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36 The Notorious Ashley Gang A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. —GILLES DELEUZE and FÉLIX GUATTARI, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature For such a notorious figure, John Ashley was slightly built. In one photograph , he countenances a rakish vulnerability, a quality Laura Upthegrove must have found attractive. Though he stares coolly into the camera, he looks uneasy in his suit. Perhaps the suit is borrowed. Certainly, the sleeves are hemmed too high, exposing his delicate wrists. His black eye patch, with its strap disappearing into his dark pomaded hair, contrasts sharply with his all-white suit. Yet the symbolism at play in this black-and-white color scheme is too easy. Perhaps the photograph’s most significant incongruity is that Ashley is wearing the suit in the first place, as he was hardly raised to wear such clothing. By profession, Joe Ashley, John’s father, was a woodchopper for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. Flagler’s railway reached West Palm Beach, in southern Florida, in 1894. Encouraged by persistent lobbying and a significant land contribution by Julia Tuttle, Miami’s matriarch, Flagler eventually extended the railway southward to Miami and then, in a mammoth feat of engineering, over the sea to Key West. This railway was a critical artery in the tycoon’s Florida empire, an effort he began after retiring from Standard Oil, which he had cofounded. Aside from the railway, Flagler’s interests included several lavish resort hotels, such as the Breakers in Palm Beach, and an agricultural and real estate development company. Along the way he financed the construction of schools, hospitals, and churches. These John Ashley (right) with unidentified bystander. Photograph courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. 38 The Notorious Ashley Gang unparalleled capital investments were key to southern Florida’s transformation from a dismal, swampy outpost to a Gilded Age playground. As do all empires, Flagler’s required an enormous input of cheap labor. The Ashley family, like thousands of other families, became anonymous contributors to empire and thus to the transformation of the Everglades. Joe Ashley, his wife Lugenia, and their nine children moved from Fort Myers to the Pompano Beach area in 1904. Several years later the family relocated to West Palm Beach. Throughout this period, Joe and his elder sons cut wood that was used to power the railway’s steam engines. As was typical for Everglades settlers, the Ashley family supplemented their wage earnings by hunting, fishing, and raising vegetables. At some point, Joe Ashley began to operate a whiskey still and sell illegal liquor, an enterprise that would become a family business. The younger boys, including John Ashley, spent their time hunting and trapping in the woods of southeastern Florida. By age eleven, John’s shooting accuracy was said to rival his father’s.1 Edmond Rodgers, a family friend and father-in-law to William “Bill” Ashley, the oldest son, described John as the bravest and coolest man he had ever known. John’s shooting skill was legendary. As Rodgers recalled, “I believe he was the best shot with a rifle or a revolver that I ever saw. . . . I have seen him ride along in a wagon, take his revolver and shoot off the head of a quail, off-handed twenty to thirty yards.”2 Like many hardscrabble Florida families engaged in empire building , the Ashleys got along by skirting the law at times, in relatively minor offenses such as hunting out of season or selling moonshine. John Ashley’s murder of DeSoto Tiger tipped the scales. DeSoto Tiger was the son of Mary Tiger and Tom Tiger, a well-regarded Seminole leader. In the early 1980s, Ada Coats Williams interviewed Frank Shore, DeSoto Tiger’s brother-in-law.3 According to Shore, and substantiated by other accounts, John Ashley joined a group of Seminole hunters in December 1911. The hunters had invited Ashley into their camp because they were friends of John’s brother Bill. From this camp in the glades outside Fort Lauderdale, the group hunted alligators and trapped otter. Though otter hides were selling well that season, going for around a dollar each, the group decided to break camp and return home for Christmas. Apparently, The Notorious Ashley Gang 39 DeSoto Tiger was anxious to see his wife, Ada Micco, and their newborn daughter, Flora. The project of empire intervenes at this point in the story as well. According to...


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