The Catalpa Rescue: The story behind one among Australia’s most unimaginable jail escapes

Perth, Australia (CNN) – It all started with a letter from an Australian “grave,” a document so persuasive that it prompted a US gang to sail about 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles) to carry out arguably one of the most outrageous prison escapes in Australia in history.

The year was 1876. Using a series of codes and disguises, the courageous group snuck into Western Australia to free six Irish political prisoners.

Now, 145 years later, a new generation of Australians is learning about this prison break thanks to the WA Museum Boola Bardip.

The museum, which reopened in November 2020, was closed for four years due to renovation. It has eight new galleries and is in the same spot it has occupied since 1891 when it opened as a geological museum in the Old Perth Gaol.

Among the many exhibits on offer is a modern look at the Catalpa rescue – named after the ship on which they traveled to freedom.

WA Museum Boola Bardip’s new catalpa display, featuring images of the prison they escaped and the ship, is part of the Reflections Gallery – a permanent exhibition that explores how “unique experiences and perspectives shape the identity and sense of place in our state to have. “”

The display explains how the escape made headlines around the world and inspired several folk songs. It complements several tourist attractions already available for visitors who want to follow in the footsteps of the prisoners’ wild journey.

Imprisoned for crimes of rebellion

In a state where 10% of the population are Irish, the catalpa escape remains a moving story of cunning, courage and turmoil.

In the 1860s, many Fenians – an Irish nationalist movement with strong US membership that wanted to end the British occupation of Ireland – were arrested by the British and imprisoned for crimes of rebellion, explains Irish-Australian writer Peter Murphy, author of the book “Fenian Fear”.

The 62 Fenians sent to Western Australia were incarcerated in the infamous UK-run Fremantle Prison, located in the port of Fremantle in what is now metropolitan area Perth. This huge stone prison, built in the 1850s – Western Australia’s only World Heritage building – is now one of Perth’s most popular tourist attractions. The guided tours tell the story of the catalpa.

Murphy explains that one of these 62 prisoners escaped from Fremantle Prison in 1869: John Boyle O’Reilly, a famous Irish activist who later became the key to the Catalpa Mission.

The new WA Museum Boola Bardip has eight new galleries, one of which includes an exhibition on Escape to Catalpa.

Paul R. Kane / Getty Images AsiaPac / Getty Images

Before O’Reilly, no other prisoner had ever escaped from Fremantle Prison. He wouldn’t be the last.

The catalpa escape began when an Irishman living in New York, John Devoy, heard a “voice from the grave” in 1874. This was the eerie phrase used by Fenian James Wilson to describe his incarceration in a letter to Devoy asking for help to escape from Fremantle Prison.

With the help of an Irish priest, the Fenians were able to smuggle such letters from prison to distant and free members of their fraternity. However, Devoy was the only one who answered her desperate call.

He bought the Catalpa ship in Massachusetts, then converted it into a whaling ship to create a cover story for his long voyage to Western Australia, before sailing to Perth with a small crew.

The captain of the catalpa was an American, George Smith Anthony, who was benevolent of the Fenian cause.

Escape from Prison? That was the easy part

When the rescue team realized they couldn’t just go to Australia and catch their imprisoned brothers, they invented a clever conspiracy. Devoy sought advice from O’Reilly, hoping to capitalize on the experience of his own escape from Perth.

“As a journalist, it was O’Reilly’s close observation of the Western Australian coastline, his knowledge of the (state) penal system and the design of the city of Fremantle (including its prison) that would make him the obvious choice for the rescue,” says author Murphy.

Devoy sent two Fenians to Perth before the Catalpa. These men – Thomas Desmond and John Breslin – were assigned to gather information on the ground. They pretended to be wealthy business people, made local contacts and investigated Fremantle Prison for security breaches.

Breslin repeatedly visited the prison, then known as the Convict Establishment, under the guise of seeking convict labor. His last visit came after receiving an encrypted telegram from the master of the Catalpa stating when the ship would arrive in Perth.

In prison, Breslin managed to inform the detained Fenians of the escape plan. The key message was that on April 17th every man had to join a workgroup – denounce workgroups that worked outside the prison walls.

When that day arrived, everything was in place. The telegraph line between Fremantle and Perth had been cut to allow prison staff to slow the alerting authorities. Breslin was waiting at a meeting point where he had guns, horses, and two wagons.

The catalpa and a smaller rescue ship stood ready off the coast of Rockingham.

View of the main cell block and parade ground in Fremantle Prison.

View of the main cell block and parade ground in Fremantle Prison.

Western Australia Tourism

The six Fenian prisoners managed to break free from their gangs and rush to the meeting point. Soon Breslin saw them charging towards him. They hopped in the wagons and galloped down the coast to Rockingham Beach. There, in the sand, the captain of the catalpa loaded her into a small boat and made her way to the whaling ship.

The escape was remarkably smooth. The Fenians could have been forgiven for celebrating. But a storm was stirring, figuratively as well as literally. Just as the authorities learned of the escape, the Indian Ocean became rough and the prisoners were lost before they could reach the catalpa.

They spent a night at sea and were fortunate enough to avoid the discovery of police boats combed Perth’s coast. The next day the refugees finally found the catalpa and sailed to freedom.

However, they were soon discovered in international waters by a British ship loaded with colonial guards and armed with a cannon. The guards fired and the Fenians returned as explosions lit the seawater near Fremantle.

Perhaps the American captain of the catalpa realized that his crew was overwhelmed and slipped into a clever plan. He hoisted a United States flag on the ship’s mast and, according to an exhibit at Canberra’s National Museum of Australia, roared the following words: “This is the American flag. I’m at sea, my flag protects me. If you shoot it, ship, you shoot the American flag. “

The trick obviously worked. The Colonial Guards had been advised to avoid scandal in international waters and they had withdrawn. The Fenians and their rescuers cheered into the distance on the way to the USA. They arrived in New York to be greeted fiercely by members of the city’s vast Irish community.

Author Murphy says the importance of this escape went beyond her daring and intrigues. It was a stirring example of the Irish rebellion against the British that had subdued the Irish for centuries.

“The catalpa was one of the few success stories in which Irish nationalists could claim to have been victorious, as previous attempts to undermine the crown had failed miserably due to informants,” says Murphy.

Reminiscent of Australia’s daring “wild geese”

Catalpa Escape - Perth, Australia

The Catalpa monument was erected in 2006.

Ronan O’Connell / CNN

In the years that followed, this Fenian triumph became an inspiration to many Irish who stayed in Western Australia.

Their voices boomed through the local pubs as they sang the proud story of the catalpa: “A noble whale ship and a commander called the catalpa came to Western Australia and took six poor Fenians with them. So come you all, you guards and prisoners, remember regatta day in Perth, take care of the rest of your Fenians or the Yankees will take them away. ”

Just be careful and sing it today. According to the exhibition at the new WA Museum Boola Bardip, “The catalpa ballad so angered the police that it was officially banned in Western Australia and remains banned to this day.”

In addition to the new museum and historic Fremantle Prison, travelers can visit the Catalpa Memorial, which is located on the spot where they fled in Perth.

The statue on Rockingham Beach in Perth was erected in 2006. It shows a frozen flock of wild geese, their wings outstretched as they rise towards the freedom of the sky.

“Wild geese” was the affectionate name of Irish soldiers who served in foreign armies in the 17th and 18th centuries. It later became a common term for the millions of Irish migrants who are scattered around the world.

In the base of this stone statue are engraved images of the six Fenians rescued from the Catalpa ship – James Wilson, Martin Hogan, Robert Cranston, Thomas Darragh, Michael Harrington and Thomas Hassett.

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