Fremantle – The handcuffs on notorious Western Australian bushranger Joseph Bolitho John’s final resting place symbolize a lifetime of imprisonment – and of persistent escapes.
It can only be assumed that he didn’t escape from this final confinement.
His tombstone features a pair of handcuffs, a reference to his times in prison and his ability to escape them. Below/above them is the word “rhyddid”, Welsh for freedom.
Having started his criminal career in Wales, he was moved from prison to prison, then to hulks and then to Western Australia.
There he could have turned his life around, as he was issued with a ticket of leave.
Working in the Moondyne area, he made a living by trapping escaped stock and horses for the rewards offered for their return.
But when he caught an unbranded stallion and gave it his own brand, he was arrested. He was put into the Toodyay lock-up, from which he effected his first great escape.
He broke out, restole the horse, and the magistrate’s saddle and bridle. By the time he was caught the next day, he had killed the horse and cut the brand out of its hide.
With no evidence of horse-stealing, the court resorted to a three-year sentence for jail-breaking – rather than the ten he faced for horse stealing.
Good behaviour saw Johns released on February 1864. But when a steer was killed, he was accused, arrested,found guilty and sentenced to the ten years he could have gotten for horse stealing.
For the rest of his life, he proclaimed his innocence. And he was determined not to service an unjust sentence, absconding from a work party in November with another prisoner.
They committed small robberies while they were on the run. But when they were caught, the man now known as Moondyne Joe was sentenced to twelve months in irons, and sent to Fremantle Prison.
In July 1866 he was given six more months in irons for trying to cut the lock out of his door.
Early in August, he escaped again. This time when he was caught, special provisions were made to keep him while he carried out his new extra sentence of five years hard labour.
Back in Fremantle Prison, he was chained by the neck to the iron bar of a window while an escape-proof cell was put together.
Hardwood jarrah sleepers lined the dark and musty stone cell, where he was kept on a diet of bread and water and one to two hours of daily exercise.
In 1867 he was becoming ill, and the cure was to break some stone in the fresh air. But the authorities weren’t silly enough to let him leave the prison.
They had the stone dumped in a corner of the yard, and had Johns constantly supervised.
So confident was the state’s Governor he said to Johns (witnessed) “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you”.
But Johns had a cunning plan. His broken rocks were not cleared often and became a pile – partially obscuring the wall behind him. Johns gave the wall a blow with his sledgehammer every now and again, until he had made a hole in it.
On 7 March 1867, through he went.
This time he was not recaptured for two years, but when he was soon back in prison with an extra 12 months for absconding and later an extra four years for breaking and entering (hiding in the wine cellar) on his ever-expanding sentence.
Yet another escape attempt did not succeed – he tried to make a key in the carpenter’s workshop.
In 1871, Hampton’s promise to forgive him if he successfully escaped was made good. Hampton had left the colony by then, but his word still stood.
Johns was given another ticket of leave in May 1871, aged about 45.
Although he spent some more short periods in jail for minor misdemeanors, he remained mostly free for the rest of his life – until he developed dementia and was found wandering the streets of Perth.
He was ordered to the Mount Eliza Invalid Depot, but continued to abscond. And who can blame him, for that very depot was once a convict depot.
Treatment of ex-convicts being what it was in those days, he was sentenced to one final imprisonment – one month in Fremantle Prison without hard labour, for absconding from legal custody.
He died five months later at Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, on August 13, 1900.
He was buried in a pauper’s grave, yet now rests under a sizeable granite construction.
Moondyne Joe’s story will live on, as his story has passed into folklore, and the town of Toodyay holds an annual Moondyne Joe festival.
Fremantle Prison, the Convict Establishment, 2022 Moondyne Joe; https://fremantleprison.com.au/history-heritage/history/the-convict-era/characters/moondyne-joe/
Moondyne Festival, History of Moondyne Joe, 2018, https://moondynefestival.com.au/history-of-moondyne-joe/