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The story of Australia’s most notorious prison escapee


When Joseph Johns was caught after his fourth escape attempt, authorities in Fremantle Prison made an extraordinary effort to keep him locked up.

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

Joseph Johns, aka Moondyne Joe, was Australia's most notorious prison escapee.
Joseph Johns, aka Moondyne Joe, was Australia’s most notorious prison escapee. (Public Domain)

“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.

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

In 1848 the Briton was busted for stealing three loaves of bread, several cheeses and some bacon from a home in Chepstow, Wales.

The typical punishment for such a crime might be three months in jail. But Johns antagonised the judge, and ended up with a sentence of ten years of penal servitude.

After four years sitting on a prison hulk, he was taken to Western Australia and granted a ticket of leave on arrival.

He moved to a part of the Darling Range known by the local Aboriginal tribes as Moondyne, and he took up the nickname he would carry the rest of his life: Moondyne Joe.

After five years as a convict, he was granted his ticket-of-leave in 1853, and took up a job as a stock trapper.

But in 1861 Johns was arrested for stealing a horse, taking along with it a brand new saddle and bridle that happened to belong to the local magistrate.

He went back into custody for four more years, before a brief stint of freedom.

But it was a crime he was always insisted he was innocent of that triggered a long career of absconding from justice.

In 1865 he was accused of killing an ox and sentenced to 10 years’ in jail.

Johns spent just a week in custody before escaping, spending several weeks on the run before being captured.

Another 12 months were added to his sentence.

The next July he unsuccessfully tried to escape, before busting out again a month later.

Johns was quickly caught and was handed another five years, two of them hard labour.

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

Authorities in Western Australia were determined that he should not escape again.

He was placed in a specially built cell so strongly reinforced that they considered escape impossible.

When he was in the cell, he was kept chained to a ring in the floor.

And he wasn’t allowed out of Fremantle Prison for his hour of daily exercise.

Fremantle Prison is now a heritage-listed WA landmark.
Fremantle Prison is now a heritage-listed WA landmark. (Nine Archives)

Instead he was given a pile of rocks and a sledge hammer, with the expectation he was to crush it into smaller stones.

So confident was Governor John Hampton that he said to Johns: “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you.”

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

Then at 5pm one day, Johns vanished.

It was an escape so brazen and so simply that it was brilliant.

Over the course of a few days, the pile of rocks Johns had hammering had grown to a substantial height.

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

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

And at some point over the course of the day, he made a big enough hole to slip through.

He then walked through the adjoining superintendent’s house, out an unlocked side gate, and into the neighbouring bushland.

The guards had been fooled by a simple dummy made by Johns.

He left his hammer upright, and with some umbrella wire, fashioned the rough outline of a pair of shoulders. He then dressed the dummy with his own jacket and cap.

From a distance, it an effective enough decoy.

It would be two years before he was caught.

The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times wrote at length about Moondyne Joe's escape.
The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times wrote at length about Moondyne Joe’s escape. (The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times)

After two years on the run, he was caught simply out of bad luck.

He broke into a Swan Valley winery in February 1869. Unbeknownst to him, police had been nearby searching for a drowned man.

Fleeing from the winery’s owner, Johns ran literally into the arms of surprised police before being caught.

He spent another four years in prison, much of it spent chained up in irons.

His final escape attempt was a failure, caught fashioning a key and file in a carpentry workshop. When he was caught, he tossed the evidence over the prison wall.

When the key and file couldn’t be found on the other side, charges against him had to be dropped.

How Fremantle Prison looked in the 1890s.
How Fremantle Prison looked in the 1890s. (Public Domain)

Granted his freedom in 1873, Johns married a woman half his age and settled down in Perth.

In 1900, he was found wandering the streets as an elderly man, and deemed to be “of unsound mind”.

He was committed to a medical institution for care.

In a bizarre irony, the institution was in the same building as a former convict depot where he was locked up as a younger man.

Despite suffering from apparent dementia, Johns managed to escape from the institution three times before he was finally jailed in Fremantle Prison for absconding from legal custody.

He died in a Fremantle asylum later that year.



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