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In Search of Captain Moonlite
The Strange Life and Death of the Notorious Bushranger
By Paul Terry
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Paul Terry
All rights reserved.
MAN AND MYTH
On a dark and misty night in May 1869, a mysterious figure in black cloak and mask robbed the bank at the Victorian mining town of Mt Egerton and made off with gold and cash worth more than £1000. He left a note admitting his guilt and clearing the bank manager of blame. The bandit signed the note 'Captain Moonlite', and then he vanished into the night. It created the legend of a man remembered as a gentleman who became a bushranger, a clergyman who was a bank robber, a warrior who never shed blood and a lunatic who was completely sane. It was said that he fought wars on three continents, ran slaves as a 'blackbirder' and terrorised two colonies as the leader of a gang of desperate outlaws. He broke out of a prison that was supposed to be escape-proof, took to the road as a prison reformer and caused the death of a police officer in a bloody gunfight. He was a man who had declared such a bitter war against society that he had to be removed from it, yet, when his true love, a man ten years his junior, died in his arms, his heart was crushed. His real name was Andrew George Scott — George to his friends — and he remains one of the most notorious if least understood figures in Australian criminal history.
Scott was an Irishman of impeccable background, a gentleman by birth if not by inclination. Educated and handsome, he had a compelling charm, a brilliant mind and a gift for oratory. He was a talented lay preacher whose ruin started with a crime he always denied committing, and when he died he went down in history as one of the last of the bushrangers — yet, as a bushranger, he was something of an accidental one.
The newspapers of his time said he was inherently evil and, after his death, a scientific study of his cranium concluded he was genetically incapable of telling the truth, a scoundrel to the core. During his time behind bars he associated with some of the most hardened felons that a society founded by convicts could produce. He was a chameleon who could look every inch the Victorian gentleman or the lowest of prison thugs. Yet he was a clever man who loved poetry and moved easily in genteel society. He had many friends, some of whom stuck by him until the end. People trusted him — a useful attribute for a conman, because that was what he was — and even when he betrayed those closest to him they still held out hope that he could be reformed.
At one time, ten respectable men signed a petition declaring him to be 'well suited to an office of command'. Another wrote that he was 'thoroughly honourable', while merchants and hoteliers from Sydney to Suva were pleased to offer him accounts for goods and services running into the hundreds of pounds — accounts that he often saw no need to settle. Even after he was accused of the Mt Egerton robbery, George Scott was able to win the support of the rich and powerful. For his part, he denied he was the masked and mysterious bank robber until the day he died. History has found him guilty, yet nagging doubt remains.
In 1879, the year before his death, a single report in a newspaper did more than any other to manufacture a legend built on half-truths and falsehoods. This colourful account became the basis for countless retellings of George Scott's story and helped the tallest of tales to be accepted as true. It finished with the observation that Scott 'was of excitable disposition, keenly sensitive to ridicule, and probably his evil habits were largely due to being placed in circumstances where he led too inactive a life'. Some of the report was true. Much of it was not.
What the chroniclers of his time did not realise was that the truth was better than the fiction. Sometimes the truth was unpalatable. While the newspapers and the authorities were happy to vilify Scott for the crimes he committed and for those he did not, there could be no mention of 'the love that dares not speak its name'. Yet George Scott's sexuality was as much a part of his spectacular life as the adventures that led him from polite society to the darkest of prison cells. His great love was his fellow 'gang' member, James Nesbitt. It was Scott's final wish that they be buried together — a wish that was granted only after they had lain apart for more than a century. And yet George Scott, who loved James Nesbitt with a passion that overwhelmed him, had also supposedly planned to run away to sea with one young lady, while another who loved him deeply risked her reputation to be with him at the very end.
Erratic and volatile, Scott was a man who could demand protection and respect for captured women and children, and moments later shoot dead a frightened horse in a fit of anger. Said to be mad, he was unable to convince a prison psychiatrist that he was anything but sane. A gaol escapee, he took to the road to decry the evils of the prison system. When he tried to rehabilitate himself as an honest citizen he was persecuted and accused of crimes he did not commit. Harassed and victimised, he led a band of young men without hope on a long and dusty journey to destruction. As a result, he was remembered as 'Captain Moonlite, the notorious bushranger' yet his greatest crime was motivated not by the desire for plunder but rather by hunger and defeat.
On one hand, Scott tried to shake off responsibility for his crimes but on the other hand he was willing to pay the ultimate price to save those who committed the crimes with him. These men were not a band of rugged outlaws riding the ranges with a song in their hearts and the wind in their hair. They were just a ragtag band of urban misfits, naive boys who followed their leader into doubt and despair. And when their journey ended in a pitched gun battle on a remote New South Wales farm, George Scott at last stood tall for his men and showed that he was worthy to be their captain. When he died on the gallows in a grim Sydney prison, public and media hype was at such a pitch that Andrew George Scott could not be separated from his alter ego. Although overshadowed by the Kelly Gang, Captain Moonlite nonetheless became part of Australian folklore — but often for what he did not do, rather than what he did. This fantastic figure has remained tantalisingly out of reach ever since.
* * *
In May 2012, new light was shed on Scott's story when a Melbourne auction house offered up a parcel of faded documents rarely seen in the 140-odd years since their creation. Among them were an intriguing bank statement, a pile of black-inked letters, some rather informative accounts for unpaid bills, several handwritten receipts and a creased and grease-stained map.
The bank statement showed an account bulging with a small fortune in gold — a treasure that soon dwindled under an assault of extravagant speeding. The letters spoke of plans unfulfilled, enmities created and the betrayal of a friend. The accounts spoke of good living in a waterfront hotel, with fine clothes and a collection of even finer firearms to match, and the receipts included proof of the purchase of a gracious boat — a 16.8-metre ketch-rigged beauty in which a man could sail away into a tropical sunset. The most crumpled and well-thumbed of the documents was the map. With a circling of ink, it showed that its owner had grand dreams. The map came with a written promise to make the bearer the owner of one of the most beautiful tropical islands on earth.
Unseen publically for at least three decades, the papers fill in one of the biggest gaps in the life of Andrew George Scott — the lost months between August 1869 and December 1870. They weave an extraordinary story, even by the standards of an extraordinary man. These hedonistic months were the last that Scott would spend as a free man for many years and he lived as though he knew it. In fact, he enjoyed himself so much that he could later remember little of what he did at that time. But because of his actions in 1870, his past caught up with him in dramatic fashion, setting the tone for the rest of his turbulent life and making him a household name.
The emergence of the documents opened the way for a search for the real Captain Moonlite. Combined with historical records and the final words of Scott himself, the papers shed new light on the life of a man who had it all and lost the lot. It is a story of bravery, treachery, love, despair and villainy. Such was the life of Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite.CHAPTER 2
There had been a ring fort on the hill for as long as anyone could remember. The first rath, or ring of earth, might have circled the green hill top as early as the Iron Age. A natural defensive point, the hill stood like an island in a sea of wood and fen, providing refuge to families of farmers, led by their chieftain, for hundreds of generations. At some time in the hill's misty past one leader stood out. His name was Fraoile. His rath contained a roundhouse with a roof of thatch or turf as home for his wife and children as well as any other families under his leadership. There might have been a hut for their livestock and maybe even a small kiln. This was Fraoile's realm. He must have ruled long and well because the hill became known after him as the Fort of Fraoile, or Rath Fraoileann.
Over the centuries, the people of the hill, in what is now County Down in Northern Ireland, saw the coming of the Christians, then the Normans and then the English. The rath fell and rose again but it always remained a defensive stronghold in a land wracked by strife. By the twelfth century, the hill had become a seat for the Magennis family. They built a stockade over the remains of Fraoile's ring fort and used it as a base for their part in the nine-year war against the invading English from 1594. In about 1611 the family began to build a square stone castle of three or four storeys on the hill top. Surrounded by a wall built of stone quarried from the hill itself, the castle looked down on a busy market town that would soon become known as Rathfriland.
In 1641, the last of the Magennis family to occupy the castle, Hugh Magennis, was living 'very cyvillle and Englishe-like in his house' until he became involved in the ill-fated Irish Rebellion. The bloody struggle between Ireland's Catholics and Protestant settlers from England and Scotland brought about the Magennis' downfall. The uprising escalated into the eleven-year Confederate War — essentially a continuation of the same epic conflict — that culminated in Oliver Cromwell's ruthless subjugation of Ireland in 1652. A year after that, Cromwell ordered the destruction of the castle. Some of the stones were used to build Rathfriland's oldest surviving buildings, among them the Town Inn which still stands in the town centre. All that remains of the once-mighty castle is a small section of the outer wall.
Fraoile's hill — now renamed Castle Hill — remained a desirable place to live for the town's well-to-do, however, and it was there that the Scott family built a fine home early in the nineteenth century. Staunchly Protestant, the Scotts were nonetheless from solid Irish Gaelic stock. They descended from the Scotti — Irish tribespeople who, from the fifth century, had settled in the country of the Picts, or 'the painted people', and in doing so gave the wild and mountainous land its new name — Scotland. Ironically, the descendants of these Irish Scots helped to bring about the fall of the House of Magennis more than a thousand years later. In the decades following Cromwell, as many as 100,000 Scots joined a mass British Protestant colonisation of Catholic Ulster that changed Ireland forever. Some of their descendants did well in their new land and by the late eighteenth century the Scotts of Rathfriland were firmly established on Castle Hill.
In 1814, Thomas Scott, whose profession was listed as 'gentleman', and his wife Mary Anne welcomed Thomas junior into the world. Young Thomas grew up in the house on the hill and, in 1836, at the age of 22, he headed south to Dublin where he enrolled at Trinity College. His six years of study included twelve months as a divinity student, but contrary to most reports he did not graduate as a clergyman.
Thomas senior died early in 1842, disrupting any intentions his son might have had of entering holy orders. Instead, after graduating with a bachelor of arts, Thomas junior returned home to Rathfriland, where he took up the management of his father's property. In November, at the age of twenty-eight, he married Bessie Jeffares, the daughter of a gentleman farmer from County Wexford in the south. Thomas and Bessie made their home on the hill, Thomas working for the next fifteen years as a magistrate and farmer. Although his life of relative privilege made him far removed from the peasants who eked out a hard living in the town below, he did not lose sight of those in need. In 1845, he collected money for the widows and children of men killed in a fishing disaster at the nearby town of Newcastle two years earlier. Thomas donated £1 of his own money to the cause.
Thomas and Bessie's house survives today and still has the stunning views of the Mourne Mountains enjoyed so much by the Scott family two centuries ago. Their first son, also named Thomas, was born there in 1843 or 1844. Their second child, another boy, arrived on 8 January 1845. They named him Andrew George and he was baptised by the Rector of Drumgath on 5 July. It was a proud day for Thomas senior and Bessie. With two fine sons and Thomas' career in excellent shape, they looked forward to a good life in the upper social echelons of their little community.
Thomas and Bessie were well aware of the land named Australia — a faraway place where so many of their less fortunate countrymen had gone as convicts. Another exodus was now about to begin, this one the result of hunger. In the year of Andrew George's birth, the leaves on potato plants began to wither and die. The potatoes rotted, emitting a foul stench, prompting the Wexford Independent to ask: 'What is to become of the poor people?' What became of them was misery and death. Over the next six years, the blight all but eradicated Ireland's potatoes. The suffering was horrendous. By 1850 about one million Irish men, women and children had died of hunger or illness. More than a million others fled for foreign shores. Many headed to America. Others went to Australia. What Thomas and Bessie could not have known when they christened their little boy on that summer's day in 1845 was that he would grow up to become Australia's Captain Moonlite, one of the most notorious figures ever produced in a land that was first settled almost entirely by criminals.
Later accounts of Scott's life claimed he exhibited traces of 'mischievous violence' in his youth but there is no record of the boy exhibiting any kind of behaviour, mischievous or otherwise. Instead, his upbringing seems to have been unremarkable except for its privileges. As a member of the town's elite he enjoyed a lifestyle far superior to the ordinary folk, who dwelt in crowded hovels further down the hill. While the Scotts dined on lamb and wine, the peasants made do with a dwindling supply of potatoes, supplemented by whatever they could grow in their gardens and an occasional scrap of fish or meat.
Shortly before George turned ten, two important events occurred in faraway Australia. In December 1854, at Eureka near Ballarat, angry gold diggers took up arms against excessive licence fees and government oppression. Essentially a demand for suffrage, their bloody uprising and subsequent acquittals helped to create a national ethos built around the concept of a 'fair go'. At around the same time as the Eureka uprising, in a wooden hut north of Melbourne, an Irish woman named Ellen Kelly delivered her third child, a boy she named Edward. Although they never met, the lives of young Edward — better known as Ned — and Andrew George Scott, would become intertwined in the public mind.
Excerpted from In Search of Captain Moonlite by Paul Terry. Copyright © 2013 Paul Terry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Man and myth,
3. Man of God,
4. 'The frail, fair one',
5. Island dreams,
7. 'Quest for blood',
8. The reformer,
9. The long walk,
10. Wantabadgery Station,
11. The gunfight,
13. The trial,
14. The lady in black,
15. Moonlite's end,
16. A rough, unhewn rock,