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Fremantle Prison Escapes: Moondyne Joe

The Fremantle Prison, located in Fremantle, Western Australia was built by convicts back in the 1850s. They weren’t picky about the convicts they’d accept as British prisoners, local prisons, military prisoners, enemy aliens and prisoners of war all found themselves housed there. Some were housed more temporarily than others. Among those others, there were a few intent on escaping.


One, shall we say infamous, escapee was a guy named Joseph Bolitho Johns, aka Moondyne Joe. This man was apparently so famous for escaping from places that the warder, Governor John Hampton, had a special cell made up for Joe. The picture of Joe’s prison cell is to the left.


Those things that look like holes are actually huge spikes nailed into the hardest wood they could find in Fremantle to keep ole Joe inside. The warder was so sure his special prison cell would make Joe stay put, that he even made a deal with the guy. Governor Hampton told Moondyne Joe that if he could escape this prison cell, he’d give him a pardon.


As time went on, Joe started looking sicker and sicker cooped up as he was. The prison doctor advised the warder that Joe needed fresh air and exercise or he'd die.


The warder relented and gave Joe a pile of rocks and a pick ax to break out in the yard. Near the outside wall of Fremantle Prison.


I'm sure you know where this going. Joe piled the rocks up as he broke them until it was taller than he was, then started on the prison wall. The guards were used to him by this time, so they didn't bother to check the other side of the rock pile until after ole Joe was gone.


Two years later, they did recapture him by accident, but the warder didn't give him the pardon because the deal was he had to escape from his prison cell. Not the yard. Talk about semantics.


A couple years after his recapture, the new Fremantle Prison warder, Governor Weld learned of his predecessor's promise and gave Joe his ticket of leave. In January of 1879, he married a young widow named Louisa Hearn and had a few more scraps with the law, but remained a free man until he was declared mentally ill. Even then, he retained his escaping ways and slipped custody three times.


Five months after his last recapture, Moondyne Joe died of dementia at the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum on August 13, 1900. He was laid to rest in Fremantle Cemetery.