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Moondyne Joe - the Story of an Escape Artist That No Prison Could Hold

Moondyne Joe - the Story of an Escape Artist That No Prison Could Hold

Joseph Bolitho Johns, also known as Moondyne Joe (February 1826 – 13 August 1900), was born in Wales. He was an English convict and Western Australia's most famous bushranger. He is remembered as a person who escaped from prison several times.

Joseph escaped from prison so frequently that a special prison cell was built for him. He also escaped from this cell and became known as Moondyne Joe. Here's the full story.

On November 15, 1848, Joseph and his friend William Cross stole three loaves of bread, ham, cheese, and a few other items for unknown reasons. The two were then sentenced to ten years of penal servitude, including prison time and hard labor. Joseph served the first four years of his sentence (1849-1853) in various English prisons before being transported to Western Australia on February 2, 1853; he arrived at Fremantle on 30 April 1853.

On arrival, Joseph was given a ticket of leave as a reward for his good behavior, and on March 10, 1855, he was granted a conditional pardon. He then settled in the Avon Valley, one of the Darling Range's most rugged and inaccessible areas. He made a living there by fencing and rounding up stray cattle and horses.

He was doing well until he was arrested in 1861 on a charge of horse stealing after being accused of rounding up and branding cleanskin horses from an isolated gorge on the Avon River known as Moondyne Springs. He escaped the cell while awaiting trial in the middle of the night, reclaiming his horse in the process. While, he was apprehended the next day, charged, and sentenced to three years in prison.

He was released earlier because he behaved well in prison, but Joseph was sentenced to ten years in prison again in 1865 after being accused of killing a neighbor's ox. He claimed innocence when Johns was charged, but the court sentenced him to ten years in prison.

He was determined not to serve what he saw as an unjust sentence, so Joseph and another prisoner escaped while on labor duty. For a month, the two were on the run, committing several thefts. During this time, he earned the moniker "Moondyne Joe." Joe was sentenced to another twelve months in chains when they were apprehended.

In April 1866, Moondyne petitioned the Chief Justice and was granted a four-year sentence reduction on his 1865 sentence of 10 years. But, instead of being happy, he thought it was too little. This was apparently insufficient for him; as a result, in July, he attempted to cut the lock out of his door, for which he was sentenced to an additional six months in chains.

He was able to flee again in early August. This time he was with three other escapees. The group had been on the run for seven weeks, and the four of them roamed the bush around Perth, committing several robberies and narrowly escaping capture on several occasions.

To avoid being apprehended again, he intended to travel to the South Australian colony with his companions. On the other hand, the difficult journey necessitated careful planning, which prompted him to carry out the biggest robbery of his criminal career. But, once again, luck was not on Moondyne Joe's side; the police apprehended the gang at Bodallin Soak, near the current town of Westonia. Unfortunately for Moondyne Joe, he was apprehended once more.

When he was apprehended again, the judiciary was determined to prevent Moondyne Joe from escaping for the fourth time, so they constructed a specially reinforced cell with triple-barred windows at Fremantle Gaol from which he would be unable to escape. His new home had thick stone walls that were lined with eucalyptus wood. More than 1,000 nails were used to secure the cladding to the masonry, making the cell nearly airtight and light-proof.

John Hampton, the Governor of the Swan River Colony, once told Moondyne Joe, "If you get out again, I will forgive you." 

In early 1867 due to his deteriorating health, Joseph was allowed out for exercise on medical advice. He was given daily exercise breaking stones in a Prison yard near the perimeter wall; the broken rock was supposed to be removed at the end of each day, but the rubble was not collected regularly. As a result, a pile would form, occasionally obstructing the guards' view. These were the times when Joseph swung his sledgehammer fervently against the prison wall, gradually paving his way to freedom.

On March 7, 1867, Joseph escaped from the prison through a hole he had dug in the prison wall. He was free for the next two years until he was caught stealing wine on 25 February 1869. He was now sentenced to an additional four years in irons. In 1871, however, Governor Weld issued Joseph a ticket of leave. He most likely made his decision after hearing about the previous Governor's promise to Moondyne Joe. They told him that they would grant him a conditional pardon if he stayed out of trouble for the next four years.

Joseph moved to Karridale and worked as a carpenter. But even there, he couldn't stay out of trouble, and he was sentenced to a month in prison for a minor offense. On June 27, 1873, he regained his freedom. Later in life, in January 1879, he married a widow, Louisa Hearn, and they spent some time prospecting for gold near Southern Cross. But his story does not end there.

Joseph's wife Louisa died in 1893 at the age of 40, and her death had a profound effect on him. Years later, he began acting strangely and was eventually diagnosed as mentally ill. On August 13, 1900, he died in the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum and was buried in Fremantle Cemetery.

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