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91 The Gang Vanishes into the Mysterious Swamp Out of the somber stillness of the Everglades comes this story of John Ashley, bank-robber, highwayman, pirate, hi-jacker and murderer. Out of its labyrinthine maze of gnarled and twisted mangrove came John Ashley in his teens, heavily laden with otter and other furs that found a ready market and brought the necessities of life to a typical “cracker” family. –HIX C. STUART, The Notorious Ashley Gang: A Saga of the King and Queen of the Everglades Though a jury convicted John Ashley for the murder of DeSoto Tiger and sentenced him to death by hanging, Ashley was never imprisoned for the crime. For reasons that remain unclear to me, Florida’s Supreme Court reversed the jury’s decision. With understandable frustration, local prosecutors then tried Ashley for bank robbery. In 1916 he was convicted of this lesser crime and sentenced to serve seventeen and one-half years at the notorious Raiford Prison in northern Florida. This was a time when prisoners in Florida labored on chain gangs or were leased to work in phosphate mines or turpentine camps. Ashley ended up serving only two years of his sentence at Raiford before being transferred to one such off-site work camp. After his transfer, Ashley and another inmate quickly escaped and fled southward to the Everglades. There, Laura Upthegrove waited. O. B. Padgett, who was deputy sheriff for Palm Beach County at this time, described the region’s mangrove forests and scrub hammocks as “alive with moonshine stills.”1 With plenty of freshwater and wood available to run the steam-powered stills, this was an ideal landscape for making illegal alcohol. It also was an ideal landscape for concealing a fugitive. Ashley re- 92 The Gang Vanishes mained at large for three years, operating moonshine stills throughout Palm Beach County. He was eventually arrested in Wauchula, Florida, as he tried to deliver a load of liquor to a garage. Until a fellow prisoner tipped them off, the arresting officers did not immediately know they had a wanted fugitive in their small jail. When his identity was confirmed, Ashley was returned to Raiford to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Incredibly, prison authorities once again transferred Ashley to the convict road crew, and, once again, he escaped and returned to the Everglades. But it was not just John Ashley who escaped from confinement. It seems as if one posse or another, with or without dog teams, was always pursuing various gang members. For instance, like John Ashley, Ray Lynn and Clarence Middleton escaped from a prison road crew in Marianna, Florida. A couple years later, Hanford Mobley and another gang member forced open a skylight in their cell in the Broward County jail (where they had been transferred because of its higher security) and then used their blankets to lower themselves from the roof. These escapes were quickly followed by an excruciating repetition of roadblocks, stakeouts, and car chases. Even after years of reading about the Ashley Gang, I am still surprised at the mundane ease of these escapes. A case in point: when John Ashley ran away from the Dade County jail, the guard pursued him on a bicycle. By anyone’s accounting, the members of the gang proved themselves to be extremely dangerous. And yet they were not exactly criminal masterminds. Their escapes (and crimes too, for that matter) could hardly be characterized as meticulously planned. Even so, they seemed to repeatedly elude their captors. The Ashley Gang stories offer a simple explanation for this state of affairs. The explanation is not, as one might suppose, that the jails were understaffed or that local people were not particularly enthusiastic about capturing the gang or even that the enforcement technologies of the day (Model T Fords, telegrams, chicken wire, and the like) were unsophisticated. Instead, the Everglades is central to these explanations. In the stories of the Ashley Gang, the Everglades is more than mere backdrop. There is a sense in these stories that the Ashley Gang was somehow a product of the Everglades—as if the Everglades gave birth to a sort of culture of transgression. Like the landscape’s fantastic snakes and ferocious alligators, John Ashley appears to have emerged from the swamp’s The Gang Vanishes 93 primordial abyss a fully formed criminal. It is this myth of origin that accounts , according to the stories, for the gang’s ability to vanish, at will, into the landscape...


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