Bootleggers & Bank Robbers: The Notorious Ashley Gang
In the early 20th century, the alcohol business in Indian River County, Florida, was a spirited adventure, and at its heart were the legendary Ashley Gang. The Sunshine State, known for its lush landscapes and thriving citrus groves, harbored a secret underbelly of bootlegging and clandestine distilleries during the Prohibition era. But the Ashley Gang wasn't just any group of outlaws; they were often seen as modern-day Robin Hoods of their time.
Police mugshot of John Ashley, c. 1914, from the Florida State Archives
Under the charismatic leadership of John Ashley, the gang took center stage in the moonshine trade. Indian River County's hidden inlets and dense hammocks provided the perfect cover for their covert operations. Deep within the swamps and hammocks, the gang set up their clandestine stills, far from the prying eyes of law enforcement. With the lush surroundings as their backdrop, they distilled their potent brews, and legends began to form around their audacity.
The Ashley Gang's reputation extended beyond moonshining; they were notorious for their daring bank heists as well. Their audacious escapades added an extra layer of excitement to their story. When not distilling or robbing banks, they would frequent local speakeasies, sharing tales of their exploits over a glass of their own bootlegged liquor.
Indian River County's authorities tried relentlessly to dismantle the gang's reign of terror, but the Ashley Gang always managed to outwit them. Their intimate knowledge of the local terrain and their uncanny ability to vanish into the swamps made them a formidable adversary.
However, what truly set the Ashley Gang apart from typical outlaws was their reputation as modern-day Robin Hoods. Despite their criminal activities, they were known to share their ill-gotten gains with the struggling locals, earning them a degree of respect and admiration among some. To many, they were seen as heroes fighting against the repressive forces of Prohibition.
As the Prohibition era eventually came to a close, so did the Ashley Gang's activities. John Ashley met his end in a shootout with law enforcement in 1924 on the Sebastian bridge. Controversy on how these handcuffed outlaws were shot and killed are still in question.
Today, the legacy of the Ashley Gang lives on as a blend of nostalgia and intrigue. Their tales of moonshining, bank heists, and Robin Hood-like deeds remain a part of local lore, serving as a reminder of a time when spirits flowed freely and the line between outlaws and legends blurred in the Florida sun.
In the wake of the Prohibition era, Indian River County has seen a resurgence in the alcohol business. With a newfound embrace of legal distilleries and craft breweries, the county's landscape has transformed. New enterprises have sprung up, crafting artisanal spirits and unique brews, breathing new life into the rich history of the alcohol business in this vibrant corner of Florida.