Interesting Facts

Moondyne Joe: The story of Australia's most notorious prison escapee

A man named Joseph Bolitho Johns (A.K.A Moondyne Joe) broke out of Australian prisons so many times that the police were compelled to build a special cell just for him. He escaped from that as well.

When Joseph Johns was arrested by police after his fourth attempted escape, Fremantle Prison authorities are doing everything they can to keep him locked up.

He was imprisoned in a stone-walled cell with jarrah sleepers, and he was only allowed out to break rocks in the prison yard under strict supervision.

“If you get out again, I’ll forgive you,” Western Australia’s governor John Hampton told Johns mockingly.

And yet, Johns did, for the fifth time, escape from prison.

This is the story of Australia’s most prolific prison escapee.

Joseph Johns wasn’t very good at crime for a career criminal.

Moondyne Joe The story of Australias most notorious prison escapee 4
Joseph Johns, aka Moondyne Joe, was Australia’s most notorious prison escapee (Public Domain)

The British national was arrested by police in 1848 after stealing three loaves of bread, several kinds of cheese, and some bacon from a home in Chepstow, Wales.

Three months in prison is a typical sentence for such a crime. However, Johns enraged the judge and received a ten-year sentence of penal servitude.

He was transported to Western Australia after four years on a prison hulk and given a ticket of leave upon arrival.

He relocated to Moondyne, a region of the Darling Range known to local Aboriginal tribes as Moondyne, and adopted the alias Moondyne Joe, which he would keep for the rest of his life.

He was granted his ticket of leave in 1853, after five years as a convict, and went to work as a stock trapper.

In 1861, however, Johns was arrested for stealing a horse and a brand new saddle and bridle that belonged to the local magistrate.

He was put in jail for another four years before being released for a short time.

Escape spree

But it was a crime he insisted he was innocent of that set in motion a long career of eluding justice.

He was convicted of killing an ox in 1865 and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Johns escaped after only a week in custody and spent several weeks on the run before being caught.

His sentence was lengthened by another 12 months.

In July of the following year, he tried unsuccessfully to flee, only to return a month later.

Johns was caught quickly and sentenced to another five years in prison, including two years of hard labor.

‘If you get out again, I’ll forgive you’

Authorities in Western Australia were extremely focused on preventing him from escaping again.

He was placed in a specially constructed cell that was so heavily reinforced that escape was thought to be impossible.

He was kept chained to a ring on the floor while in the cell.

He wasn’t even allowed to leave Fremantle Prison for his daily exercise. He was instead given a pile of rocks and a sledgehammer, with the expectation that he would crush them into smaller stones.

Moondyne Joe The story of Australias most notorious prison escapee 1
Fremantle Prison is now a heritage-listed WA landmark. (Photo Credit: Nine Archives)

Governor John Hampton was so sure of himself that he told Johns, “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you.”

So, every day, he would break rocks in the prison’s backyard, with his back to the high walls, under the watchful eye of guards.

Then one day, at 5 p.m., Johns vanished.

The escape

It was a brilliantly brazen and straightforward escape.

The pile of rocks Johns had been hammering had grown to a significant height over the course of a few days.

So much so that Johns was largely obscured by the pile from a certain angle.

Johns would stop hammering at the rocks and start hammering at the prison wall when the guards weren’t looking.

And he made a big enough hole to slip through at some point during the day.

He then proceeded to walk through the adjacent superintendent’s house, through an unlocked side gate, and into the nearby bushland.

A simple dummy made by Johns had fooled the guards.

He stood his hammer upright and fashioned a pair of shoulders out of umbrella wire. He then donned his own jacket and cap on the dummy.

It works well as a decoy from a distance.

It would take two years for him to be apprehended.

Moondyne Joe The story of Australias most notorious prison escapee 2
The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times wrote at length about Moondyne Joe’s escape. (Photo Credit: The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times)

Months in irons

He was caught after two years on the run due to bad luck.

In February 1869, he broke into a Swan Valley winery. Unknown to him, police were on the lookout for a drowned man nearby.

Before being caught, Johns ran into the arms of surprised police officers while fleeing from the winery’s owner.

He served another four years in prison, the majority of which was spent in chains.

His final attempt to flee was destroyed when he was caught making a key and file in a carpentry workshop. He threw the evidence over the prison wall when he was caught.

Charges against him had to be dropped when the key and file could not be found on the other side.

Moondyne Joe The story of Australias most notorious prison escapee 3
How Fremantle Prison looked in the 1890s. (Public Domain)

Final freedom

In 1873, Johns was granted his freedom, and he married a woman half his age and settled in Perth.

He was discovered wandering the streets as an elderly man in 1900, and was deemed “of unsound mind.”

He was committed to a medical facility for treatment.

The institution was housed in the same building as a former convict depot, where he had been imprisoned when he was younger.

Despite having dementia, Johns managed to flee the institution three times before being arrested and imprisoned in Fremantle Prison for evading legal custody.

He died in a Fremantle asylum later that year.

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