Q: Was O.B. Padgett one of the deputies who “captured” the Ashley Gang? — D. S. Padgett, Lamont, Fla.
A: Mr. Padgett doesn’t say whether he’s related to the deputy who was part of one of the most dramatic moments in the history of Treasure Coast crime.
On Nov. 1, 1924, deputies stopped John Ashley and colleagues Hanford Mobley, Ray “Shorty” Lynn and John Middleton on a wooden bridge over the St. Sebastian River in what was then St. Lucie County.
Deputies said the gang was shot because the men tried to escape.
But many believed the Ashleys were assassinated by lawmen tired of being humiliated from Stuart to Miami by the gangsters’ bank robberies, moonshining and murder.
As early as 1928, Hix Stuart’s The Notorious Ashley Gang identified O.B. Padgett as one of the four Palm Beach County deputies, along with two St. Lucie deputies and the sheriff, who were on the bridge.
In 1997, Ada Coats Williams, a retired teacher of creative writing at Fort Pierce’s Indian River Community 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.
Ten years later, in October 2007, in Indian River Magazine, Warren J. Sonne, a private eye and a retired New York police detective,concluded that the deputy who shot Ashley, and who confided to Ada Williams, was not O.B. Padgett, but Elmer Padgett (we couldn’t learn whether the two were related).
Williams still refuses to identify her confidant.
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Q: Was O.B. Padgett one of the deputies who “captured” the Ashley Gang? — D. S. Padgett, Lamont, Fla.
It’s been an astonishing 80 years since the Ashley gang’s reign came to an end on a lonely Treasure Coast bridge.
John Ashley and his gang terrorized South Florida for two decades. His nemesis: Bob Baker, sheriff of Palm Beach County, which included present-day Martin County until 1925.
Ashley would send Baker bullets “with your name on it.” Baker sent word that one day he’d wear Ashley’s glass eye as a watch fob.
John Ashley was only 18 in 1911 when he was suspected in the slaying of a Seminole trader. He and a pal robbed a train, then a Stuart bank, where he was nabbed after his partner accidentally shot him in the eye.
With the murder trial moved to Miami, Ashley’s brother Bob killed a jailer in an attempt to spring John and was himself killed by an officer, who also died during the breakout attempt. Murder charges were dropped and Ashley went to prison for 17 years in the Stuart robbery. Two years later he walked away.
For three years, the Ashleys operated stills and ran rum from the Bahamas. Two brothers vanished during one run. John Ashley was caught again in 1921, but escaped three years later. During his stay, his nephew robbed a Stuart bank dressed as a woman.
The sheriff later raided Ashley’s Martin County still. Ashley killed a deputy; another deputy killed Ashley’s dad.
In 1924, the St. Lucie County sheriff stopped Ashley and three partners on the bridge near Sebastian. Moments later, all four were dead, facedown. Cops said they’d pulled guns. A judge agreed.
In the 1950s, one of the deputies who’d been on the bridge admitted to historian Ada Coats Williams that the four had been shot while handcuffed.
Q: Who was the Ashley Gang?
A: John Ashley and his gang terrorized South Florida for two decades. His nemesis: Bob Baker, sheriff of Palm Beach County, which included present-day Martin County until 1925. Ashley would send Baker bullets “with your name on it,’ and Baker sent word back that one day he’d wear Ashley’s glass eye as a watch fob.
John Ashley was only 18 in 1911 when he was suspected in the slaying of a Seminole trader. After three years on the run, he returned, but one day into the trial, he fled jail.
He and an accomplice robbed a train, then a bank in Stuart, where Ashley was captured after his pal accidentally shot him in the eye. With the murder trial moved to Miami, Ashley’s brother Bob killed a jailer in an attempt to spring John and was himself killed by an officer, who also died. Murder charges were later dropped and Ashley went to prison for 17 years in the Stuart robbery. Two years later he walked away from a road gang.
For three years, the Ashleys operated stills in northern Palm Beach County and ran rum from the Bahamas; two brothers vanished during one run. Ashley was caught again in 1921, but escaped again three years later. During his stay, his nephew had robbed a Stuart bank dressed as a woman.
After his escape, John and his gang robbed a Pompano Beach bank, and Ashley left a bullet at the teller’s window as a gift for Baker.
Baker later raided Ashley’s Martin County still; Ashley killed a deputy while another shot Ashley’s father to death.
In 1924, the St. Lucie County Sheriff stopped Ashley and three partners on the bridge over the St. Sebastian River. Moments later, all four gangsters were dead, face down.
Two people said later they saw the gangsters standing cuffed and at least one official noted cuff marks on their wrists, but cops insisted they had pulled guns. A judge agreed.
In the 1950s, one of the deputies who’d been on the bridge admitted to historian Ada Coats Williams that the four had been shot handcuffed, under the condition that she keep it secret until after all the deputies involved had died. But in 1924, few wept for the Ashleys save their mother, who buried a
husband and four of five sons.
Read More About It: Florida’s Ashley Gang, by Ada Coats Williams
Historical Society of Martin County: 225-1961.
Q: Who’s the first Palm Beach County police officer killed in the line of duty?
A: For years, it was believed to be Frederick Baker, a sheriff’s deputy shot during a raid on the Ashley gang, which terrorized South Florida in the 1910s and 1920s. In February 1924, a posse led by Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker opened up on the Ashley camp in western Martin County. Joe Ashley, John’s father, was shot as he tied his shoes. John, seeing his father hit, killed deputy Fred Baker. The gang fled; angry townspeople burned the Ashleys’ camp and homes. Nine months later, Ashley and three partners were shot dead on a bridge north of Fort Pierce. A judge accepted deputies’ statements that the gangsters were trying to escape, but decades later, one of those deputies admitted the criminals had been handcuffed when they were shot.
Fred Baker’s status was unchanged until 1996, when Florida International University Professor William Wilbanks unearthed the story of George Clem Douglas, killed Aug. 17, 1921, while trying to arrest a thief in Bare Beach, near Belle Glade.
Later in 1996, in a public ceremony 75 years after the fact, authorities added Douglas’ name to the county’s Fallen Deputy Memorial in West Palm Beach and submitted it for the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington. Douglas became one of nine county deputies believed killed in the line of duty since the county and its sheriff’s office were formed in 1909.
Douglas, a farmer, was talked into taking the job by town councils in the settlements of Bare Beach and Ritta, now ghost towns along the big lake. He held it for only five weeks before being shot, allegedly by Sam Wells, a 50-year-old laborer on a crew building the Miami Lake, where the Miami Canal meets the lake. Wells had been accused of cheating another man out of his paycheck during a card game. Wells was never arrested in the slaying.
Read More: Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early Florida, by William Wilbanks.
Historical Society of Palm Beach County: 832-4164.
Tags: Ashley Gang
By Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
If he were alive today, John Ashley might be just another street thug.
Instead, the tall man with the glass eye became South Florida’s most romanticized gangster. Long before Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow became America’s great anti-heroes, Ashley and his ragtag gang enthralled and infuriated Boom-era Florida with their robbing, hijacking, rum running and even murder.
Ashley even had a “Bonnie” of his own – Laura Upthegrove, “Queen of the Everglades.”
And like Bonnie and Clyde, Ashley and three of his cronies ended up dead in an explosion of gunfire.
Their deaths on a wooden bridge over the St. Sebastian River in 1924 put an infamous end to the Ashley gang’s infamous career of crime.
Deputies said the gang was shot because they tried to escape. But many believed the Ashleys were assassinated by lawmen tired of being humiliated from Stuart to Miami by the gangsters.
Now, Ada Coats Williams, a retired teacher of creative writing at Fort Pierce’s Indian River Community College, has completed Florida’s Ashley Gang, the first book on the Ashleys since 1928′s The Notorious Ashley Gang.
Williams was a good candidate to write it: She was there.
“My father knew all these people,” recalled Williams, whose family setted the area in the 1870s.
Williams had gotten the real story about the Ashley gang’s shooting in the 1950s from a retired deputy who’d been on the bridge that night. His one condition: she keep it secret until after all the deputies involved had died.
Williams kept her promise.
“It was the last time someone could give the story, documented,” she said.
Most notorious antics
In 1911, John Ashley robbed some Seminole Indians of their furs and killed the son of a Seminole chief.
By 1923, Ashley had a “to the death” feud with local Sheriff Bob Baker. Ashley would send Baker bullets “with your name on it,’ and Baker sent word back that one day he’d wear Ashley’s glass eye as a watch fob.
In 1924, Ashley’s handsome nephew dressed as a woman to rob the Stuart Bank.
The Ashley Gang saga
March 19, 1888: John Ashley is born near Fort Myers.
1. 1911: The Ashleys move to West Palm Beach, then to Gomez, near Hobe Sound.
2. Dec. 29, 1911: John Ashley murders DeSoto Tiger, the son of Tommy Tiger, head of the Cow Creek Seminoles. Tiger’s body is found in a canal northwest of Fort Lauderdale. (B)
When Palm Beach County Sheriff George Baker sends two deputies to Ashley’s home, Ashley escapes arrest and warns the deputies: “Tell Baker not to send any more chicken-hearted men with rifles or they are apt to get hurt.”
He surrenders two years later but escapes after the jury in the murder trial deadlocks.
Early February 1915: Ashley, his father and his nephew, Hanford Mobley, try to rob a Florida East Coast Railway train, but a woman’s screams stop them, and the gang flees a mile south of Stuart.
3. Feb. 23, 1915: John, his brother Bob and Kid Lowe rob the Stuart Bank. (C)
Lowe fires a shot that shatters John Ashley’s jaw and rests against his left eye. Sheriff Baker catches only John Ashley, who refuses surgery to remove the bullet. He is later fitted with a glass eye.
4. June 2, 1915: Shootout at Dade County Jail. (D) Trying to spring John Ashley from jail, brother Bob knocks on the door of Deputy Sheriff Wilber Hendrickson’s home, next to the jail.
“Are you Hendrickson?” Bob asks, then fires his rifle.
Bob takes the keys from the dying Hendrickson. But the commotion alerts Hendrickson’s wife. Bob panics, drops the keys and jumps into a passing car.
After a few blocks, a Miami police officer catches up with Bob. Both fire their guns. Both die.
John Ashley insists he didn’t know of the escape attempt.
Summer 1918: Ashley escapes from road camp and spends three years operating stills in northern Palm Beach County and running rum from the Bahamas.
October 1921: John’s brothers, Ed and Frank Ashley, disappear while returning from the Bahamas with rum. (E)
5. November 1923: Ashley and his gang steal a cab and rob the Pompano Bank. (F) Ashley leaves the cabbie a bullet and dares Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker, George Baker’s son, to look for him in the Everglades.
6. February 1924: Sheriff Baker’s posse opens fire at the Ashley camp in western Martin County. (G)
Joe Ashley, John’s father, is shot as he ties his shoes. John, seeing his father hit, kills deputy Fred Baker. The gang flees, and angry townspeople burn the Ashleys’ camp and homes.
September 1924: John Ashley’s 19-year-old, slender nephew, Hanford Mobley, dresses in a white blouse, a long black skirt, a hat and a veil. “She” robs the Stuart Bank.
7. Nov. 1, 1924, shootout at the St. Sebastian Bridge: Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker gets a tip that the Ashleys plan to head to Jacksonville, then return and kill him. He alerts his St. Lucie counterpart, J.R. Merritt, that Ashley might be heading his way.
Baker sends up four deputies, who join Merritt and two of his men.
At about 10:45 p.m., a red lantern is swinging from a chain strung across the wooden bridge at St. Sebastian River. (H)
Two youngsters from Sebastian pull up. Merritt steps from the bushes and tells them to drive on. Behind them, the Ford bearing Ashley and his gang – Hanford Mobley, Ray “Shorty” Lynn and John Middleton – comes to a stop. The lawmen surround it.
The two young men turn around, and their headlights fall on four men standing handcuffed on the bridge. They race to Sebastian to tell everyone the Ashleys had been captured. Before they got there, the gang members are dead.
The bodies are taken to Fort Pierce and displayed on the grass in front of a mortuary. In the morning, they are laid out on a sidewalk for gawkers.
The deputies’ official story: The gang had raised their hands, but when Ashley saw the glint of the lantern on handcuffs, his phobia caused him to drop his hands and shout, “Shoot boys. They’ll never put those things on me.”
A judge ruled the shootings justifiable. The deputies took an oath never to speak of them again.
But in the 1950s, when all but one of the deputies who had been on the bridge had died, that last deputy confided to Ada Williams his story:
Convinced that no jail could hold the gang, the deputies had determined to finish them off.
They cuffed John Ashley and made him raise his hands. As they cuffed the others, Ashley began to drop his hands. A deputy shot him dead. The others fired wildly and the rest of the gang was killed.
The deputy said he scooped out Ashley’s glass eye for Sheriff Baker.
When he found out later that the eye had been returned to Ashley’s family, the deputy said he had one regret: He should have crushed it with his heel.
Outlaws of the Everglades
Big John and Little Laura
John Ashley (1888-1924), leader of the Ashley gang
Young John was an expert trapper in the then-expansive Everglades – and a crack shot. Friends said he could behead a quail with a single shot from 40 feet while riding a wagon.
“I never saw a more mannerly or nicer boy in my life,” a relative said. “He always came in with a smile and a pleasant word for all.”
Others told of acts of kindness: leaving money or food for needy people, ditching a bank robbery after learning the bank president was a childhood playmate, disarming but sparing a man sent to kill them and sending him off with a $5 bill.
But Ashley and his gang also made a career of bank robberies, kidnappings, theft, hijacking, rum-running, moonshining, even murder.
Laura Upthegrove, “Queen of the Everglades” and John Ashley’s girlfriend
Laura was a member of the Upthegrove family that settled along the northeast shore of Lake Okeechobee. Upthegrove Beach, north of Port Mayaca, is named for them.
One report described her as “a large woman with dark hair, a deep suntan, and wore a .38-caliber revolver strapped to her waist.” She allegedly helped plan crimes.
Devastated by Ashley’s death in 1924, she later ran a small store in Canal Point. During an argument with a customer over change, she grabbed a bottle of cleaning fluid from a shelf and drank it; she was dead in minutes.
Valda Padgett, Laura’s sister, still lives in Vero Beach, but refuses to speak on the record – except to say virtually everything written about her sister is a lie.
The Ashley Family
Joe Ashley (1861-1924), John’s father
In 1904, he brought his wife and five sons from Florida’s Gulf Coast to Pompano Beach, then moved to West Palm Beach in 1911, and then to Gomez, near Hobe Sound.
The Ashleys were like many hard-scrabble families who farmed, hunted and did odd jobs in frontier South Florida. Joe got a job as a wood chopper for the railroad. Later, he took part in his son’s exploits. In the 1924 raid at the Ashley gang’s western Martin County camp and moonshine operation, he was killed as he tied his shoes.
Leugenia Ashley (1862-1946), John’s mother
She buried a husband and four sons, all victims of crime and violence.
John Ashley’s brothers Bob (1894-1915), Ed (1880-1921) and Frank (1900-1921) died committing crimes. Bill Ashley (1883-1940) was the only Ashley brother who survived the family business. He settled in Pompano Beach.
1. (C) Who was bad enough to play John Ashley in the big-screen version of his life? Fabian! The ’50s rock star (left) and Karen Black (center) starred in Little Laura and Big John, a 1973 bomb that was filmed in Stuart.
2. (C) The shooting of John Ashley, his nephew Hanford Mobley and two other gang members was big news on Nov. 2, 1924. Letters poured in thanking Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker and St. Lucie County Sheriff J.R. Merritt for ‘ridding the state of Florida of one of its greatest menaces.’
3. Ada Williams (mug)
4. John Ashley (mug)
5. Laura and John
6. Sheriff Bob Baker: His family feud with the Ashleys began in 1911, when Baker’s father, George, was Palm Beach County sheriff.
7. Positive Images Photos
Stuart Bank robbery
Reenactment of the Ashleys’ second robbery of the Stuart Bank, with John Ashley’s nephew, Hanford Mobley, dressed as a woman.
8. John Ashley: He lost his eye when a member of his gang shot him after the 1915 robbery of the Stuart Bank.
9. PAUL J. MILETTE/Staff Photographer
John Ashley and two members of his gang are buried side-by-side in a small cemetary in the Mariner Sands development just south of Port Salerno.
10. Graphic by ROB BARGE
Ashly gang saga locations