‘Well have we loved’

Black and white engraved illustration of shootout between bushrangers and police.
'The capture of Moonlite and his gang', engraving. The Illustrated Australian News, 28 November 1879. State Library of Victoria: IAN28/11/79/177
Awaiting execution at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1880, bushranger Captain Moonlite wrote moving letters describing his feelings for fellow gang member Jim Nesbitt.1

Cultured, charming and dangerous, Andrew George Scott (c1842–1880), known as Captain Moonlite, was an Irish-born bushranger. He committed his first serious offence in 1869, robbing a bank in Egerton, Victoria. In a characteristically daring act, he held up a friend of his, bank manager Ludwig Bruun, while wearing a flimsy mask and cloak. Bruun recognised him, but by the time police accepted his story Moonlite had flitted to Sydney with valuables from the bank’s safe.

After exchanging stolen gold for currency at Sydney’s Mint, Moonlite went on a spending spree. He bought a yacht, the Why-Not, and planned to set sail for a new life in Fiji, with a young female companion who was possibly his lover, and a skipper. But the cheque to buy the yacht bounced, and Moonlite was locked up in the cells of the Water Police Station, now the Justice & Police Museum. He was sentenced to prison for fraud.

  • 1. The title of this story is a Line from ‘The Lady of Provence’ by Mrs Felicia Hemans, included in a letter from Moonlite to James Nesbitt’s mother, 19 January 1880, transcribed in S Williams (ed), The Moonlite papers: [the letters & statements of A.G. Scott written in the death cell, Darlinghurst Gaol], Popinjay Publications, 1988–1991.
Portriat of man with sparse but long beard.
Andrew George Scott (alias Captain Moonlite), c1878. Sydney Living Museums
Portrait of young man with checkered neck tie.
Carte de visite of James Nesbitt, c1878. Victoria Police Museum & Historical Unit. Reproduced with permission from the collection of Victoria Police

‘... my dearest Jim’

On his release in 1872, Moonlite was extradited to Victoria to face charges over the Egerton robbery. He escaped from Ballarat Prison but was caught and confined in Pentridge Prison. There, in 1878, he met the youth many believe became his lover, James ‘Jim’ Nesbitt. Prison records indicate that Nesbitt was disciplined for taking tea to Moonlite, a risky act of devotion given the likelihood of discovery and punishment.

Released from jail in 1879, Moonlite met up with Nesbitt and the pair scraped a living on the lecture circuit where Moonlite spoke about prison reform. But police kept a close eye on the duo, who they believed had committed crimes including theft, and Moonlite and Nesbitt moved to NSW, accompanied by four other young men. The group ended up at Wantabadgery Station near Wagga Wagga, where they bailed up the homestead’s owners before engaging in a bloody gun battle with police. Senior Constable Edward Webb‑Bowen died from gunshot wounds, leaving behind a bereft widow and young child. Nesbitt was also killed during the shoot-out, and it was reported that a distraught Moonlite embraced Nesbitt’s lifeless body. The surviving gang members were captured.

‘… his grave will be my resting place’

During Moonlite’s trial, held in Sydney in December 1879, ‘in mournfully pathetic tone, he lamented the fate of Nesbitt, and expressed his desire to be laid by his side at Gundagai’.2 He and one of his accomplices, Thomas Rogan, were sentenced to death.

Although records suggest that Moonlite also had relationships with women, as he sat in his cell awaiting death it was Nesbitt who inspired his tender recollections. He wrote many letters that were never sent by authorities but which detail his relationship with Nesbitt. In a letter to a friend he wrote, ‘When he died it broke my heart’,3 underlining the last words for emphasis.

In a letter to Jim’s mother, he went further:

  • 2. The South Australian Advertiser, 24 December 1879, p5.
  • 3. Letter to William Jones, R. No. 9557, c/- Albert Read Esq, Melbourne, 15 January 1880, in Williams (ed), The Moonlite papers.

… his hopes were my hopes, his grave will be my resting place and I trust I may be worthy to be with him where we shall all meet to part no more, when an all-seeing God who can read all hearts will be the Judge. When intentions will be known and judged of. As to my dearest Jim I have felt that the love and friendship, true, pure, real friendship that blessed our union demands that I should defend his name to the last.

Letter to James Nesbitt’s mother, 19 January 1880, in Williams (ed), The Moonlite papers.

Cast of man's head with no hair.
Death mask of bushranger Captain Moonlite. Photo © Paulo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

Moonlite was hanged in January 1880. In spite of his wishes, he wasn’t buried with Nesbitt but was laid to rest in Rookwood Cemetery. His body remained there until 1995 when a campaign was mounted to reinter him at the Gundagai Cemetery. His new burial site sits near that of the man he loved, Nesbitt, and also within sight of the grave of murdered police officer Webb-Bowen. Although we may never know the full story of Moonlite and Nesbitt, the letters suggest a loving and enduring relationship which not even death could sever.

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About the author

Nerida Campbell

Curator

Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests brimming with family photographs, generations of clothing and things she still can’t identify.

This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our quarterly Members’ magazine.

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