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Moondyne Joe: The Story of the Uncontainable Prisoner

BY Tanveer Khan June 30, 2018
Moondyne Joe

Joseph Bolitho Johns better known as Moondyne Joe. (Alfred Chopin / Fremantle Prison)

When people sit and talk about real-life escape artists that wowed the world, Harry Houdini is probably the only name that immediately comes to mind. An ace illusionist and professional stunt performer, he was known for his sensational escape acts across the globe. But a UK-born man named Moondyne Joe was neither a work of fiction nor was he a professional. He was perhaps one of the rare, peculiar person in the world, who without using any trick, managed to jailbreak as soon as he was put into one. He was one of those men, who could not be contained in a prison for a very long time.

The early life of Moondyne Joe

Moondance Joe was not always Moondyne Joe as we get to hear of him in popular culture today. He was born as Joseph Bolitho Johns sometime in the early 1800s in Cornwall, UK. He had a difficult childhood and lived in utter poverty when he decided to take things unlawfully to end his sufferings. And so in 1848, the legend was born, when a cop stopped a 20-something Johns and his friend William Cross in the dead of one night, taking a stroll on the deserted streets. When they couldn’t come up with answers for walking the streets at 2 in the night, the policeman checked them up and found that the men had in their possession some loaves of bread, a few pieces of cheese and enough bacon and mutton to last for two days. They were taken in for committing theft, when a couple of days later, the exact same amount of food items were reported stolen from a neighbouring house.

Johns was sent to several prisons in the UK, where he had to serve his four-year sentence before being transferred to Western Australia, which during the mid-1800s, was a British colony. Along with a long list of convicts, Johns arrived onboard the Pyrenees in Fremantle, Australia in 1853, where he was issued a conditional parole ticket for his good behaviour. Everyone thought Johns was a changed man, for he worked sincerely for people in the nearby colonies in the Darling Range, which in native tongue was called Moondyne.

Return to crime

It was only in 1861, when he worked as a horse trapper, that he was accused and convicted again for stealing the same horse he tried to trap. Johns was put behind bars, but during the same night, he broke free and rode away on the horse, which was taken in as an evidence of his felony. And not just the animal, he fled with the judge’s brand new saddle and bridle too.

Johns’ criminal escapades only kept piling up one after the other in the years that followed, with him getting in and out of prisons either owing to his good behaviour or his mastery in escaping while still in custody. But the one incident that gave Johns the nickname Moondyne Joe came in the year 1865, when he was accused and put on trial for killing an ox named Bright, for which he was sentenced to serve ten years in jail. Although he pleaded not guilty, he was imprisoned, but yet again, the master artist escaped, for he believed he was wrongfully accused in the case. And as bad luck had it, he was taken in again.

A year later in 1866, Joseph Bolitho Johns, who had now rechristened himself, Moondyne Joe, broke out of his cell and managed to go unnoticed for months with a host of other criminals until the thieving party stole some bedspreads, weapons, ammunition and heavy footwear from a store that got them back to where they belonged – in jail. And it was no ordinary cell this time; it was a concrete cell where air or sunlight could not reach and was an escape-proof prison, from where Moondyne did flee again miraculously

It was in the same year when Moondyne Joe first appeared in print that people started to associate a face with an enigmatic name. In the years after it, Moondyne Joe was recaptured several times over after he kept breaking free from jails, where he was put in for several crimes, including escaping from legal custody and many other minor offences.

The 'escape proof' cell for Moondyne Joe.

The ‘escape proof’ cell which Moondyne Joe escaped from. (Ghostieguide / Wikimedia Commons)

While out on parole, the man married a widow and decided to give life one last shot, but as they say, old habits die hard, Moondyne Joe was caught on the wrong side of the law once again after a good two decades. His perplexing story and his mysterious ways of escaping prison cells became stories of popular culture in Australia, while the rest of the world came to sit up and take notice of a man, who managed to baffle the law and lawmakers for several years together.

Although Moondyne Joe died of dementia in 1900 in his seventies, his puzzling tales refuse to die down even to this day. The more one gets to know of his accounts, the lesser it is. Many films have been made on the man, who couldn’t be locked up behind bars or in chains or in solitary confinement and the world is in awe of an escape artist, who despite any trick up his sleeve, like professionals, managed to run away from the long arms of the law, every time he was captured.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “A Cross-Dressing Explorer, Isabelle Eberhardt Crossed Geographic and Social Boundaries to Follow Her Heart“.

Recommended Read:
1. Moondyne Joe: The Man and the Myth | By Iam Elliot
2. The Ballad of Moondyne Joe | By John Kinsella & Niall Lucy

Recommended Visit:
Fremantle Prison (World Heritage Site) | Australia fact

STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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