Imagine being one of a group of five desperate convicts on the run from the authorities and each having a total mistrust of the other and – worse still – you are on an island in the wilds of an Australian forest, with no food except some stale bread. It’s early September and the temperature is around 23°. However, there is one important item of equipment available for you to share.
It is an axe of such weight and proportions, it will easily decapitate a kangaroo with one blow. Trust is all – but there is none! Who looks after the axe? How will you organise the capture and trapping of wildlife?
How will you prepare yourselves against the largest terrestrial predator in Australia – the dingo – which hunt in packs? A pack of humans versus a pack of wild dogs! The odds are not good if you do not work together and plan for the day-by-day survival of your group and manage to avoid recapture.
Okay, this needs a little more work before I pitch it to Sega, Nintendo or Blizzard Entertainment, but how far do I alter the names or indeed introduce a 21st century gender conflict? – for this was a real event involving five men, transported as convicts from England to the island of Tasmania, Australia in the early 19th century.
Known then as Van Diemen’s Land, England’s legal system was busy populating it with hundreds and hundreds of convicts in remote penal colonies. Convicts such as:
Edward Broughton, a tall, scar-faced labourer, aged 27, transported for 14 years for house-breaking.
Richard Hutchinson, an even taller labourer, (alias: Up-And-Down Dick), aged 44, transported for life for horse-theft.
Matthew Macavoy, medium build, with a pock-pitted face, aged 31, transported for 7 years for theft.
William Coventry, a stocky man aged 53, transported for 7 years for cattle theft in Ireland and lastly,
Patrick Fagan, skinny young man of 18 years of age, transported for robbery, and described by the press of the time as “..a boy of the most depraved character.”
It is September 3rd, 1830 and these five men are in a working party at Macquarie Harbour in the West Coast region of Tasmania.
The beginning was easy.
Just one constable, PC Charles Bradshaw, was in charge of this working party of five, and was soon attacked and knocked to the ground. Bread provisions were taken from the small harbour store and they all fled into the deep Tasmanian woodland.
It’s not clear if all five had planned it together or just one or two and the others joined in, for, from that moment of fleeing, there seemed to be no real plan of action. It did not take too many miles in the oppressive heat for an argument about who should be in charge of the axe.
Broughton had stolen it and intended to hang onto it, but in turn he was fearful that Macavoy, who was a much stronger man, would soon be fighting him for it, while Fagan, Hutchinson and Coventry, glowered on, wondering whether to make a move. It seemed they were all incapable of any form of rational discussion or plan as to the group’s survival. From the outset it stayed a collection of five disparate, scowling individuals with utter contempt for each other. The Sunday Times was later to report, “The demon of evil had possession, and walked in the midst of them, “(The Sunday Times, January 22nd 1832, p.3)
The form this devil was to take was yet to be discovered and it was Broughton who gave it human form. Exhausted and hungry after days of wandering in thick, tangled woodland with no sign of creatures to slay, Broughton managed to carefully, and slyly, convince Macavoy, Coventry and Fagan that they needed to murder Hutchinson to provide food for their journey. They managed to draw lots as to the killer without Hutchinson suspecting and Broughton drew the short straw. Without waiting any longer, Broughton rushed up to Hutchinson and drove the axe down into his head, knocking him to the ground.
In a frenzy, he cut Hutchinson to pieces so his clothing could be ripped off and the assorted body parts roasted over an open fire. Broughton reasoning that Hutchinson’s body parts would be lighter to carry once they were roasted and they would last longer as a nutritious food than uncooked flesh. After the four had, “eaten heartily of it,” according to Broughton, they divided up the remaining roasted flesh and set off leaving behind only the hands, feet and intestines.
Here is the story so far for those of a poetic persuasion:
These desperate and deranged individuals, however, now became wildly unsettled about their personal safety and Broughton’s insistence on crowning himself keeper of the axe.
Four more days went by and Broughton had made a private arrangement with young Fagan that each would take turns to sleep whilst other kept watch. Broughton kept the axe as his ‘pillow’ when he slept and stalked around with it whilst Fagan took his rest. Coventry and Macavoy merely glowered and hardly dare sleep.
Eventually, Macavoy decided he wanted to draw lots for another kill which he whispered to both Fagan and Broughton, saying it should be ‘the old man,’ William Coventry. Broughton refused to draw lots on the ground he had already made a killing and it should be Fagan and Macavoy between them so they would all became part of the same guilty crime if recaptured.
With the deal agreed, young Fagan rushed Coventry with the axe. Coventry saw him coming and raised his arms in front of him, calling out for mercy.
No mercy was shown as the axe struck him just above the eyes and he fell to the ground. Between them, it was Macavoy and Broughton that finished him off and chopped him into pieces while Fagan looked on.
Broughton was to comment:
“We ate greedily of the flesh, never sparing it just as if we had expected to meet a whole bullock the next day.”
As the three journeyed on in paranoid mistrust, and Coventry’s roasted flesh was dwindling in their pockets, Macavoy suggested he’d go off and set snares for a kangaroo, for they had heard wild dogs in the distance that might drive such prey towards them. He urged Broughton to assist him, while Fagan kept the fire. Broughton – still keeper of the axe – was suspicious of Macavoy’s motives; worried he’d be robbed of his precious weapon and killed.
Not long after they had set off, Macavoy urged Broughton to sit down and discuss the murder of Fagan. Broughton did so, but only after throwing the axe to one side, closer to himself than Macavoy so he had time to reach it first and defend himself in case this was a plot by Macavoy to kill him. Broughton did not want Fagan killed. He regarded Fagan as the nearest he had come to having a trusted companion on this bizarre and perilous journey so he refused to go along with Macavoy’s suggestion.
They returned to the fire, and Fagan asked Broughton about the snares, saying, “Have you put any snares down Ned?” Broughton replied carefully as if giving Fagan a warning for he really wished to tell him Macavoy’s plan, “No, there are snares enough if you did but know it, ” he replied and sat close to him, leaving Macavoy a little more distant to one side.
The warmth of the fire sent Broughton into a light dozing sleep but he was awoken with a scream of terror and saw Fagan being attacked viciously by Macavoy who had grabbed the axe and rushed him. Broughton shouted at Macavoy to stop but blood was pouring from Fagan’s head. Macavoy continued to strike him and finished him by using a razor to cut his windpipe.
Broughton had lost, but soon set about joining Macavoy in stripping Fagan of his clothes so he could be cut into pieces and roasted. Broughton’s only act of despair at eating Fagan was to throw away what was left of his share a few days later after coming across the remains of a kangaroo savaged by dingos.
A few more days later, Broughton and Macavoy found themselves at a place called Macguire’s Marsh and realised that it was game up. A month had now gone by, three of their disparate band cruelly murdered and eaten – they could not stay together any longer under such paranoid tension plus there seemed no end to this deep Tasmanian forest.
They gave themselves up at a small settlement at the junction of the Shannon and Ouse rivers where they were detained until a trial found them guilty of murder and they were both hanged in public, in front of the Court House in Macquire’s Town the following January, 1832.
Below is the broadsheet illustration published in Newcastle-upon-Tyne of this sensational case of murder and cannibalism that took the press by storm to think that people with no record of murder in their criminal past could so easily change not only into savage killers but cannibals and it gave further credence to certain theories of the time that criminals were a difference species of human being capable of unlimited depths of depravity once unleashed.
Today, with the benefit of Google Earth and Google maps you can freely visit the site of this most gruesome episode in the criminal annals of Van Diemen’s Land and discover that nowadays, it is a mere 3 hours 43 minutes drive (120 miles) along the A10, from the historic site of Macquarie Harbour to McGuire’s Marsh across the Franklin-Gordon Wild River National Park. Just make sure you take adequate provisions for the journey.