*** Reviewed and Updated, February 2023 ***
Captain Moonlite was the pseudonym of Andrew George Scott, a bushranger who led a gang of young men through the New South Wales Riverina in the late 1870s. The events of Scott’s life are often portrayed inaccurately because of the unreliable stories about his past that were circulated during his life, but recent efforts have helped to clarify fact from fiction.
Andrew George Scott was born in 1842 and raised in Rathfriland, Ireland. He was the son of a minister, who encouraged him to take up a career in the church. Scott as a young man was more interested in earthly pursuits and studied to become a civil engineer. Scott showed early signs of promise but soon became rather distracted. One of the stories that later circulated about this time in his life — one of many falsehoods peddled by journalists looking for an exciting story to attach to Scott — reported that while he was studying in London he was courted by the most esteemed clubs in high society and allegedly had an affair with the wife of a well known society figure. When the cuckolded husband found out, he threatened to thrash Scott. Though Scott would later be prone to scandal, at this time in his life he had not yet begun to accumulate such notoriety.
Another report, later disproved, was that he had sent word to his father that he was going to Rome to study the aqueducts but instead fought as a Redshirt in Garibaldi’s army during the Second Italian War of Independence. In fact, Scott had moved with his family to New Zealand, where he fought in the Maori Wars. He was injured in a skirmish, his ankles being badly broken, which left him permanently with a pronounced limp and his right foot turned in. He was eventually discharged from the army for malingering, though Scott would allege that it was because he refused to resume participating in the slaughter of women and children. It is believed it was during his recuperation that he gained the nickname “Captain Moonlite”, but it is not known why.
Newspapers would later allege that following this discharge from the armed forces, Scott moved to California and joined the Union army in the American Civil War — another fanciful rumour easily disproven — before seeking gold in Australia. It was at this time he felt compelled to follow his father’s example and became a lay reader for the Anglican Church.
While stationed in Bacchus Marsh in 1869, Scott proved to be remarkably popular with the locals and his sermons were well attended. He was involved in a small controversy after giving a questionable alibi for the son of a prominent local squatter around the time he transferred to the goldfields at Mount Egerton. Unfortunately, the church withheld Scott’s wages while he was at this new assignment, and after inevitably becoming destitute it would appear he turned to crime.
On 7 May 1869, the bank at Mount Egerton was robbed by a man calling himself “Captain Moonlite”. There has been much conjecture about exactly what happened, but what is known is that the bank safe was cleared out and the bank clerk Ludwig Bruun was found restrained in the schoolhouse with a note exonerating him of cowardice or collusion signed by the aforementioned “Captain”. Bruun accused Scott of the crime, claiming he had tried to disguise himself with a cloak and a black mask, but he had recognised Scott’s voice. Scott denied anything to do with it and suggested that the handwriting on the note matched that of Simpson, the schoolmaster. Simpson in turn accused Bruun of forging his handwriting and both Simpson and Bruun ended up in trouble with the law with their reputations in tatters, while Scott, after giving evidence in their trial, headed north to New South Wales with an unexplained cake of gold in his luggage.
He was soon in trouble again, however, being arrested by the Sydney water police while preparing to sail to Fiji in a yacht he had bought using bad cheques. Scott had been living large — mostly on the money he got from cashing in the cake of gold — boozing and partying and living above his means. He had convinced others to join him in a plan to buy an island in Fiji in order to begin an agricultural business, but had become distracted with his life of excess upon returning to Sydney, using the money for that on his vices too. When he ran out of money he attempted to use valueless cheques to buy things, but the ploy was soon discovered and raised with the authorities.
Scott did most of his time in Maitland Gaol, and he spent four months in Parramatta Lunatic Asylum after feigning madness in an attempt to engineer his escape from the minimum security facility. He was soon deemed sane and returned to prison. After his eventual release in 1872, he was immediately extradited to Victoria and was kept in Ballarat Gaol on remand over the Egerton robbery, thanks to new evidence that had come to light since his imprisonment.
Unwilling to be held, even to await his trial, he induced five other prisoners to join him in an escape. After subduing the guard and climbing the perimeter wall with a stolen rope, the gang split up. Gradually the men were recaptured, and Scott managed to make it all the way to Bendigo on foot before he was caught. He acted as his own defence when tried before Sir Redmond Barry, but was found guilty of the bank robbery and sentenced to twelve years hard labour to be served in Pentridge Prison. Scott maintained that he had not robbed the bank even after his conviction, and would continue to profess the same for the remainder of his life.
In Pentridge he proved to be a very disruptive prisoner and was frequently in trouble with the guards. He was often found with contraband, frequently losing privileges or being put in solitary confinement. He was also involved with the trial of a fellow inmate named Weachurch for whom he gave evidence as a defence witness. He also met James Nesbitt, a young man from an abusive home in Richmond with a history of petty crimes. The pair became close almost immediately and Nesbitt was once punished for smuggling tea to Scott. As Nesbitt had been released first, he waited and was reunited with Scott on the outside upon his release.
Scott and Nesbitt lived together in Fitzroy, where Scott decided the best way to utilise his prison experience and oratory skills would be to tour Victoria giving lectures on prison reform. He obtained the services of an agent and hit the road. While on tour, Scott recruited a former confectionary maker named Frank Johns to be a stage assistant. Johns, who had a crippled hand from an industrial accident, adopted the pseudonym Thomas Williams.
During the tour Scott and Nesbitt found themselves being targeted by police, who would arrest them on any possible pretence to interrogate them over a myriad of crimes that they had no connection to, including an attempted breakout at the prisoner barracks at Point Gellibrand, and a bank robbery in Lancefield that had previously been pinned on the Kelly Gang.
Police also caused Scott’s lectures to be shut down and interfered in his attempts to gain other employment, forcing Scott and his companions into desperation. Scott convinced Nesbitt and Williams to join him on a journey to New South Wales in search of a new start.
Other tagalongs that joined them as they trekked were teenager Augustus “Gus” Wernicke, who was the son of a publican, and Thomas Rogan, aka Baker, who also had a history of crime, having done time in Beechworth Gaol for horse stealing. However, the troupe’s lack of bush survival skills began to create issues for them, and they were repeatedly rejected for work at stations to support themselves, which was due to a mix of police interference and the dire economic situation of the time. They became desperate for supplies, having sold everything they could in exchange for food, and decided to take up bushranging as a means of survival. It was alleged that they began sticking up stores and stations as they travelled by foot and were frequently mistaken for the Kelly Gang, which Scott then used to their advantage in gaining submission from victims. While plausible, there were many other amateur bushrangers at the time doing the same thing and none of Scott’s gang ever gave a recorded confession to these incidents.
The gang travelled through the New South Wales Riverina, continuing their attempts to find legitimate work. They were joined by a swaggie named Graham Bennett near Gundagai, and proceeded to Wantabadgery Station. Scott enquired after the manager, but after being made to wait for hours in the heat were given marching orders.
Forced to sleep in the open without shelter overnight, they were soaked through in a downpour that left their sleeping gear unusable. Scott came to the conclusion that he needed to retaliate.
The next day, the gang stuck up Wantabadgery Station and took the staff prisoner inside the homestead while the gang took turns eating and sleeping. Over the course of the day more prisoners were captured and in one incident Scott killed a horse that he attempted to steal because it had resisted his attempts to mount it.
That night there was a party of sorts and Scott went to the nearby pub, the Australian Arms, for more drinks, but instead came back having robbed the place and kidnapped the publican’s children. In the early hours of the morning word reached the police in Wagga Wagga that something was up at Wantabadgery and the station was subsequently besieged by four of the Wagga Wagga mounted police. A shoot out commenced between the outlaws, who were directed by Scott, and the overwhelmed police, who were soundly defeated and forced to retreat from the battle on foot as the bushrangers had stolen their horses.
In the morning Scott and the gang rode to the nearby McGlede’s farm, though only Scott and Rogan had experience on horseback. On the way they crossed paths with a posse of volunteers who were out looking for them. Scott held a mock trial of the party and ordered one of the men to shoot his own horse as a punishment. The posse were then marched as prisoners alongside the gang as they headed towards McGlede’s farm.
Soon the police from Wagga Wagga were reinforced by a party from Gundagai and rode back to pursue the bushrangers. They managed to catch up to them and another shoot out erupted. As the gang ran to the safety of the homestead, Gus Wernicke was mortally wounded by a shot from one of the police. The rest of the gang hunkered down in the kitchen, though Rogan ran into the house and hid under a bed.
In the heat of the battle Constable Webb-Bowen was mortally wounded by a shot to the neck, and James Nesbitt was shot through the head by a trooper while standing at a window. Scott was beside himself and held Nesbitt in his arms and kissed him as he died. Scott ran out to rescue Wernicke who subsequently also died in his arms. The demoralised bushrangers were then arrested following the police breaking into the kitchen. Rogan was located later and all were taken to Gundagai to await trial.
During the trial of the “Wantabadgery Bushrangers”, Scott provided his own defence and pleaded for mercy for Rogan, Williams and Bennett. All were found guilty of murdering Webb-Bowen, who had died from his wounds several days after the battle, and all were sentenced to be executed. After the Executive Council met, Scott and Rogan’s sentences were upheld, but the other boys were given extended prison sentences.
While awaiting his hanging, Scott wrote many letters to people he cared for, including his father and Nesbitt’s mother to whom he apologised for what had happened to her son. The letters were suppressed by prison authorities.
Andrew George Scott was executed in Darlinghurst Gaol on 20 January 1880 with Thomas Rogan by his side. Neither made any final statements. His last request was to be buried with James Nesbitt — a request that was eventually granted in 1995 when his remains were transferred from Rookwood Cemetery to Gundagai after agitation from members of the public.
In recent years there has been much discussion of the nature of Scott and Nesbitt’s relationship being a homosexual one. It is indisputable that Scott loved Nesbitt very deeply, and it is believed that he wore a ring made from a lock of Nesbitt’s hair. Whether this love was romantic or platonic cannot be determined definitively as neither man is alive to state the case. There were many accounts that linked Scott romantically to women, and it has been suggested that Scott’s passionate love for Nesbitt may have been an interpretation of his religious beliefs rather than being sexual in nature. In the end we can only speculate. For now, with Scott and Nesbitt presumed to be lovers, it at least helps to create some form of representation for historically repressed members of society.
Perhaps the best insight into Scott’s mind in relation to Nesbitt comes from this extract from one of the surviving letters he wrote to Mrs. Nesbitt in the lead up to his execution:
19th January 1880
From Prisoner Andrew G. Scott
My dearest Mrs Nesbitt,
To the mother of Jim no colder
address would be true, My heart to you
is the same as to my own dearest Mother
Jim’s sisters are my sisters, his friends
my friends, his hopes were my hopes his
grave will be my resting place and I
trust I may be worthy to be with him
when we shall all meet to part no
more, when an all-seeing God who
can read all hearts will be the judge
I send you some of his hair
and will try to send you any
thing else of his I can get
Give the love of a brother to dearest
Jim’s Sisters and to his father
Farewell my dearest Mrs Nesbit
I am ever to you a loving son
Though Andrew Scott’s bushranging was very minor, and some could reasonably argue he barely qualifies for the term, the impact he had on popular culture of the time was considerable. The sheer volume of fanciful stories about him that were published by papers of the time helped to cement the celebrity status of “Captain Moonlite”, which only served to make life more difficult for Scott. It provides us with a cautionary tale about the negative impacts on individuals as a result of how the media portray them, regardless of the validity of the claims being made, and how that shapes the perceptions of others.
Captain Moonlite: Bushranger by G. Calderwood (1971)
In Search of Captain Moonlite by Paul Terry (2013)
Moonlite by Garry Linnell (2021)