Captain Moonlite and Society (Opinion) 


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.

Fitzroy ca. 1870-1880, during the time Andrew Scott and his friends lived there.

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.

Transient workers, usually referred to as tramps, were common in the Riverina at this time due to work shortages.

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

The Romance of Robbery (Opinion)

Everyone loves a good crime story. Most of the world’s most enduring stories relate to criminals, renegades and assorted rogues and their notorious exploits. But what is it that makes these figures so appealing? What is it about the brigand that captures the imagination? Why is it always the outlaws that sell the story and never the victims or the forces of the law?


This fascination with crime seems to be deeply ingrained across cultures and languages and places. Perhaps it comes down to a fixation on rules and order and what happens when the established rule of law is challenged. In the bible there is an attempt to explain such problematic behaviour with Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit whereupon they procure the knowledge of good and evil and introduce sin to the world and thereafter we are told the story of Cain slaying his brother Abel among other morality tales to educate the masses about morality. While this attempts to explain the existence of lawlessness, they’re not exactly historical accounts. Even as late as the middle ages myths were being created to portray outlaws and rogues rather than referring to specific real world instances. Robin Hood is of course the archetype of the noble rogue who opposes corruption and protects the little guy. Debate still rages around whether he was real or not, but it is likely that the stories were at least inspired by actual criminals. To us as enthusiasts of the bushranger stories it is a familiar premise that a band of outlaws who reside in a forest robbing travellers and disrespecting the forces of law and order become heroes to the underdog by dispensing the proceeds of their crimes among their supporters. To reduce the notion down in such a way really highlights how outlaws like the Kelly and Clarke gangs were able to remain at large as long as they did – though the actions weren’t exactly altruistic, as is assumed to be the explanation for Robin Hood, the formula still applies in a bare bones manner. Such myth making highlights the desire to have a hero that challenges and upsets the establishment when it oversteps the mark into tyranny. To this end, some will cling onto the first thing that resembles such a figure.

A medieval woodcut of Robin Hood circa 1510 (Source)


The desire to not only make heroes of villains but to try to become associated with such perceived greatness is commonplace. In London just about everyone knew the Krays or knew someone who did. In America everyone seems to have photographs of outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James floating around in their attic. In Australia it seems like everyone is related to a bushranger in some capacity. How often have you heard phrases like “I’m related to Ned Kelly” or “my great, great grandmother danced with Ben Hall”? Of course this sense of connection can be dubious at times but it helps people ground their beliefs in something tangible (which incidentally is why there’s a market for Ned Kelly tyre flaps). There is also no denying that the general public’s fascination with the lawless of our society is prominent and profitable. A perfect contemporary illustration can be seen in Mark Brandon Read, aka Chopper. When asked by Andrew Denton why, if he didn’t want young people to follow in his criminal footsteps, he wrote nine sequels to his first book glorifying and exaggerating his crimes he replied “Because they sold well.” In fact, Read is the epitome of the glorified criminal. By his own standards he was basically a typical street thug no more worthy of recognition than any other hoodlum, yet he is viewed by many as a hero and all round top bloke largely thanks to his unique appearance and flair for the theatrical. He comes across to many as the terrifying ogre with a heart of gold – like Shrek with a butane torch. His rhetoric about punishing drug dealers, child molesters and any other criminal that attacks the defenceless is perhaps the key to his characterisation. People want to believe the idea that a criminal can act as a defender of the weak and helpless against other crooks because of the desire to see “bad” people redeemed irrespective of their stance on the law and a belief in the innate goodness of the average person (most popular crooks coming from humble, working class or impoverished backgrounds).

Chopper Read poses with one of his paintings that depicts himself with a Ned Kelly helmet.


The idea of these dangerous offenders coming from a place of oppression and exerting power over their oppressors and furthermore using their might to protect the oppressed is the height of power fantasy. This notion of the faceless and oppressive “Man” is usually how the status quo is perceived at any given time by any amount of people owing to the propensity for figures of authority to exert power over others, frequently with little regard for the values or well being of many communities. A figure like Ned Kelly appeals to those who have felt bullied or persecuted in their life. The armour becomes a symbol of defiance and resilience, much like Chopper’s sunglasses, tattoos and moustache became symbolic of dominance and intimidation. In folklore Ben Hall is a tragic anti-hero, forced into crime because external forces broke his life apart (again, the police are portrayed as oppressors by burning his house down and even being personified as Jim Taylor who is in many colloquial accounts a former policeman). He breaks free of the oppression of the law by taking to the bush and ridiculing the police. Similarly, Dan Morgan was seen by many as heroic because he menaced unsympathetic managerial types in the name of the labourers that were in their employ and perceived as being ill treated. The bushranger becomes a beacon to those with an oppressed mentality; that is to say that those who have experienced or are experiencing oppression in some form identify with the romance of a life lived in opposition to oppressive forces. To this end it could reasonably be argued that the fascination with bushrangers is intertwined with a passion for social justice – that is a desire to see justice doled out equally among the adherents of society irrespective of the laws.

Fearless, free and bold: Figures like Frank Gardiner challenge authority, something many people feel unempowered to do themselves.


In the end the fascination with crime and outlaws will never falter while there exists a division between the lawful and the lawless and while there exists a distinct form of inequality or oppression in society. Looking up to an outlaw can say just as much about our strong moral character as our detesting the same can. By ascribing a morally superior motivation to crime it can speak to a desire to see justice carried out in spite of oppressive laws. By admiring an outlaw’s stance against a corrupt authority or their using their power to give hope to those being oppressed it can highlight social justice values that can’t be fed by other figures. In short, the romance of robbery is the desire of the downtrodden, an escapist ideal that places personal integrity as being more virtuous than compliance and seeks a hero to be the mouthpiece of those without a voice.

Sources and further exploration:

Interview with Chopper Read on Enough Rope (Source)