Andrew George Scott – Captain Moonlite – known in recent years as the gay bushranger – died on the gallows at Darlinghurst Gaol on 20 January 1880. Bushrangers, like outlaws in America and highwaymen in England, became the folk heroes of early Australian history – the Wild Colonial Boys.
But, let’s address two contentious issues before launching into the life story of gay bushranger Andrew George Scott.
Moonlite or Moonlight?
In the 1800s, as now, language purists argued the self-titled captain’s nom-de-crime should be spelled Moonlight. But Scott himself, on the night he invented his villainous persona, spelled the name Moonlite, as Truth noted in 1935.
“He was himself essentially a queer bird, so it is to be supposed that he saw nothing queer about spelling ‘light’ l-i-t-e.”
So, Moonlite it is.
There are those who vehemently oppose assigning labels to historical figures they would not have used themselves. So, I must admit upfront, it is a bit of a stretch to describe Captain Moonlite as…
… a bushranger.
Bushranger [boosh-reyn-jer] | noun: a criminal living in the bush, and subsisting by robbery with violence.
As the story of Captain Moonlite unfolds, I trust it will become obvious that Scott and his motley crew of ragamuffins were no Kelly Gang. However, of the 2000 bushrangers reputed to roam colonial Australia, he remains one of a handful most Australians can name. So, a bushranger he is.
Andrew George Scott
Born in Ireland, Scott trained as an engineer before migrating to New Zealand. By 1868, he was in Melbourne where the Anglican Bishop appointed him a lay preacher. However, he became implicated in a cattle stealing case. Although he probably did assist the son of a wealthy local farming family to rustle cattle from a neighbour, the police never charged him. But suspicion lingered and the church reassigned Scott to the dusty gold town of Mount Egerton.
In Mount Egerton, he became friendly with Ludwig Bruun, a 17-year-old bank agent. The friendship ended after a masked man held Bruun at gunpoint and robbed the bank’s safe. The robber also forced the lad to write a note to the authorities and sign it ‘Captain Moonlite’.
Bruun later identified the robber as Scott but failed to convince the local cops. They arrested Bruun, and Scott left town. It seems the pair plotted the robbery together and then either fell out – or Bruun lost his nerve and dobbed in his former friend.
Scott lived the high life in Sydney, in part by paying bills with bad cheques. But he also sold some gold dust, coincidentally about the same amount as stolen from the Mount Egerton Union Bank. The cheques cost him a fifteen-month stretch in prison after which he was rearrested over the Mount Egerton robbery. While awaiting trial in Ballarat, he planned an escape with the prisoner in the neighbouring cell.
A particularly attractive-looking fellow
John Dermody was 20, and according to the papers, daring, reckless and laughter-loving.
“Dermody is a particularly attractive-looking fellow, fair-haired, fair-faced, with sparkling, challenging eyes.”
Scott broke through the wall into Dermody’s cell, they seized a warder on his rounds and made their escape. However, the pair soon fell out and Andrew George Scott was recaptured not long after.
He was sentenced to ten years in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison. He served two-thirds and on his release hooked up with James Nesbitt, a petty crim he’d met inside.
Scott reinvented himself as a prison reformer and attempted a lecture tour with assistance from James Nesbitt. However, police harassment and media beat-ups killed that career path. Scott and Nesbitt decided to move to NSW. They recruited a mob of slum boys to join them: Thomas Rogan, 21; Thomas Williams, 19; Graham Bennett, 18; and Augustus Wernicke, only 15 years old.
With little money and no horses, they walked to NSW. It was hot and dry and necessity forced them to sell their spare clothing to pay for flour. They subsisted on damper, tea and koala meat.
The Wantabadgery Shoot-out
Starving, the group asked for food at Wantabadgery Station, near Gundagai. When the station manager refused help and ordered them to leave, Scott lost it.
“Misery and hunger produced despair, and in one wild hour we proved how much the wretched dare.”
Scott’s little ragtag group took the people at the station and others from neighbouring properties and a nearby hotel hostage. However, they left the publican’s wife behind at the hotel and she alerted the authorities. Four mounted troopers arrived the next day but the gang held them off and even stole their horses. When the troopers left for reinforcements, Captain Moonlite and his young followers escaped.
Too cocky for their own good, they loitered at a nearby farmhouse unaware that a stronger contingent of armed troopers was approaching from Gundagai. When the battle began, young Gus Wernicke was shot running for cover.
The boy lay on the dry earth, bleeding out and pleading to be moved out of the sun. A constable had also been shot, apparently by young Wernicke as he lay dying. James Nesbitt then made a run for it, attempting to lead the police away from the house so that Captain Moonlite could escape. A bullet smashed into Nesbitt’s skull. Around the same time, the farm owner disarmed Moonlite. The shoot-out was over.
Moonlite wept over him like a child
The legendary Captain Moonlite raced to where James Nesbitt lay dying. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Moonlite wept over him like a child, laid his head upon the dying man’s breast, and kissed him passionately.”
Around a century later, historian Garry Wotherspoon became intrigued by Moonlite’s response to Nesbitt’s death. He later found a bundle of prison letters in the NSW Archives, written by Andrew George Scott but never sent. Letters in which Scott poured his heart out about his feelings for Nesbitt.
On January 19, the day before he died, Scott addressed a letter to Nesbitt’s mother.
“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.”
He meant what he said about the grave. He requested that after his death, the authorities arrange his burial in Gundagai Cemetary with James Nesbitt. They, of course, ignored him.
Andrew George Scott, Captain Moonlite, the gay bushranger, went to the gallows on January 20 1880 with Thomas Rogan. The government commuted the death sentences of the other two survivors on account of their youth. At his death, Scott wore a ring fashioned from a lock of James Nesbitt’s hair around his finger.
In 1995, Captain Moonlite’s body was exhumed and reburied at Gundagai Cemetary. The gay bushranger has his dying wish – lying now for eternity near his beloved Jim. It should be mentioned, however, that but for Captain Moonlite, young Gus Wernicke, Thomas Rogan, Constable Bowen and indeed James Nesbitt, might have led much longer lives.
Read more: January 19 <— On this day —> January 21
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