In October 1879, after a series of run-ins with the law, a failed career change and the inability to find work in Victoria, Andrew George Scott [Captain Moonlite], his closest friend James Nesbitt, and 4 young men headed to NSW – specifically to the Wantabadgery region where they hoped to find work.
At Wantabadgery Station, their hopes were crushed. The despair and humiliation of being denied food and shelter led Scott on a path of destruction, which soon spiralled out of control. Moonlite and his gang armed themselves and held the occupants captive for two days. When the police eventually arrived, a brief exchange of gunfire convinced them to withdraw and await reinforcements. Moonlite and his gang took advantage of their absence and made their way to nearby McGlede’s Farm. Before they could leave, a party of police from Wagga and Gundagai arrived.
A fresh and violent gun battle began, eventually resulting in the death of two bushrangers: James Nesbitt (22) and Augustus ‘Gus’ Wernicke (15). Senior Constable Edward Webb-Bowen was mortally wounded from a bullet to his neck, and died 6 days later.
Moonlite, and his three surviving gang members, surrendered and were taken into custody. At their subsequent trial they were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Scott (aka Moonlite, 35) and Thomas Rogan (22) were hanged on January 20th 1880.
Colleagues Thomas Williams (19) and Graham Bennett (20) had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment – it is alleged that this was primarily based on their respective ages.
Character Bios: Captain Moonlite and his men
Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite (1845-1880)
Born 8 Jan 1845 in a small town in Northern Ireland, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He had one older brother. Scott came to Australia in 1868 age 23 from New Zealand. His family had travelled from Ireland to NZ when he was 16.In NZ, by his own recollection, he was said to have completed studies as an engineer/surveyor. He also fought in the Maori Wars and says he was wounded in the Battle of Orakau. Both of these statements have been called into question by many historians – e.g. the UK Institute of Civil Engineers advised, that in 1868, the minimum age to be qualified was 25. Scott’s father had high status as a magistrate and lay preacher. After Scott left NZ he never saw his parents or brother again.
Moonlite has been described as an enigma, far removed from the traditional image of a bushranger. Educated and articulate, Moonlite was a poet, a preacher, skilled horseman, civil engineer, skilled with and knowledgeable about firearms, a fluent public speaker, gentlemanly, a soldier, sailor, prison reformer, adventurer, rebel. Magnetic personality. Moonlite was staunchly loyal to his comrades.
The Reverend Canon Rich, who spent time with Moonlite when he was on death row, described him as follows:
“Scott was indeed a peculiar man and one whose abilities no one could doubt after being in his company several minutes. His quickness of perception, rapidity and exactness of reasoning is a constant subject of wonder to those about him… and his knowledge of Scripture history is exceedingly good.”
In 1879 Scott asked the writer Marcus Clarke (For The Term Of His Natural Life) to support his lecture tour. Clarke later wrote his impressions of Scott – who had struck him as a respectably dressed man ‘who looked like the sub-overseer of a station.’ Moonlite did not appear to be a villain and there was nothing peculiar about him except for his
‘Light steel-blue eyes, which appeared without any depth in the iris, and shifted a good deal, like the eyes of all men accustomed to be observed and accustomed to shun observation.’
At the end of the trial of Moonlite, Justice William Charles Windeyer criticised Scott for luring young men into crime, saying…
“You have that veneer of education, that facility of speech, and capacity for theatrical exhibition which deceive those who are ignorant of the ways of the world, but they do not deceive me or any sensible man.”
Moonlite was characterised in the press around the time of the gunfight as a notorious scoundrel.
In his own defence, Moonlite stated that:
“We had no intention of being bushrangers…. misery and hunger produced despair and in one wild hour we proved how much the wretched dare. It must be seen that Wantabadgery was the place where the voice of hunger drowned the voice of reason and we became criminals.”
After the shoot-out he repeatedly expressed his deep love and high regard for Nesbitt. He wept openly over Nesbitt’s body and expressed his wish to be buried next to him at Gundagai cemetery. Many historians have wondered if their relationship was romantic..
Captain Moonlite died on 20th Jan 1880 on the gallows at Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney.
James Nesbitt (c.1858-1979)
James Nesbitt grew up in Carlton, Melbourne, with his mother, father and 3 sisters. He was schooled by the Christian Brothers.
Nesbitt lived near Bouverie Street, in a very tough area, which was fully of larrikin gangs – including the Carlton Roughs and the Bouverie Forties, who terrorised the area.
James Nesbitt’s father was an alcoholic, and was frequently charged with offences of drunk and disorderly, wife beating, threatening the life of his wife and a policeman with a carving knife. Nesbitt’s father spent a lot of his life imprisoned.
Nesbitt’s police and prison records show lots of physical scars – one on top of head, 2 scars each 2 inches long on side of head, one above right cheekbone; one above upper right lip, one on left jaw – caused by beatings from his father or encounters with street gangs.
Nesbitt committed his first crime on 25th July 1873, aged 15 – he stole one pound, one shilling and sixpence from a bakery in Melbourne’s Brunswick St. He received a sentence of one month in goal.
A week after release, he was back in court for stealing a till and its contents from a grocer on Chapel St., Prahran. He was sentenced to 3 months hard labour at Melbourne gaol.
After his release, Nesbitt managed to stay out of trouble for about 2 years, but he was once again sent to prison for 4 years, for committing assault and robbery. It was during this time in Pentridge Prison, that he met Andrew George Scott – aka Captain Moonlite.
Just before he was shot through the head during the gun battle at McGlede’s Farm, Nesbitt was said to be heard pleading with Moonlite to lay down his guns – although it was Scott’s own recollection that made this claim.
Augustus Wernicke (Gus) (c.1864-1879)
At 15 years of age, Gus Wernicke was the youngest member of Moonlite’s gang.
Gus came from a fractured family. His father, a widower who had remarried, ran a pub on Swanston Street Melbourne, and also a nearby brothel. Gus left home in May 1879 after disagreements with his stepmother. He found work in a plumber’s shop, but when he lost half a crown that belonged to the boss, he was flogged and his pay was docked. He ran away and ended up back at his father’s brothel.
Gus met Andrew George Scott [Moonlite] in Bourke Street, Melbourne. Scott said that when he met him, Wernicke was living in a brothel, ‘suffering from disease and covered with vermin.’
Months later, on hearing that his son had been shot dead, Wernicke Senior was reported by the newspapers to have said, “I am very glad he is shot.”
Although his bushranging career was short-lived, he is believed to have been Australia’s youngest bushranger. Gus was buried in an unmarked grave in the Gundagai Cemetery.
Edward Mostyn Webb-Bowen (also known as Edward Bowen) (1851-1879)
Senior Constable Webb-Bowen was the only policeman killed in the shoot-out with Captain Moonlite and his gang. Webb-Bowen died aged 28 of gunshot wounds received during the at McGlede’s farm in Nov. 1879.
Edward Webb-Bowen was born in Wales, the son of a vicar in 1851. He was the third son in a family of six boys and four girls.
According to an obituary in Australian Town and Country Journal, on 29 November 1879, Webb-Bowen was educated at Brompton Grammar School near London, and then at Eton.
He worked as a mercantile clerk in London, and emigrated to Queensland, arriving in Brisbane in 1873. Webb-Bowen joined the police force in Cooktown, when the Palmer River Gold Rush at its height.
When Webb-Bowen served on the Palmer River, there were lots of violent encounters with Aboriginal people and, according to his obituary he was constantly avenging the deaths of ‘his country men at the hands of the blacks’. “In one of these expeditions a hand-to-hand encounter took place, and Bowen received a spear wound which, for a time, incapacitated him.”
In 1875 Webb-Bowen came to Sydney and entered the NSW police force as a trooper. He was then stationed at Tenterfield in NSW.
At one point Webb-Bowen was transferred to Bendemeer in the New England district. He is remembered there for the fatal shooting –of the ‘notorious criminal’, the bushranger Fred Crawley. As a result of this, Webb-Bowen was promoted to rank of Senior Constable, and placed in charge of the police station at Murrurundi, NSW, where he remained for the next 16 months, until December 1873. He left the police force in 1878 and lived for a short while in 1878, perhaps to pursue a commercial career. The venture failed and in March 1879 he rejoined police force.
Webb-Bowen had a reputation for bravery, and was stationed in Gundagai during the Kelly outbreak. He was ‘often heard to remark that he hoped to encounter the Kelly Gang and that either he or Ned Kelly would die in the ensuing conflict’.
As he lay dying in Gundagai hospital, Webb-Bowen received a letter of appreciation from then Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes. He left behind a wife and a young son when he finally succumbed and died of his injuries at 1.30am on Sunday 23 Nov 1879.
Webb-Bowen was buried alongside Sergeant Edmund Parry of Gundagai who had been shot by bushranger Johnny Gilbert near Jugiong north of Gundagai on 16th November 1864.
Some references for further information about Webb Bowen: