As the most famous jailbreaker in Western Australia’s history, Moondyne Joe is a household name. Joseph Bolitho Johns a Welsh blacksmith’s son was arrested in March 1849 for food stealing, and the story continues from there.
For Joseph Johns it was only a stepping stone in the career of a professional criminal. He got caught stealing three loaves of bread, numerous cheeses, and some bacon from a resident’s kitchen in Chepstow, Wales, in 1848
A three-month prison sentence is not uncommon for this type of offense. In the end, Johns’ behavior annoyed the court, which sentenced him up to 10 years.
After four years sitting on a prison hulk, he was taken to Western Australia and granted a ticket of leave on arrival. He was relocated to the Darling Range area, where he was dubbed Moondyne by local Aboriginal tribes. “Moondyne Joe” was the nickname Johns would keep for the rest of his time. Johns was given parole in 1853 after serving five years and managed to get a job as a stock trapper.
However, in 1861, Johns again got caught stealing a horse and a beautiful new saddle and bridle belonging to a local authority, a crime he swore he was never guilty of that set off a lengthy career of eluding prosecution. He was imprisoned for another four years before being released for a short time.
In 1865, he was accused of killing of an ox and condemned to another ten years. Johns was only in detention for a week before fleeing and spending weeks on the run. He was eventually captured and added up another five years, including hard labor.
Fremantle Prison administration made an exceptional effort to keep Joseph Johns locked up following his fourth escape attempt.
There were stone-walled cells for him to sleep in and he was under constant guard in the jail yard while he labored smashing rocks.
A specially constructed cell so heavily fortified that escape was thought to be impossible was designated to Johns. He was kept shackled to a ring on the floor while in the cell and not even permitted to go out for daily exercise, or for a breath of fresh air.
Instead, Johns was handed a pile of boulders and a sledge hammer, with the idea that they would keep him busy, crushing stones into smaller pieces.
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 crush rocks in the prison’s backyard, with his back to the high walls, under the careful sight of guards.
It was a fantastic escape because it was both bold and straightforward. The pile of rocks Johns had been hammering had risen to a significant height over a few days.
The pile broadly covered Johns from a certain angle. When guards weren’t watching, Johns would stop pounding at the rocks and start hammering at the jail wall.
And he hammered a big enough hole to sneak through at some time during the day. He then proceeded to stroll through the adjacent superintendent’s home, via an unguarded side gate, and escaped into the wilderness.
A simple ruse
Johns did an excellent job of buying himself some time and distracting the guards.
He stood his hammer upright and fashioned the rough pattern set of shoulders out of umbrella wire. He then donned his jacket and hat on the dummy. It was a good enough decoy from a distance.
He was apprehended after two years on the run due to terrible luck. In February 1869, he broke into a Swan Valley vineyard. Unbeknownst to him, authorities were there looking for a drowned man.
Johns rushed into the arms of shocked police officers while fleeing from the winery’s owner. He was sentenced to another four years in jail, most of which he spent in shackles.
His final attempt to flee was foiled when he was discovered making a key with a file in the carpenter shop. He threw the evidence over the jail wall. Charges against him were unsuccessful when the evidence could not be found on the other side.
Johns married a woman half his age and resided in Perth after being granted his release in 1873. He was reported “of unsound mind” in 1900 after being seen strolling the streets as an elderly man.
They sent him to a hospital to look after and ensure his well-being. Ironically, Johns now found himself locked up in the same place when he served his time as a young man.