- 1 Feb 2014
- The Sydney Morning Herald
Ill met by Moonlite, Bowen named a hero.
Police want more recognition for a constable shot by a notorious bushranger more than a century ago, writes Heath Gilmore.Captain Moonlite was the rock’n’roll bushranger; bad, strikingly handsome and likely gay. He also was a cop killer.
In 1879, during a siege at Wantabadgery, east of Wagga Wagga, his gang shot dead Senior Constable Edward Bowen, a married officer with a young child. Moonlite was hanged for the killing.
Since their deaths the two men have become entwined in an endless waltz between good and evil, right and wrong, with the bushranger taking the lead in appealing to a modern sensibility.
On Saturday morning the NSW Police will hold a meeting at Wantabadgery Town Hall (free breakfast is being provided) to stage a popular culture intervention. For them, the elevation of Moonlite, Ned Kelly, Chopper Read or some Underbelly wannabes is unnerving.
A new memorial, artworks, bush ballads and even a comic book are among the ideas being discussed to push forward ‘‘Gung-Ho’’ Bowen as an icon of policing.
‘‘We want Bowen to become a popular symbol of the importance of doing the right thing,” said Inspector Stephen Radford, from the Wagga Wagga local area command.
‘‘We want to take on the bushranger myth head-on.
‘‘While some cynics have criticised this focus on the past hero, rather than current crime issues, developing a police culture based on commitment to duty and serving the community is not always easy. With Generation Y and their differing value systems and technological wizardry taking their right place in policing, it is important we leave them with real role models and engage them in our traditions and values.’’
Aggressive and gung-ho, Bowen had gained colonial fame since his arrival in Australia from Wales after killing two dangerous criminals in separate incidents and had expressed a public desire to kill Ned Kelly, said Paul Terry, author of In Search of Captain Moonlite.
Happy to take on the equally notorious Captain Moonlite to stop his crime spree, Bowen charged the siege house at Wantabadgery, where the bushranger and his gang were holed up. He was shot and died a few days later.
Meanwhile, moments after Bowen was hit, Moonlite’s soulmate James Nesbitt was killed.
Bowen was buried with honours and later a large stone monument was erected over his grave in Gundagai. Nesbitt was interred nearby in an unmarked grave.
In jail before his death, Moonlite wrote a letter professing his undying love for Nesbitt. His last request, repeated many times, was to be buried with him.
The colonial government of the day had no intention of acceding to the wish. Instead he was buried at Rookwood cemetery in Sydney. A lock of Nesbitt’s hair was fashioned into a ring for his finger.
After the letters were discovered, two Gundagai women, Samantha Asimus and Christine Ferguson, decided to grant Moonlite’s last wish. In 1995, the bushranger’s body was exhumed and reburied near Nesbitt.
When Moonlite was reburied at Gundagai, a small group of police officers held a silent vigil at the grave of Bowen nearby. They had not forgotten that Bowen’s widow and child were left penniless, a situation which led to the formation of the Police Legacy fund.
‘‘There is new debate as police try to win more recognition for Bowen, with grand hopes of changing community perceptions,’’ Terry said. ‘‘I think they might elevate Bowen’s status, but I don’t think they will change overall public perception of Moonlite. It’s just a great yarn and touching love story.’’