A Compulsion to Kill; the Surprising Story of Australia’s Earliest Serial Killers is as disturbing as the title suggests. This book focuses on the early years of white settlement in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s land) and a chapter is dedicated to each of the worst killers of those years, including the notorious ‘cannibal convict’ Alexander Pearce and the methodically brutal and often overlooked Charles Routley, who encouraged his victims to pray before he ended their lives. It traverses cold blooded murder, rape, cannibalism and other physical degradations. While we now live in a society inured to violence, the content in this book is still graphic and shocking. It is also an excellent sociological account of Tasmania in those days.
Cox defines the difference between serial killers (more than one murder over a greater timespan) and multiple murders (more than one murder, perpetrated at the same time) and the book begins looking at John Brown and Richard Lemon, who were transported to Sydney and then made their way, separately to Van Diemen’s land and it was here that their violent actions began; the murders that now have them recognised as Australia’s first serial killers.
The names Lemon and Brown, Thomas Jeffrey and John Haley are not as familiar as Rocky Whelan (whose hide-out cave near Hobart still bears his name) and of course, the ‘convict cannibal’ Alexander Pearce. Cox’s descriptions of the violent actions of these men is unambiguous in condemning them, but in the case of Pearce it is more ambiguous, at least during his first spate of cannibalism. It was suggested by one of Pearce’s companions, a sailor, that the rule of the sea dictates that the weakest man be sacrificed for the good of the group. This provided the justification for the first act of cannibalism by Pearce and his group. These men had escaped from the grimmest of penal settlements, Macquarie Harbour and attempted to make their way overland to settlement. They were far from alone in turning to the flesh of their companions to help them survive. Many of the killers discussed in this book also partake.
Each of these chapters provide a macabre and fascinating insight into the daily lives of people in early white settlement in Tasmania and many also provide insight into the killers’ minds. The facts related by Cox build up a rich and bloody portrait. Charles Routley who perpetrated most of his murders around Pitt Water, was also harboured by locals. Rocky Whelan was a peaceful, stoic prisoner for more than 20 years, riding out excessive violence on Norfolk Island before finding his way to Van Diemen’s Land where he began a spree of murders. The context is as crucial to this book as the crimes. While some readers may find his tight focus on the deaths of an by only white people limiting, this book, for all its grim subject matter condenses the worst and first spates of murders and murderers into a grotesque and fascinating read. The primary focus is to list the atrocities perpetrated by these men but the greater historical and political context that Cox’s style and research offer highlights the brutal conditions in which these men lived.
This review was first published in a slightly edited form in The Mercury's TasWeekends, November 1.
A Compulsion to Kill; the history of Tasmania's earliest serial killersby Robert Cox9781922120946Glass House Books