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Decades later, Ashley part of local lore

More than eight decades after he and his crime partners died in 1929, John Ashley continues to be one of the most intriguing figures in Florida history.

Many a relative of an Ashley Gang member has written to defend, or at least try to explain, the long-dead gangster.

Clyde Middleton wrote in January to tell us of his uncle, Clarence Middleton (pictured below):

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“He was the second oldest son of Steven and Margeret Middleton, my grandparents. He had four brothers and three sisters living in Jacksonville; all are deceased now.

“His oldest brother, Jack, owned the Embassy Club and the Peacock Club in Jacksonville.

“Cecil, Clyde and Bruce all served honorably in World War II and became successful businessmen in Jacksonville after the war.

“Clarence probably got involved in rum running in the early ’20s and met up with some of the Ashley Gang in prison then fell in with them.

“He was one of the four men murdered on the San Sebastian bridge in 1924. He is buried beside his father in Jacksonville.”

Clyde refers, of course, to the evening of Nov. 1, 1924.

Deputies stopped Ashley and Middleton, along with Hanford Mobley and Ray “Shorty” Lynn, on a wooden bridge over the St. Sebastian River in what was then St. Lucie County.

They later said the men were shot trying to escape. But many believed they were assassinated by lawmen tired of being humiliated from Stuart to Miami by robberies, moonshining and murder.

In 1997, Ada Coats Williams, a retired teacher of creative writing at Fort Pierce’s Indian River State College, completed Florida’s Ashley Gang, the first book on the Ashleys since 1928.

A retired deputy who’d been on the bridge that night had confirmed to her in the 1950s that the men were shot while handcuffed, after John made a sudden move.

He had told her on the condition that she keep the secret until after all those involved had died.

Williams, profiled in this column in September on her 90th birthday, never has publicly identified her confidant.

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The Notorious Ashley Gang, by Hix Stuart, is a 1920s book about the infamous gang that terrorized South Florida in the early 20th century. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg February 17, 2011 at 10:10 am.

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This week in history: Notorious Ashley Gang shot down

On Nov. 1, 1924, four members of the Ashley gang were apprehended and killed on a wooden bridge over the St. Sebastian River in what was then St. Lucie County. John Ashley and his gang had terrorized south Florida for decades — robbing banks and trains from Stuart to Miami, smuggling moonshine, and running rum from the Bahamas. Members of the gang are buried at the Ashley homestead near present-day Port Salerno. Read more about the Ashley Gang here at HistoricPalmBeach.com.

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Posted in Flashback blog November 1, 2010 at 6:00 am.

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St. Lucie woman a living history book

Because Florida’s modern history really began pretty much a the start of the 20th century, some of our residents are walking history books. One is Ada Coats Williams. She turned 90 this week.

Her grandparents — her gandmother was Robert E. Lee’s cousin — came from Alabama to the Titusville area in the 1870s. They moved to Fort Pierce in 1894.

Her father, William Lee Coats (known as Okeechobee Bill), was the city’s first pharmacist, a real estate salesman and a legislator.

“During the boom days, he made scads of money, and after the boom, he was very broke.” Williams said in 1999.

She was born in Okeechobee on Sept. 8, 1920, and grew up in Fort Pierce when it literally was a cow town.

“Everybody knew everybody else in Fort Pierce,” she said in July. “When you left your home you didn’t lock your door.”

And she lived through the Depression and World War II.

“I dated those young men who trained here,” Williams said. She also recalled seeing freighters struck by German U-boats.

“All of a sudden, you’d see the fire and flame go up,” she said.

For 16 years, she taught creative writing and English composition at Indian River Community College — now Indian River State College.

She’s written seven historical outdoor dramas and several books, including histories of St. Lucie County and Fort Pierce and, of course, Florida’s Ashley Gang.

John Ashley was only 18 in 1911 when he was suspected in the slaying of a Seminole trader. His gang robbed banks from Stuart to Pompano Beach and killed two lawmen.

In 1924, Ashely and three partners were stopped on the bridge over the St. Sebastian River by the St. Lucie County sheriff. Moments later, all four were dead, face-down.

Police insisted the Ashley gang had pulled guns. But years later, a deputy who had been on the bridge told Williams the gang members were shot unarmed.

Williams has been married 59 years to Harold S. Williams, a retired citrus grower. The couple have three chidren, three grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Now retired, she’s active in her church and spends time with people her age who aren’t in good health.

“I have been so blessed in so many ways,” Williams said.

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Ada Coats Williams in 2002 (Palm Beach Post file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg September 9, 2010 at 9:47 am.

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Ashley gang robbed bank at different corner

Our Dec. 17, 2009, column on the Ashley Restaurant drew this response from Josephine Paradise of Stuart:

“The 2/23/1915 robbery was not at the restaurant location but at the first Stuart bank, which was on the corner across from the Ashley Restaurant.

“This building is still there but now houses some kind of a fellowship

“My grandfather, John E. Taylor, was a bank teller during that first robbery and actually tried to talk John Ashley out of committing the robbery. “I have in my office two witness subpoenas for my grandfather to appear as a witness. “The second robbery, in 1924, was at the restaurant site.”

We also received this from Debbie Moore of Plant City:

“It upset me greatly, for the Ashley Gang wasn’t evil; they loved each other and many of their neighbors. However, Sheriff Baker had to be evil to the core; what could be more cruel than taking a dead man’s glass eye to use as a fob?

“John Ashley and my grandfather were cousins. My grandfather died when I was 3 so I don’t remember the stories he told about the Ashleys, only that he loved them.

“My grandfather worked for Tampa’s mobster, Charlie Wall. So did two of my cousins. But my Papa was the sweetest man I have ever known. And I imagine John Ashley was too.

“I don’t condone their actions of robbing and killing. But a man is worth more than his worst deeds.

“My mother is 87. She would never talk about the Ashley Gang or say much about my grandfather being a mobster because she was ashamed. But now she’s different and not so concerned about her image. So I just recently learned how closely related I am. “I went down to Stuart on Nov. 1, the anniversary of John’s and Hanford’s deaths, and put roses on their graves. I thought some of my relatives who live in Stuart might be there and I would get to meet them. But, other than a few golfers, we were the only people around. It was quite sad.”

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Palm Beach Post file photo
The Ashley Gang was a band of smugglers, moonshiners and killers who lived in the area in the early 1900s. Among their crimes were robberies in 1915 and 1924.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg January 14, 2010 at 9:03 am.

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Ashley eatery used to be Stuart Bank

When the Ashley restaurant in downtown Stuart closed in September, it closed a window into South Florida’s wild past. The place operated as an eatery for years. But in a past life it was the Stuart Bank, forever linked to the infamous Ashley gang.

On February 23, 1915, John Ashley — along with his brother Bob and an associate, Kid Lowe — robbed the bank of $4,300 and forced a customer to drive them away in a car they hijacked from the front of the bank.

As they fled, they fired guns to show that they were serious gangsters.

Kid Lowe’s shot shattered John Ashley’s jaw, with the bullet resting against his left eye.

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Bruised and in disarray, the gang scattered into the woods, where Sheriff George Baker was able to catch up with John Ashley (pictured above). Lowe and Bob Ashley got away.

Newspaper accounts of the robbery referred for the first time to “the Ashley gang.” Some reveled in their daring exploits; others condemned them as thieving thugs.

Ashley refused surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his head, saying that there wasn’t much point if he was to be hanged on a pending murder charge.

The eye was later removed, and he was fitted with a glass one.

The courts went through 150 potential jurors before giving up and moving the trial to Miami. The Dade County sheriff ordered extra locks and chains for Ashley, saying that he didn’t trust the gangster to stay put. He was proven right; Ashley’s brothers tried a bloody and unsuccessful jail break. Ashley was convicted in the Stuart bank robbery and sentenced to 17½ half years at the Florida State Prison in Raiford. He later would escape into the Everglades. And most famously: in September 1924, a woman in a white blouse, a long black skirt and a hat entered the Stuart Bank. It was really Ashley gang member Hanford Mobley in disguise. Two cohorts fled in a getaway car they had stolen from a man whom they had tied to a tree. How crazy was the strategy? Asked to describe the robbers, witnesses no doubt remembered only the dress.

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Palm Beach Post file photo: The three men killed on the St. Sebastian Bridge are buried in the family plot. The men were part of the notorious Ashley gang, rum runners from the 1920s who also robbed banks and caused grief for the law enforcement community. John Ashley died in a 1924 shootout.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg December 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm.

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