Moondyne Joe - A Picturesque Outlaw

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Published as "Moondyne Joe", in The Sunday Times, 27/5/1928. A final draft of foolscap typescript has been found in the archives of Houghton Winery.

Photograph of Moondyne Joe that accompanied the The Sunday Times article.

Although not distinguishable by outward appearance from the hundreds of other cells in Fremantle Gaol, there is one cell which has a particular interest because of the picturesque with which it is associated.

'Moondyne Joe' was, perhaps, Western Australia's most noted bushranger. He was not an outlaw of the bloodthirsty type, such as the Kelly's, Steve Hart, and the score of others who killed and plundered on the eastern side of the continent during last century, and was notorious more for his prison breaking exploits than for his crimes.

It was because the authorities found it impossible to keep Moondyne behind prison walls that a cell in Fremantle Gaol was specially prepared for him, and it remains today as it was when he occupied it many years ago. The walls of the confined space are heavily timbered and appear to have been laboriously carved and patterned, but is the triple-barred window which is of special interest. Moondyne laughed at ordinary locks and bars and prison walls, but when he first saw the cell prepared for him after many escapes, he must have realised that he would never be able to break through the bars which covered the small window space. First there was a series of thick iron bars, then a second series not quite so heavy, and outside a steel plate had been fixed, sufficiently perforated to permit the entrance of light and air. This was the penalty imposed on Western Australia's bushranger because of the facility he had displayed in escaping from legal custody.

Moondyne's most successful exploit in eluding the watchfulness of his custodians occurred on March 8, 1867, when he is reputed to have escaped through a hole he had tunnelled under the walls of the Gaol. He had received a sentence of some years imprisonment for a number of thefts but had escaped time after time, and at length, the prison authorities determined to put an end to his exploits. It is said that a big cage of strong bars was made, into which Joe, heavily leg-ironed, was placed during the day and kept at work within cracking stones.

The cage was placed near the south wall of the gaol, and at night the prisoner was taken out and confined to his cell until morning. The story goes that he piled a heap of stones within the cage so that he would be more or less out of view when working and would not attract the attention of the armed sentries on the walls. What subsequently transpired shows that Moondyne must have used every possible opportunity of excavating a tunnel from the earthen floor of the cage beneath the prison wall; then, when the day came on which he had determined to make yet another bid for freedom, he stood his hammer handle up in the heap of stones, placed a piece of bent wire across the top, put his coat and then cap on top, giving it the appearance of a tall figure to deceive the sentries. Having done this he crawled through the tunnel and escaped to the outside, where, it is thought, he had some confederate or sympathiser, who successfully hid him from the authorities. His escape was not noticed until the warder in charge came to take him from his cage to the cell for the night. It is said that the warder went up to the dummy figure and actually shook it before he discovered Joe was not there. A hue and cry was immediately raised and the country was scoured for the missing man. He could not be found, however, and people at length began to believe that he had left the state. For two years he remained at large and then his recapture was made in sensational circumstances.

On February 25th, 1869, when I was living at the Upper Swan, I had been to Perth on business, and just after returning home I received a message stating that a man had been drowned in the river and requesting me to notify the police at Guildford. I did so, and two mounted troopers were despatched to undertake the dragging of the river at the spot where it was believed the man had been drowned. The troopers were assisted by about a dozen other men, but it was not until one o'clock the next morning that the body was recovered and taken by the police to the man's home. I had been one of the searchers and invited the police officers and the others to come across to the cellars at the Houghton Vineyards, which I owned, and have a drink of wine, as we were all very wet and cold.

Unknown to us at the time, another man, Moondyne Joe, had selected that very night to force an entry to my wine cellars. He had apparently come from far away in the hills. I knew Moondyne, whose proper name was Joseph Bolitho Johns, fairly well. He was a tall man, standing well over 6 feet in height, and although spare of build, was extremely powerful and was a first rate bushman and rider. He knew every inch of the country between the Helena River, the head of the swan and Chittering Brook. He allowed his hair to grow in long plaits over his shoulders, and he also grew a very long beard. In anticipation of the plunder he expected to carry away with him from the cellars he had cut a hole in the centre of a wheat stack and fitted it over his head. In each end of the sack he had a two gallon keg, one in front and one at the back. He had covered his boots with sheep skins to disguise his tracks. In a small canvas bag around his neck were six skeleton keys, a brass tap, a dark lantern and a waddy, made from a piece of York Gum about 2 feet long.

It was unfortunate for Moondyne that he arrived at the cellars not long before the Police search party, at my invitation, also arrived. When I put my key into the lock of the cellar door I found it unlocked, and it creaked ajar. I thought it was strange, but concluded that it had not been closed when work had ceased for the day. I therefore lighted a candle I was carrying and commenced to walk along the cellar between the rows of wine barrels. The cellar was about 60 feet long and the spluttering flame of the candle did little more than dimly light the few feet of space immediately in front of me. One of my men was carrying a large jug and we commenced to walk towards a cask of wine which was on tap. We had only gone a few yards from the door when there was an unearthly yell and the tall figure of a man, with hair streaming over his shoulders and looking extremely weird, with the contrivance he carried over his head and shoulders, sprang out of the darkness. He made a tremendous blow at me with his waddy which just grazed my shoulder, made a second plunge at the man who was carrying the jug, and dashed past us towards the door straight into the arms of the police officers and the other men who were following. The cellar had been plunged into darkness as the candle had dropped from my hand, and my man had also dropped his jug. I confess that I was quite scared for the moment as, I think, most men would have been in similar circumstances, and was relieved when I got outside to find that my attacker had been captured by the police and was sitting on the ground securely handcuffed.

No one at first recognised the intruder, and then someone called out - "Why it's Moondyne!" "Yes!" replied the prisoner, 'you have got him at last'. Moondyne cooly asked me to give him a drink as he had not had time to get one for himself. He had, he declared, just put the tap he had brought with him into the cask when he had heard voices outside and was afraid that he would have to fight his way out. He said he was sorry he had struck me as he had no ill-will towards me. He also said he had seen my mother walking up and down whilst he had been hiding amongst the vines waiting an opportunity to break into the cellar.

Moondyne had apparently lost control of himself somewhat, for, if had had only rolled under the numerous rows of gantrees in the cellar, I would have walked to the cask, filled the jug, and walked out again, and he would have been left undiscovered to make his way out at his leisure, after we had retired. Moondyne had arrived on horseback and he asked me allow someone to go and release his horse, which he had tied up at a place nearby, known as the Sand Pit. I did so, but no horse was there, and it was evident that the animal had been released by one of his numerous friends. Joe got three years' imprisonment on a charge of being a prisoner at large and of assaulting the man who had entered the cellar with me, whose head was badly cut by the the blow aimed at him by Moondyne. After his sentence he worked for sometime at Fremantle for Mr. Wrightson, the boat builder.

Although Moondyne was regarded as a bushranger, I never heard of him baling anyone up at the point of a revolver and threatening them with their lives if they did not hand over their money and valuables. He was very cunning and crafty and more a petty thief than a highwayman. An an instance, I remember that my father lost a pony which had been bred in country familiar to Moondyne. The pony made its way back to this country and my father offered £3 for its recovery. Joe found the pony and brought it to Houghton and was paid the reward of £3. He was asked to put the pony in a paddock which he did, but the next day when I went to see if the horse was there, I found that a post had been cut down and tracks showed where the horse had been driven over the fence. Joe, after receiving the reward, had apparently repossessed himself of the horse, which was never seen again.

During the two years Moondyne was at liberty preceding his capture at Houghton, several robberies were committed in the Swan District and Herne Hill. The store was broken into and Cruse's Mill was also robbed and a quantity of flour stolen. No one, however seemed to connect Moondyne with these robberies. From doing a bit of sawing and shingle splitting, he took to horse hunting, and was well known on Toodyay Road. He was wise in his generation and made many friends, who stood to him in times of need, although he often failed to discriminate between these friends and other people.

Many old residents of Western Australia will remember the publication of verses which were written and sung to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weazle" at the time of Moondyne's sensational escape from Fremantle Gaol. There was an epidemic of measles in Perth at that time and one of the victims was the then Governor. One of the doggerel verses was as follows:-

"The Governor's son has got the pip,

The Governor's got the measles.
But Moondyne Joe has give 'em the slip,

Pop goes the weazle."

All the urchins in Perth used to sing and whistle this tune. Residents of Augusta and surround districts state that the Coronation Cave, near Augusta, was originally known as Moondyne Joe's Cave and that he used it as a refuge when chased by the police. Personally I never heard of Moondyne being in that country his favourite haunt being the Darling Range, and particularly a spot known as Moondyne, a pool in the upper reaches of the Swan. I believe that is was his desire to celebrate the second anniversary of his escape from Fremantle that led to his capture in the Houghton wine cellars, because he would have been out exactly two years in the week following his capture.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days), and it was first published before 1989 without complying with U.S. copyright formalities (renewal and/or copyright notice) and it was in the public domain in its home country on the URAA date (January 1, 1996 for most countries).

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.