Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 11 July 1915, page 11



The sixties were stirring times in New South Wales and Victoria. The voice of the old fossicker, now an almost extinct species, was heard in the land, and bewhiskered, rrd-shirted bushrangers laid in wait for him in lonely gullies, past which the coach track wound on its way to the nearest town. In those days a policeman often had a life that was by no means all beer and cold pie. He was at times called upon to take a ride through the bush on the box seat of a coach, which, besides two or three shivering passengers, also carried a few boxes of gold. His chance of getting a couple of ounces of lead from an old-fashioned, long-barrelled revolver was a trifle better than the present-day constable’s likelihood of drawing a prize in Tattersall’s sweep.

“I thought we were in for a little potting practice the day I saw Thunderbolt riding along the mountain-side, about 160 yards from the coach,” declared ex-Gaol Governor John Cotter when recalling the other day some incidents of bygone times. Mr. Cotter was a constable at the time he referred to, and was acting as mail guard on the Glen Innes coach. “We had two passengers,” he said, “and one of them was a magistrate. Just as we were going up the Devil’s Pinch I saw a horseman riding along the side of the ranges, and it didn’t need a second glance to assure me it was the notorious Thunderbolt. We had such excellent descriptions of him that there could be no mistake. He had his eye on the coach, too, and seemed to be debating with himself whether to gallop over to us or not. I settled the question for him by drawing my revolver. He saw the action, realised that I had the drop on him, and rode away. The magistrate was greatly perturbed when he saw my revolver come out. He was still more upset when he learned how close he had been to Thunderbolt without the railing of a dock to separate them. The horseman I saw was Thunderbolt all right, because he was present at the Uralla races on the following day, and was on his way there when he passed our coach. Forty-eight hours afterwards he was shot by Senior-Constable Walker.”


While on the subject of bushrangers, Mr. Cotter called to mind the capture of Captain Moonlight, whose real name was Scott, and his subsequent execution. It Is a generally-accepted belief that Moonlight was a well-educated man, and claimed descent from a good old English family. Mr. Cotter, who, in the capacity of gaol official, spent a lot of time In the bushranger’s society, regards Scott as having been a man who had received an ordinary education, but had missed no opportunity of improving himself. Owing to Moonlight’s excitable temperament and daring nature great difficulty was experienced by the gaol authorities in getting warders to guard him while he was awaiting execution. Mr. Cotter was brought down from Maltland for the job, and he, with another warder, afterwards took it in turns to watch the desperado while he was in the condemned cell.

“One morning,” said Mr. Cotter, “Moonlight became outrageous. He was shouting and bawling at the top of his voice, and he had the wits scared out of the warders. Seven of them had to be relieved on the first evening. At last the deputy-governor came along, and he said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with that fellow Moonlight? This is the seventh man I have sent to him. Do you think you can manage him,’

“I said I’d have a try. ‘What’s up, Scott?’ I asked, as I looked through the grating of the cell door. ‘Do you call those men warders?’ he said, angrily. ‘I call them Johnny Warders. They don’t know how to manage a man. All I did was to call out to my mate Rogan, and they started to make a fuss about it.’ He promised me he would be quiet, and he was. For a week before he was executed, I and another man stood guard over him. He asked me as a favor to remain with him on the night before his execution, as he said strangers irritated him. The governor asked me If I would take it on, and I told him I was not afraid. ‘There’s only one thing,’ I said. ‘That woman Black going to see him so often. She might drop some poison in the matting.’ The governor replied that he could not interfere with the visits of this woman. ‘You must just keep your weather eye on her,’ he said.”


Moonlight got no poison, and he gave no trouble. He spent his last night on earth dictating to a clerk a long account, covering 21 pages in foolscap, of the Egerton bank robbery in Victoria, for which he had been sentenced to five years, and of which he said he was innocent.

“It was a terrible night,” proceeded the ex-governor, “but I carried him through. About 2 o’clock in the morning he had a sleep, and covered his head with the bed-clothes. I was In a regular fidget, for I didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. Rogan, who was in the other condemned cell, asked to be called at 3 am. to say some prayers. He was fast asleep at that hour, so we didn’t waken him. As a matter of fact, he was always praying.

“Moonlight and Rogan were executed together at 9 o’clock. Addressing Rogan, Moonlight remarked, ‘Well, Rogan, we made one great mistake. Good-bye, old man.’ Moonlight wanted to make a speech, but Rogan stopped him.

During his long career as a police constable, warder, and gaol governor, Mr. Cotter had many exciting experiences with refractory prisoners. On one occasion he frustrated a well-planned attempt to escape by the two desperadoes, Horn and Baxter, who were undergoing sentences of 16 years and 10 years respectively. That was during the late Sir John Cecil Read’s term as governor of Darlinghurst Gaol. On another occasion he was nearly knifed by a vicious prisoner named McDonald. It seemed a fateful coincidence that the warder who pacified this man and took him away was afterwards killed by another prisoner. Quinlan, a rare desperado, was searched when handed over to the gaol authorities, but a concealed weapon was overlooked. With this he murdered Warder Elliott, and was sentenced to death. He was reprieved, and after doing the best part of 14 years, he went to Bega, and murdered a farmer. For this second murder he was executed at Goulburn.

Mr. Cotter was born at Kingston, County Clare, Ireland, and last month celebrated the 73rd anniversary of his birthday. He joined the New South Wales police in 1868. and in 1876 changed over into the Prisons Department, in which branch he served for over 30 years at Bathurst, Berrima, Maitland, Darlinghurst, Biloela. Mudgee, and Tamworth gaols. He is now living at Bondi in the enjoyment of a pension.

Leave a Reply