THEY called him "the man-eater of Macquarie Harbour".
An American book claimed he lured fellow convicts to escape to get them to "his lair in the woods", where he would eat them and maintained a constant supply of fresh victims.
Was Alexander Pearce really a monster or just a starving man? Born in 1790, he was sentenced to transportation at the Co Armagh Lent Assizes for stealing six pairs of shoes and left Cork on October 3, 1819, on the Castle Forbes.
Arriving in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) 200 years ago this year, on February 29, 1820, he would commit various offences and, in May 1822, be reported as an absconder by the Hobart Town Gazette with a £10 reward on his head.
Captured, he was sent to the high-security penal establishment on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's isolated west coast.
Official records said he came from Co Monaghan, but Pearce would later tell a gaoler he was in fact from Co Fermanagh.
In 1850, the Cornwall Chronicle in Tasmania claimed that the state's Pieman River was named after Pearce and that he was a pie seller.
The Hobart Town Courier in 1854 suggested "Pearce was sent to Macquarie Harbour for "selling unwholesome meat made into pies".
Stories about him had many embellishments, but the question is, is any of it true? The answer is, yes.
In September 1822, Pearce escaped with seven other convicts from Sarah Island. With him were Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, William Kennerly, Matthew Travers, Edward Brown, Robert Greenhill and John Mather. Their progress would have been slow as they had to cross mountains, rainforests and force their way through dense scrub, marshes and wild rivers.
They would have become lost almost immediately in some of the world's most impenetrable country, almost half the size of Ireland, carrying only a few days' worth of stolen food.
It was Pearce who acquired the infamy because, although Kennerly and Brown ran off, he was the only one of the remaining six who emerged after almost two months in the wilderness.
Their meagre food supplies ran out after a week. They tried boiling the leaves of trees to extract the juice. It made them sick. They walked for 12 days, the last four without food.
"We were all in a very weak state," Pearce would tell magistrate Rev Robert Knopwood four months later, his account now residing in the National Library of Australia.
Talk turned to eating "a piece of a man". Greenhill was the first who introduced the subject. He said that he had seen the like done before - and that it tasted "very like pork".
Mather said it would be murder, but Greenhill urged them on. They then consulted on who should fall. Greenhill said Dalton because he had volunteered to be a "flogger". That night they made a fire.
"About 3 o'clock in the morning Dalton was asleep. Greenhill got up, took an axe and struck him on the head. Travers took a knife, cut his throat and bled him. We then dragged the body to a distance, cut off his clothes, tore his inside out and cut off his head."
Mather, Travers and Greenhill then cooked and ate some of the remains before dividing other pieces up for their journey.
Days later, they came to a plain and stopped for the night, exhausted. "Travers, Greenhill and Mather went aside and consulted who should be killed now."
Bodenham didn't hear this discussion and warmed himself by the fire. "In about two minutes I heard a blow given and Mather said he is done for."
Now they had "plenty of provisions", as Pearce put it. They rested before heading across marshy ground to cross the Great Western Tiers, following a river for three days.
"Our provisions were all out and we said to ourselves that we would all die rather than any more should be killed."
Three days later they boiled some fern and drank it but were sick.
Next they killed Mather, who was allowed to pray first. Then there were three. Travers was bitten by a snake.
The seventh day after Mathers death, they came to a very large river and stayed two days. Travers couldn't swim. "Greenhill and I swam across. He carried the axe and I took the provisions that remained. We cut a long pole and pulled him over". Travers was holding them back, his inflamed foot turning black. It was obvious who would be next.
"We stopped two days, then took as much of the body of Travers as we could carry".
I cut off part of his thigh and arm, which I took with me, and went on for several days until I had ate it all
Before long, they found themselves close to civilisation.
"I watched Greenhill for two nights as I thought he eyed me more than usual. He always kept the axe under his head when he laid down and carried it on his back when walking. Greenhill was watching me so narrowly.
"Near daybreak he fell asleep. I took the axe from under his head and struck him. I cut off part of his thigh and arm, which I took with me, and went on for several days until I had ate it all."
Days later, he saw sheep. "I caught a lamb and ate it raw."
Rather than trying him for murder and cannibalism, Knopwood simply sent him back to Sarah Island.
Later that year, Pearce escaped again, this time with convict Thomas Cox, who begged to go with him. Cox didn't know the Hobart Town Gazette would later call Pearce "the being who had banqueted on human flesh".
One week into this second escape, Pearce and Cox arrived at the King River, where Pearce discovered that Cox couldn't swim. He knew what he would have to do before swimming off himself.
Captured days later, Pearce was tried at Tasmania's Supreme Court and was hanged in the yard of the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on July 19, 1824.
Had Pearce enjoyed the taste of human flesh? Along with bits of Thomas Cox they found in his pockets was some of the real food the pair had taken with them.
In more recent times, Pearce's story has been the subject of a film, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, featuring Adrian Dunbar and Ciaran McMenamin, both from Fermanagh, where Pearce said he grew up.
This story appears in John Wright's book Undaunted: The Irish in Australia (The History Press Ireland), which is available from easons.com