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21 The Queen of the Everglades We never liked that business of the King and the Queen of the Everglades . About ninety-nine percent of what they wrote about John and Aunt Laura was pure fiction. Aunt Laura was a kind generous Christian woman. —NORMAN PADGETT, in J. T. Huffstodt, Everglades Lawmen: True Stories of Game Wardens in the Glades In pulp fiction, a narrative form that at times resembles ethnography, Laura Upthegrove would have been called “low-rent” or, more charitably, a “bad apple.” Her story unfolds, as we will see in this book, along a tragic trajectory, until it ends in a small-town grocery store located along the eastern shore of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. Even these skeletal facts may be disputed. Competing efforts to exaggerate and efface the particulars of her life have produced an untidy assemblage of partial truths. Upthegrove’s notorious love affair with an infamous outlaw led her family to distance themselves from her memory, while this same notoriety inflamed the press’s contradictory accounts of her life and death. Some say that it was a “fit of temper,” spurred by a disagreement with a customer, that led her to grab a bottle of Lysol off the shelf and drink it down that evening in 1927. If it was Lysol, a favored suicide method in the 1920s, her death would not have been easy. The cresol-containing disinfectant would have burned her throat, corroded her stomach, and eventually caused vascular collapse. Other troubles plagued her besides a conflict over the correct change on an illegal liquor sale. The legends about Laura Upthegrove are numerous. During the 1920s, she was a member of the Ashley Gang,1 a group of outlaws who robbed banks, killed policemen, made and sold illegal liquor, and hijacked rum-runners on 22 The Queen of the Everglades the Gulf of Mexico. Most notably, the gang evaded capture for years. They taunted the police at every turn, dodged several posses, and repeatedly escaped from jail or prison. Their successful evasion of the law, at least until their leader’s demise during a shoot-out one dark evening on a lonely bridge, was due, in part, to their intimate knowledge of the Everglades backcountry. Most of the gang’s members had grown up in the Everglades, and during their time, they returned to camps hidden there. Almost a century later, the Ashley Gang remains a palpable figure in the mythology of the Everglades. More personally, I must admit that the commonality of our first names has spurred my obsession-bordering fascination with Laura Upthegrove. Instead of downplaying this coincidence, I have chosen to treat this commonality as a research directive. Walter Benjamin compared his method of writing critical history to a sea journey on which the ship has been drawn off course by the magnetic North Pole. For Benjamin, critical illumination appears as we follow the deviations of history’s main line. As he says, “Discover that North Pole.”2 Laura Upthegrove is this book’s North Pole. We return to her story again and again. In doing so, we see how the past and the present, myth and memory, the human and nonhuman become entangled in the Everglades swamps and the swamps’ rural communities. Of course, names, the process of naming, and the gradual unraveling of a name’s genealogy are endeavors fraught with powerful complications. This was certainly the case with the other Laura. She was called Laura Upthegrove and Laura Upthegrove-Tillman, and stories exist of her unlikely marriage to her half brother (endlessly repeated in newspaper accounts over the past several decades) that would have made her, finally, Laura Tracey. Her multiple proper names reveal something of her messy personal life and the formal political economy of kinship. Yet her association with the Everglades landscape slips away from these names, residing instead in her outlaw image and love affair with an Everglades gangster named John Ashley. For this association , the press referred to her as the “Queen of the Everglades.” This page intentionally left blank ...


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