Outlaw's glass eye among never-before-seen artifacts at new 'Ashley Gang' exhibit in Martin County
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
JOHN ASHLEY'S GLASS eye is intimidating those in its stare once again.
Piercing blue, it ogles beholders from its perch in a glass display case, as if the late gang leader himself is keeping careful watch over the Elliott Museum’s new permanent exhibit about his family’s mixed legacy as “Robin Hood” bank robbers whose lawlessness led to the creation of Martin County.
“Notorious Ashley Gang — The Making of a Legend,” which opens Jan. 20, offers the most extensive public display of artifacts related to the band of South Florida outlaws portrayed by the media for most of the past 100 years as ruthless moonshiners and stone-cold killers of lawmen.
While that portrayal may be true, it doesn’t tell the full story.
In the coming years, as hundreds of never-before-seen Ashley artifacts recently acquired by the Stuart museum are rotated in and out of the exhibit, curators hope to offer a more compassionate version of the self-styled “King of the Everglades.”
“What’s different between the Ashleys and, let’s say, Al Capone, who ruled Chicago with an iron first, the Ashleys did not. They were a very close family who created an economy for the people of this area to live off,’’ said historian Steve Carr, an Ashley scholar who led the creation of the exhibit with artifacts donated from his collection.
Although there are only three known bank robberies orchestrated by
the gang, every unsolved crime in South Florida from 1915 to 1924 was attributed to them, a testament to the impression they made on the public.
“The Ashley Gang’s intriguing saga is filled with so many complex details that it is still being researched and discussed today as a significant piece of Martin County’s rich history,” said Rob Steele, president and CEO of the Historical Society of Martin County, which operates the Elliott Museum.
For now, the exhibit will offer a basic yet extensive overview of the Ashleys — Carr prefers to refer to them as “a family’’ rather than a “gang’’ — through 75 objects, from the mundane to the macabre.
A replica campsite — in front of a Beanie Backus Old Florida print, capturing what the environment looked like at the time — helps recount the Ashley family homestead in Fruita, between Stuart and Hobe Sound, where patriarch Joe Ashley and his wife, Lugenia, raised five boys and four girls.
An authentic Prohibition-era moonshine still, recently recovered from inside the wall of a local home, helps explain the Ashley family business. (The still bellows real steam from the push of a museum button.)
But the majority of the exhibit is made up of authentic Ashley Gang artifacts, from John Ashley's pistols and an overcoat worn by a pursuing sheriff’s deputy to Ashley’s shoes and belt buckle.
There’s also the original “Bank of Stuart” sign that bore witness to the gang’s two bank robberies of that financial institution. There’s a frying pan and steel coffee pot, both riddled with bullet holes, presumably used as shields during a 1924 police raid on the distillery.
And there’s the straw hat Ashley wore in 1915 to the first of two Bank of Stuart robberies, with still-visible blood stains from the wound he sustained when he accidentally got shot in the face by one of his men as they made their getaway.
The bullet went through his left cheek, lodging behind his right eye and eventually forced Ashley to surrender so he could get medical attention.
“I gave the doctor permission to take the eye out, if it was found absolutely necessary, to probe for the bullet,’’ Ashley told a Miami Herald reporter in a jail-house interview six months after the robbery. “But the eye is gone and the bullet’s still there, and I think they gave me a rotten deal.’’
Eventually, Ashley was fitted with a vivid blue prosthetic eye made in Germany. After a long, strange 98-year trip, the glass eye rests today in the display case at the Elliott Museum, next to his lighter and pen knife.
“That’s what everybody wants to see,’’ Linda Geary, the museum’s curator, said as she eyed the eye. “I guess because it's a little bit creepy and morbid.’’
But it’s also a critical part of the Ashley Gang story, a relic of the outlaw’s bitter long-running feud with Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker, who swore that upon his nemesis’ death he would wear the glass eye on a watch chain as a trophy.
After Ashley and three gang members were captured and gunned down on the Sebastian River Bridge on Nov. 1, 1924 — the question is still being asked today whether it was self-defense or murder — a deputy scooped the glass eye from Ashley’s fresh corpse and delivered it to Baker.
But the sheriff never got a chance to attach it to his watch chain. He returned it, before Ashley’s funeral, to the dead outlaw’s girlfriend, Laura Upthegrove, who’d threatened to murder the sheriff if he kept the glass eye.
“And I knew she meant what she said,’’ Baker told a reporter before he died in 1933. “It meant I would have to kill her or she would kill me, just over a glass eye that belonged to her man. I sent it back.’’
Although the glass eye would become “part of the Ashley legend,’’ as a columnist wrote in 1956, it’s not mentioned in the Elliott Museum’s promotions of the new exhibit.
“We’re trying to be really careful because there are descendants of the Ashley family and we're trying not to make the eye a curiosity or an attraction. We are keeping it within the context of the story,’’ said historian Steve Carr.
For years after Ashley’s death, the glass eye remained in the Upthegrove family until it was purchased in the 1960s by Arthur W. “Bink” Glisson, a Palm Beach County farmer and developer who helped amass the land that would become the city of Wellington.
Before he died in 2000, Glisson had amassed an extensive collection of Ashley Gang artifacts, a passion stoked in 1929 when, as a 15-year-old, he watched deputies gun down the gang’s last member, Heywood Register, in a shootout along the Boynton Canal.
Young Glisson scooped up bullet shells along the canal that day, the first of hundreds of Ashley artifacts he would collect over the years, along with thousands of non-Ashley items such as machinery, maps, tools and weapons.
Glisson put most of his collection on display at the museum that bears his name at the South Florida Fairgrounds. But the director of the Blink Glisson Museum in Yesteryear Village was wary about promoting “criminality’’ and wouldn’t accept the Ashley booty, said Carr, who was friends with Glisson.
“As his health deteriorated, he approached me and said, ‘Listen, I will turn over the Ashley memorabilia to you if you promise to use it for education,’’’ said Carr.
“He made me promise I wouldn't profit from it by selling it and he wanted the collection to stay intact. I gave him my word.’’
As “caretaker” for the collection, Carr over the years has taken some of it on the road for temporary exhibits at Grassy Waters Preserve in West Palm Beach and at the Martin County Fair.
Not long ago, he approached Geary, the Elliott Museum curator. “I told Linda if she agreed to a permanent exhibit at the Elliott, I would sign over every artifact Bink gave me,’’ he said.
The museum, with a rich collection of antique cars, bicycles and even early-20th century airplanes, accepted the artifacts, along with hundreds of items excavated by Carr from the old Ashley homestead site, and began the task of making space for a permanent exhibit on the second floor.
Being in Martin County, the museum couldn’t be a more appropriate home for the collection, Carr said.
At the time of the Ashley Gang’s exploits, Martin County didn’t exist; it was the north end of Palm Beach County. But because deputies 100 years ago struggled on rugged sugar-sand roads to respond to crimes being committed by the Ashleys, that far north end became its own county in 1925.
“If you didn't have the Ashley Gang, you would not have a Martin County,’’ Carr said.
“The whole reason there is a Martin County is because criminality could not be controlled from downtown West Palm Beach. That was the end of Palm Beach County that could not be policed.’’
Carr doesn’t want to soft pedal the fact that the Ashley Gang committed serious crimes. But he said it’s important to shed light on the positive things they did for the community, which the exhibit will explore in coming years, such as creating jobs and sharing the spoils of their ill-gotten gains with the needy.
“We were always running with the idea that this was a lawless band of criminals who just resisted authority and did it for their own pleasure. That's not the case,’’ Carr said.
“These people were giving back to the community. Not that they weren't bad guys. They were good to their community, they were bad to law enforcement. This is a Robin Hood story.’’
The exhibit will open Jan. 20 with a reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the museum, 825 NE Ocean Blvd., on Hutchinson Island. Carr will provide guided tours. Admission is free to members and $5 to the public. To RSVP, call 772-225-1961.
For $45 (reservations are a must), the museum’s restaurant will offer an Ashley-themed dinner where guests can “eat and drink the way John Ashley did.’’ On the menu: Alligator hors d'oeuvres, swamp cabbage salad, yardbird chicken and sirloin tips.
“Come dress like the Ashley Gang and receive a free glass of wine with dinner,’’ according to the museum’s website.
Attending the opening reception will be Lisa Upthegrove Murtaugh, niece of Laura Upthegrove. Lisa’s late father, Woody (Laura’s brother), worked for Ashley as a 14-year-old diaper truck driver. (With young Woody at the wheel, Ashley eluded the police by hiding under piles of dirty diaper bags.)
Woody Upthegrove went on to become a West Palm Beach police officer and Pahokee police chief. Before selling John Ashley’s glass eye to Glisson in the 1960s, he kept it in a safe place but occasionally had some fun with it.
“Lisa remembers as a young girl, every time she had her friends over to stay overnight,’’ Carr said, “her dad would put ketchup on his face and get the eye out of the bureau drawer and chase her and her girlfriends around the house.’’
© 2022 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.
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