next week, we shall, through the kindness of an esteemed Clergyman, be empowered to communicate some extensive information, of a very interesting kind, respecting the murderer Pearce!

pearce 1

THE PREIST’S ACCOUNT OF THE CONDEMNED MANS CONFESSION
6/8/1824
Hobart Town Gazette
ALEXANDER Pearce. –
In our Paper the week before last we noticed the execution of this criminal for the Murder of Thomas Cox, the leading facts of whose untimely death have already been reported in this Gazette. From much respected Gentleman, in whose Knowledge and veracity the most un-bounded confidence may be placed, we derive the following particulars, which it is to be hoped may excite a proper feeling among that class of society to which it is earnestly addressed:-

The Rev. Mr. Connolly, who attended this unfortunate man, administering to him the consolations of Religion, addressed the crowd assembled around the scaffold, a few minutes before the fatal drop was let to fall, in words to the following effect:- He commenced by stating, that Pearce, standing on the awful entrance into eternity on which he was placed, was desirous to make the most public acknowledgment of his guilt, in order to humble himself, as much as possible, in the sight of God and Man; – that, to prevent any embarrassment which might attend Pearce in personally expressing himself, he had requested and directed him to say, that he committed the murder of Cox, under the following circumstances:

Having been arrested here, after his escape from Macquarie Harbour, Pearce was sent back to that Settlement, where the deceased (Cox) and he were worked together in the same gang. Cox constantly entreated him to runaway with him from that Settlement, which he refused to do for a length of time. Cox having procured fishhooks, a knife, and some burnt rag for tinder, he at last agreed to go with him, to whom he was powerfully induced by the apprehension of corporal punishment, for the loss of a shirt that had been stolen from him. For the first and second day they strayed through the forest – on the third made the beach, and travelled towards Port Dalrymple until the fifth, when they arrived at King’s River.

pearce 2

They remained, for three or four days, in an adjoining wood to avoid soldiers who were in pursuit of them, and were all the time, from the period they started, without a morsel teat. Overcome by famine, Pearce determined to take Cox’s life, which he effected by the stroke of an axe while Cox was sleeping. Soon after the soldiers had departed, Pearce occupied the place they had been in, where he remained part of a day and a night, living on the mutilated remains of Cox; he returned to the Settlement, made signal, and was taken up by the pilot, who conveyed him to Macquarie Harbour, where he disclosed to the Commandant the deed he had done, being weary of life, and willing to die for the misfortunes and atrocities into which he had fallen.
The Rev. Gentleman then proceeded to state, that he believed it was in the recollection of every one present, that eight men had made their escape, last year, from Macquarie Harbour. All these, except Pearce, who was of the party, soon perished, or were destroyed by the hands of their companions. To set the public right respecting their fate, Pearce is desirous to state, that this party, which consisted of himself, Matthew ravers, Bob Greenhill, Bill Cornelius, Alexander Dalton, John Mathers, and two more, named Bodnam and Brown, escaped from Macquarie Harbour in two boats, taking with them what provision the coal-miners had, which afforded each man about two ounces of food per day, for a week.

Afterwards they lived eight or nine days on the tops of tea-tree and peppermint, which they boiled in tin-pots to extract the juice. Having ascended a hill, in sight of Macquarie Harbour, they struck a light and made two fires. Cornelius, Brown, and Dalton placed themselves at one fire, the rest of the party at the other; those three separated, privately, from the party, on account of Greenhill having already said that lots must be cast for someone to be put to death, to save the whole, from perishing.

Pearce does not know, personally, what became of Cornelius, Brown and Dalton; – he heard that Cornelius and Brown reached Macquarie Harbour, where they soon died, and that Dalton perished on his return to that Settlement. – After their departure, the party, then consisting of five men, lived two or three days on wild berries, – and their kangaroo jackets, which they roasted; at length they arrived at Gordon’s River, where it was agreed, that while Mathers and Pearce collected fire-wood; Greenhill, and Travers should kill Bodnam, which they accordingly did. It was insisted upon that everyone should partake of Bodnam’s remains, lest, in the event of their ultimate success to obtain their liberty, any of them might consider himself innocent of his death, and give evidence against the rest. After a day or two, they all swam across the river, except Travers, whom they dragged across by means of a pole, to which he tied himself. Having spent some days in distress and famine, it was proposed to Pearce, by Greenhill and Travers, that Mathers be killed, to which he agreed.
Travers and Pearce held him while Greenhill killed him with an axe. Living on the remains of the deceased, which they were hardly able to taste, they spent three or four days, through weakness, without advancing beyond five or six miles, Travers being scarcely able to move from lameness and swelling in his foot. –

Greenhill and Pearce agreed to kill Traver’s, which Greenhill did, while Pearce collected fire-wood. Having lived some time on the remains of Travers, they were for some days without any thing to eat – their wants
Were dreadful – each strove to catch the other off his guard, and kill him. Pearce succeeded to find Greenhill asleep – took his life – and lived on him for four days. He was afterwards for three days without any sustenance – fell in, at last, with the Derwent River, and found some small pieces of opossums, &c. at a place where the Natives had lately made fires. More desirous to die than to live, he called out, as loudly as he could, expecting the Natives would hear him, and come to put an end to his existence! Having fallen in with some bush-Rangers, with whom he was taken, Pearce was sent back to Macquarie Harbour, from whence he escaped with Cox, as has been already stated, for whose death he is now about to suffer.

Alluding particularly to those who ought to be deterred from the commission of crime by examples like the present, how often, said the Rev. Mr.Conolly, does the justice of Providence bring to light the dark deeds of death and how frequently do we see it verified, that “Whoever sheds the blood of Man by Man shall his blood be shed !” Having stated that the unfortunate Pearce was more willing to die than to live, he concluded by entreating all persons to offer up their prayers, and beg of the Almighty to have mercy upon him

PEARCE SKULL

 

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