The Man No Prison Could Hold

“Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.” —H.L. Mencken

In A Nutshell

Joseph Bolitho Johns, or Moondyne Joe, was born in Wales sometime around 1820. After committing petty theft, he was sent to the penal colonies of Australia, where he found himself in and out of prison for the rest of his life—literally. He just kept escaping. Eventually he was given his own special cell, made just for him. He escaped that, too.

The Whole Bushel

Joe’s criminal career began in his home country, Wales. One night, Joe and an accomplice decided to break into a house in order to steal some cheese and bacon and were quickly caught by a cop while escaping. Joe’s punishment may not have been as harsh as it was if it wasn’t for Joe’s insistence that he defend himself in court. Surprisingly, a man who was arrested for stealing cheese wasn’t that good at litigation. He was sentenced to the penal colony of Australia.

Upon arrival, Joe behaved himself, so he was given a ticket of leave and was eventually pardoned. Sometime later, he was arrested for branding a stray horse—this was seen as a fairly serious crime in Colonial Australia. He was jailed but quickly escaped and took the branded horse with him. By the time the police caught up with him, he’d killed the horse and cut off his brand. This meant that the police could only charge him for jailbreaking (a three-year sentence instead of the harsher one he would have received for the horse branding).

Joe was eventually released early for good behavior. But it wasn’t long before he was up to his old tricks and was soon accused of stealing and eating a neighbor’s ox. Joe promptly escaped police custody and the 10-year sentence he faced with another prisoner and began committing petty crimes like robberies across the country. He also gave himself a new name that would be picked up by the press: Moondyne Joe.

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Joe was eventually caught around York with a stolen firearm. He was clapped in irons and sentenced to 12 months. However, he somehow managed to cut through the irons and escaped again—the third time. After some more petty robberies he was back in police custody. But this time the police were ready. As well as giving Joe an additional five years of hard labor, they constructed a special “escape-proof cell” made of concrete and lined with railway ties.
However, while carrying out his hard labor in the yard—breaking rocks with a pickax—Joe piled rocks to hide himself from the guard’s view and simply dug a hole in the prison wall. This was his fourth escape. The next time Joe showed up, he was rummaging through the vineyard of a wealthy man who just happened to have a group of policemen over for a wine tasting. He ran straight into them and probably cursed his luck for the next week.

The next jail he went to, the governor approached him after several failed escape attempts—Joe had been caught trying to cut a key earlier—and offered him a ticket of leave and a conditional pardon on just one condition: that he stay out of trouble and not try and escape. And for the first time, he did. Twenty-one years elapsed, mostly without incident, before Joe was next in trouble. A confused, disheveled man in his seventies was found wandering through a town. He was picked up for vagrancy and ordered to finish his sentence at a jail he’d been at 40 years earlier. Despite not being of sound mind (possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia), he quietly managed to slip out and escape a further three times before his death.

Show Me The Proof

West Australian Vista: Moondyne Joe
Joseph Bolitho Johns “Moondyne Joe”

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