Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram

Moondyne Joe, the escape artist that no prison could hold, not even a specially designed concrete “escape-proof” cell

Three loaves of bread, two slices of bacon, some bits of cheese, a lamb sliver, and a small chunk of suet. No, this is not the evening special in some medieval tavern, like the Tavern of the Rising Sun in Diablo’s Tristram, or the Inn of the Prancing Pony from Lord of the Rings, for instance.

While these taverns did serve something of the sort to men of fiction, this actually was the content of one man’s bag and it sent him right to jail to spend his next four years behind bars.

He was accused and convicted of stealing this amount of food, and arrested again and again further on in his life. Probably more than he should have been. Yet this man, who was no Harry Houdini, David Blaine, or Dorothy Dietrich by any means, was a real escape artist, and no chains could hold him in his cell. His name was Joseph Bolitho Johns, or simply Moondyne Joe, and he escaped from every single cell in which he was placed. Even from one that was specifically designed for him.

Born in New South Wales on the east side of Australia some time around 1820, Joseph was raised in his homeland where he first started his criminal career by stealing bread and bits of food. According to police statements, he and his buddy William Cross were caught wandering late into the night in Monmouth. After a bit of questioning by the police patrol and very unconvincing answers on their part, their bags were checked and found to contain items that supposedly were reported as stolen earlier that night.

Moondyne Joe
Moondyne Joe

Both were charged with larceny and convicted, sentenced to prison, which they did for four years in different penitentiaries in England, until they were transferred back to Western Australia, where they were supposed to finish the remaining years of their sentence in a penal colony. And if the sentence sounds “a bit” severe for a petty crime like “borrowing” a meal from someone else’s plate, then the fact that they opted to defend themselves in court without representation probably explains a lot. As it turned out, bad-mannered drifters who ended up being caught for stealing food were not so great at litigation. Not to mention those couple of insults thrown at the judge that, what do you know, did not help their cause either.

Anyhow, in 1852 they were transported separately, and the same year William Cross, who actually turned out to be John Williams, a wanted criminal with a posse on his back, was placed in a prison in Hobart, and his partner in crime Joseph, our soon to be a jail-breaker, in a Fremantle one where he was pardoned for good behavior and for “aiding in the pursuit a wanted criminal” right after his arrival.

Moondyne Joe’s “escape-proof” cell Author: GhostieGuide CC BY-SA 3.0
Moondyne Joe’s “escape-proof” cell Author: GhostieGuide CC BY-SA 3.0

But it didn’t take too long for him to stick his hands in another man’s pocket once again, two years to be precise. Only this time it wasn’t food that he borrowed but another man’s horse, the local magistrate’s brand new and purebred Waller. His horse ride ended prematurely, for Joseph was tracked down, caught, and instantly thrown in jail. However, interestingly enough, he found a way to break free and escape during the night, and on the very same horse. He took the magistrate’s new and unused leather saddle and the horse’s bridle along the way, just to annoy him.

In two day’s time, Joseph was found asleep in the nearby forest. He was arrested and went on trial for his first ever, but certainly not last, successful jailbreak. As he soon found out, this woodland nap got him a trip back to Fremantle and three years of penal servitude at the port city’s correctional facility, but luckily for him, he didn’t spend them all behind bars, because he was released on good faith, on the condition he stay out of trouble and find a decent job. Which he did, but in Newcastle, Australia. Where he was dumb enough, hungry enough, or just unlucky enough to kill another man’s ox and get caught on the spot with his mouth full. And what do you know, he ended up in jail again, although he claimed that this time, he bought the bullock fair and square, and if there was a crime, another one was to be held accountable and not him.

Despite what he said, the judge still sentenced him to do 10 years in Fremantle. So back to square one. And as we could have guessed already, he escaped from their custody once again, got caught a month later, received 12 additional months on the 10-year sentence, was sent back to Fremantle, placed in chains now, tried to break them and escape but failed, tried again a month later and did. Accompanied by a few more petty criminals who were all planning to rob a bank and go large.

Then came the front pages of the newspaper and an article that mocked three “very special” bank robbers who were arrested before they even have the chance to step on the bank’s doorstep. What they did was break into a gun store in Newcastle and walk away with guns in their pockets, but were intercepted by the police officers who found them 200 miles east of Perth, at Bodallin Soak near Westonia, right before they were about to put their plan into action.

The Enquirer reported about Moondyne Joe and the other two escaped convicts who were caught near Westonia, and it was the first time the name Moondyne Joe was mentioned officially. For the Aborigines, Fremantle was Moondyne in their language and for Joe, Moondyne was more home than a prison, according to the article.

Joe was sent back home to Moondyne, but his home now was expanded and got a brand-new room specially designed to make him feel at home and be comfortable enough so he would have no reason to leave for the next five years at least.

Three years for illegal possession of a firearm and two for the escape on top of the already existing 10 in an air-proof, sun-proof and, most importantly, “escape-proof” cell made out of concrete and lined with huge railroad sleepers–this was intended to keep him locked up for good.

And for a time he was, until somehow, miraculously, he found a way to escape. Again. While everyone else did their hard labor outside in the yard, Joe did his inside his cell, chained to the bars of his tiny window, smacking the stones in front of him and left to sleep among them afterward. What the jailers saw as a “no need to clean this mess every day,” Joe used as a cover-up to break the chains and to conceal himself as he was digging a hole through the wall. And just like that he was a free man once again, and stayed as such for two years until he was caught stealing wine from the cellar of a wealthy man in the Swan Valley, who unluckily for him had policemen for dinner at the time.

As usual, he was brought back to his “home” with a new sentence of three years in solitary confinement and hard iron for breaking and entering and 12 more for the escape, which meant that he was supposed to be jailed until somewhere around 1884 and it was only 1867.

In September 187o, when he was unchained for the first time in three years, he tried to escape once again and did, but he was caught right away when he climbed over the prison wall.

A few months later, in April, there was a special hearing in which Joe was promised freedom if he stayed out of trouble. At the time our Moondyne Joe was a grown man who’d spent almost all his life in and out of prison and mostly for small crimes, bad luck, and probably a bad temper. His interviewer Henry Wakeford, Comptroller General of Convicts in Fremantle, apparently was informed about a past “promise” that Governor Hampton gave to Joe a few years back, when he had thrown him proudly into the “escape-proof” cell: “If you get out again I’ll forgive you.”

First given a few years of conditional leave, eventually, in 1873, Joe was pardoned and let to live his life chain free. He settled down in his “hometown” Fremantle, but as an honest working carpenter now for a change.

Moondyne Joe’s Bar and Bistro, Fremantle, takes its name from the famous bushranger Author: Hesperian CC BY-SA 3.0
Moondyne Joe’s Bar and Bistro, Fremantle, takes its name from the famous bushranger Author: Hesperian CC BY-SA 3.0

And it took almost 20 years for his name to be heard once more among the police force, when all kinds of different people filed reports about an old man who, according to the reports, was out of his mind and wandering the streets at night shouting like a madman. He was brought in, checked, and sent to a medical institution for further treatment, which interestingly enough was previously part of Fremantle’s correctional facility and a building from which he escaped in the 1860s.

And in this confused state of his, probably suffering from dementia, he tried to escape from the institution three times, not fully realizing that he this was not a prison and he was not in his cell.

Here is another story from us: Stanford Prison Experiment: The 1971 role playing of guards and prisoners brought out more darkness than expected

Moondyne Joe made his final escape on August 13, 1900, when he passed away at the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, leaving behind a wasted life perhaps, but also a story which is by any means worthy of remembrance. He was buried in the same city under a tombstone stone that reads “freedom.”

Martin Chalakoski

Martin Chalakoski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News