Captain Moonlite is a name well known by bushranger enthusiasts, but his story is often overlooked. Yet, Moonlite’s tale is perhaps one of the most tragic in the pantheon of bushranging. It is a tale of a ragtag bunch of men and boys from social disadvantage being pushed so far into desperation by capricious and vindictive agents of the law and a lack of support from society or their families that they become violent criminals and pay the ultimate price for their fall from grace. For those of us who take an interest in social justice it becomes an intriguing look at what contributes to delinquency.
Andrew George Scott was a bundle of contradictions: well educated, brave and likeable with a well defined sense of justice and righteousness, he was also a hedonist who turned to conning people to fund his playboy lifestyle. Within a year he had gone from being a sober, much revered preacher to partying hard and getting himself arrested for buying a yacht with dud cheques. He was all too fond of liquor and seems to have had as much of an eye for the lads as the ladies. But it was his time in Pentridge that changed his perspective and seemingly his personality. After meeting Jim Nesbitt he suddenly had a reason to walk the straight and narrow. The promise of seeing Jim once he was out of gaol seems to have had an extremely positive impact on him. Once on the outside he felt compelled to share the horror of his experiences in prison in a bid to instigate prison reform. As he toured young men gravitated to him because they saw the rogue in him, but they also found acceptance. For tearaways like Gus Wernicke coming from abusive and neglectful backgrounds it must have been life changing to meet this man who told the most wonderful stories of his adventures and was genuinely interested in them for who they were rather than what he could get from them.
It seems that harassment and oppression were the keys to Scott’s mental breakdown. An inability to find gainful employment due to his convict past drove him to poverty and desperation. Surely the conduct of the Victoria police in 1879 must have been worthy of investigation if Scott’s claims that they not only followed him everywhere but actively turned potential employers against him are accurate. He and Nesbitt were ersatz fathers for Williams and Wernicke to some degree and so must have felt an intense pressure to provide for them if not for themselves. In this case, if Scott had been allowed to pursue honest employment without police making it impossible for him to find a willing employer it’s very likely that he would have lived rather a quiet life with Jim and the boys, at the very least for a time. Alas it was not to be.
When the boys turned bushrangers in order to go to New South Wales and find employment the police continued their tricks, riding ahead of the troupe as they ventured through the North East of Victoria on foot and warning station superintendents and shop owners about the band of criminals on their way. The inability to find work or even buy food resulted in the gang reputedly living off of damper and black tea, only getting meat in their diet by shooting koalas. These were not bushmen – these were street urchins from the city led by a disgraced man of the cloth. Tension must have been high and Scott would have been feeling it acutely. He wanted a better life and in pursuit of it had been pushed further and further away from it. The last straw came at Wantabadgery Station where not only were they forced to wait for two hours to see someone about work or accomodation, when they finally saw Percy Baynes, the manager, they had the door effectively slammed in their face, forcing them to sleep in the open on a hill during a storm. Scott’s pride was badly wounded and his desperation at critical mass, tipped to breaking point by the careless and callous behaviour of one man at the wrong time. Scott’s decision to bail up the station was impulsive and the personality of “Captain Moonlite” was dramatically different from Scott himself. The unkindness seems to have awakened Mr. Hyde and disabled Dr. Jekyll lending the Irishman a callous and almost murderous disposition.
Scott’s actions at Wantabadgery show him to be a man who had become unhinged. When he shot horses, threatened to lynch Baynes and kidnapped the children from the Australian Arms, it didn’t come from any kind of logic, it came from a heart bubbling over with rage and pain caused by the indignity he was living through, which in turn was thrust upon his companions simply for associating with him. When the gang eventually went to McGlede’s farm and fought the police in one last climactic gunfight “Moonlite” died and Andrew Scott began to resurface. In that one afternoon Scott had lost everything that gave his life meaning. His true love died in his arms, then Wernicke, who for all intents and purposes was as close to a son as he was ever likely to have, followed suit. One can only imagine what was going through Wernicke’s head when he was shot and left bawling on the ground alone in the middle of the gunfight, even being clubbed by a policeman as he lay dying before being rescued by Scott moments before expiring. Dying in Andrew Scott’s arms was likely the most affection Wernicke had received in many years. It cannot be stressed enough how important it was for Scott to have befriended this pug-nosed fifteen year old, scruffy and infested with lice and fleas due to neglect, living in his father’s illegal brothel without friends or prospects. The day he met Scott and company he finally had people who cared about him and somewhere to belong. Thinking he’d been abandoned as he lay dying would have been terrifying. That Scott swooped in under fire and cradled him until he died in his arms would have been as much of a relief for Wernicke as it was a burden for Scott, knowing he was responsible. It would have been impossible to process such tragedy. The one thing that gave him strength thereafter was the hope that he could protect the other three (Rogan and Bennett had joined the troupe on their travels). The tragedy is compounded with the fact that his efforts to make amends failed spectacularly. What does it say about Scott that he would even attempt to sway a judge and jury to sentence him to execution to protect the others? What does it say about justice in those days that he and Rogan should be hanged?
In the end the only member of the gang not put to death was Bennett, the only one who actually (supposedly) killed during the fight. With Wernicke and Nesbitt shot, Scott and Rogan hanged for Constable Bowen’s murder and Williams later hanged on unrelated offences while serving time for his involvement with the gang, it seems unfair on the boys, especially on Rogan who hid under a bed in terror and never fired a shot. These lives were brutally and prematurely snuffed out – a miserable end to miserable lives.
The story of Captain Moonlite is the tale of desperate people brought together by their disenfranchisement and eventually killed because they were pushed too far. As with many bushrangers we see basically people who are in their hearts good men and boys pushed to madness by a society that would not allow them to move on from their mistakes.
Fitzroy. Jenny, Rudolph. ca. 1870 – 1880. SLV Source ID: 2027999
LOST! – A SKETCH FROM RIVERINA. Ashton, Julian Rossi. David Syme and Co. 1880. SLV Source ID: 1760620
ANDREW GEORGE SCOTT, ALIAS CAPTAIN MOONLITE, LEADER OF THE CAPTURED BUSHRANGERS. David Syme & Co. Illustrated Australian news. November 28, 1879. SLV Source ID: 1768421