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67 The Theatrics of Everglades Outlaws This attempt to do a low-budget, regional variation on Bonnie and Clyde is likeably earnest but has little else to offer. —CRAIG BUTLER, review of Little Laura and Big John (1973), All Movie Guide After DeSoto Tiger’s body was discovered, Sheriff George Baker of Palm Beach County dispatched two deputies to bring John Ashley in for questioning . Rumors suggested Ashley was hiding out at a camp near Hobe Sound. As the deputies made their way through a heavy growth of palmettos along the Dixie Highway, John Ashley and his brother Bob suddenly appeared and held the lawmen at gunpoint. After disarming the deputies, John Ashley sent a message to their boss, saying, “Tell Baker not to send any more chicken-hearted men with rifles or they are apt to get hurt.”1 To avoid further confrontations, Ashley spent the next several years living out of state, first in New Orleans, then in Seattle, where he worked at a logging camp. Apparently missing his home and family, he returned to southern Florida in 1914 and peacefully surrendered to the police. Secure in the racial politics of the era, Ashley felt confident that a jury of his “peers” would acquit him of the murder. At his trial, Ashley claimed self-defense, testifying that DeSoto Tiger had threatened to shoot him if he did not give him some liquor. Ashley’s strategy worked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Hoping to seat a less sympathetic jury, the prosecutors then moved the trial to Dade County. Less sure of the outcome of a second trial, Ashley decided not to risk conviction and took flight. At the time, Bob Baker, Sheriff Baker’s son, was Dade County’s jailor. Ashley made his escape on a rainy evening as the pair were returning from Ashley’s first day at court. In the 68 Everglades Outlaws dooryard of the jail, as Baker held a plate of food, provided by the Ashley family, and fumbled with a light and the key, Ashley took off, easily scaling the ten-foot-high chicken-wire fence that enclosed the compound. Though the jailor immediately pursued the fleeing Ashley on a bicycle, Ashley quickly vanished into the Everglades. It is within this landscape that the Ashley Gang takes form. In the Everglades, Ashley was joined by Clarence Middleton , an opium addict; Kid Low, a bank robber; members of his extended family; and sundry other criminals. An outmoded theatricality pervades the Ashley Gang story, like a Keystone Kops comedy infected with melancholia. Bicycle pursuits and jeering taunts, set within a forbidding landscape—these theatrics mark the gang’s thirteen-year history. For instance, in 1915, John, Bob Ashley, and Kid Low successfully robbed the Bank of Stuart. During the confusion, Kid Low shot John Ashley in the face. The bullet shattered Ashley’s jaw and lodged near his eye. Though the gang escaped into the Everglades, Sheriff Baker was tipped to Ashley’s location after hearing that a doctor had been called to treat Ashley ’s wounds. Two of DeSoto Tiger’s brothers (Naha and Tom Tiger) helped lead the posse to Ashley’s hidden camp.2 There they found John Ashley being tended by his brother Bill. In great pain, John was taken to the Palm Beach jail, where a doctor removed Ashley’s damaged eye and fit him with a glass one. This glass eye became a tragic touchstone in the Ashley drama. Bob Baker, the hapless jailor, succeeded his father as sheriff of Palm Beach County. In the following years, Sheriff Baker endured humiliation by the Ashley Gang. Under his watch, gang members repeatedly escaped from jail and prison, robbed banks, sold illegal liquor, and hijacked the supplies of other rumrunners . Throughout, Ashley taunted Sheriff Baker. In return, Sheriff Baker vowed to wear Ashley’s glass eye as a watch fob. After Ashley was killed, a deputy sheriff at the scene knelt over Ashley’s body and removed the slain man’s eye and brought it, like proof of a vanquished Cyclops, back to Sheriff Baker. Years later, that deputy told Ada Williams, “But do you know. . . they made us send it back so that it could be buried with his body? If I’d known that, I’d have smashed it under my heel on the bridge that night.”3 Indeed, Ashley’s grief-stricken family did demand the eye’s return for burial. Although I have foreshadowed the story’s...


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