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Aussie horror movie Dying Breed, in cinemas from November 6, 2008, is inspired by the chilling historical record of escaped Tasmanian convict Alexander Pearce, hanged for cannibalism in 1824; The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, a dramatised documentary about Pearce is also in the wings, first to air on ABC TV early next year, followed by the DVD release.

In Dying Breed, zoology student, Nina (Mirrah Foulkes), claims she can breach Tasmania's impenetrable forests and reveal the existence of the illusive and ancient Tasmanian Tiger. Driving Nina's quest is one critical piece of proof: a paw print taken by her sister just before she met with a fatal accident eight years before. But Nina doesn't know that Tasmania became the world's most dangerous island in the 19th century, when the murderous convict Alexander ‘The Pieman’ Pearce (Peter Docker) broke out of prison and ate his fellow escapees. Soon Nina and her friends discover Pieman's dreadful descendants, when she sets out with her partner, Matt (Leigh Whannell), his old mate Jack (Nathan Phillips) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo) in search of the Tiger.

This contemporary story links its central characters to Tasmania’s brutal past as writers Jody Dwyer and Michael Boughen imagine a community of hideous descendants who must remain hidden, but who need fresh ‘stock’ to breed.

"unique story"

Writing in The Age a few years ago, Paul Collins explored this unique story: “The man standing in the dock of the Supreme Court of Van Diemens Land did not look like someone who was, as the Hobart Town Gazette put it on June 25, 1824, "laden with the weight of human blood, and believed to have banqueted on human flesh". In fact, he looked perfectly normal. He was 1.6 metres tall, slightly under medium height for the early 19th century, and his frame was wiry and strong. He was 34, but looked older.”

“There was nothing to distinguish the Irish-born Alexander Pearce from the procession of convicts who traipsed through the Hobart Town courts. Except for one thing - he was the first self-confessed cannibal to have appeared there.

“Twenty months earlier, Pearce and seven other convicts had escaped from the prison settlement of Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania, the most remote penal hellhole in the British Empire. In the jargon of the time, this was a place of secondary punishment, where recalcitrant convicts were sent when they repeatedly fell foul of the law while serving their original sentences. Pearce was the sole survivor of their nine-week escape through some of the world's most difficult wilderness terrain.

“During their journey, five of his companions had been killed and eaten by their fellows. Two others died from exhaustion. The problem with human flesh is that, while rich in protein, it never really satisfies hunger because of the lack of carbohydrates, which provide energy. That is why the men had to kill so regularly. No matter how much they ate of their companions, it was not enough for the energy needed on their stamina-sapping journey.”

"sole survivor"

As the sole survivor, Pearce made his way to the Derwent River, where he joined some bushrangers. He was later captured but the authorities did not believe his grisly story. He was sent back to Macquarie Harbour, escaped again and once more reverted to cannibalism. Again he was captured. This time he was sentenced to death.

Because cannibalism was unheard of among Europeans, Pearce's trial for murder created a sensation in Hobart Town, London, and even the United States.

And now, Australia is once again tracking Pearce … this time on the screen.

Published November 6, 2008

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Peter Docker as Alexander Pearce in Dying Breed


Ciaran McMenamin as Pearce in the dramatised documentary, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce

A sketch of Pearce, made after his execution, by convict artist Thomas Bock

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