Laura Upthegrove is one of my favorite local historical characters. I was surprised that such a surname existed but I found that the Upthegroves were early Floridian settlers; the name has Dutch origins. Laura was often described as a ‘moll’ and it was frequently implied that she was no better than she ought to be but she remains a firm favorite.
Laura became well-known in Fort Lauderdale and throughout Florida as the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ style companion of notorious bank robber and super-criminal in the 1920s. Which was nonsense. The newspapers made a great thing of it at the time but the fact remains that the ‘notorious Ashley Gang’ as they were called was actually composed of rather bumbling youngsters.
Laura had already been married twice when she met the rather dashing John Ashley. He wore a somewhat glamorous eye patch which was the result of a bungled bank job some years before; either John himself or one of his gang, had shot out his eye in their borrowed getaway car. (You see what I mean? What self-respecting bank robber forgets to take a getaway car and then shoot themselves in the eye?)
In those days, Fort Lauderdale was on the edge of the Everglades and that’s where the gang used to hide out. John Ashley was often seen on Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue stocking up on groceries – another thing you don’t really expect a gang of desperadoes to do. The newspapers of the day greatly exaggerated the gang’s activities but John was regarded as a Robin Hood type folk hero and there seems little doubt that Laura and John were truly in love. See the photograph on the left. She had left her husband and children; no-one knows why. My suggestion is that her husband was abusive towards her – it takes a lot for a mother to leave her children. We have to remember that we can’t judge people by today’s standards too. In those days, Florida was a lawless place and even law enforcement officers were guilty of bootlegging, smuggling, robbery and even murder. People in rural areas in those days survived by hunting and trapping (and making their own booze – think Beverly Hillbillies) and this is how John grew up. John’s ‘life of crime’ began when he killed a Seminole in self-defense but that will be the subject of another article – if not an entire book 🙂
I’d love to say that the story has a happy ending but, like Bonnie and Clyde, it’s actually quite tragic. John, along with three other ‘desperadoes’ were killed when the police ambushed their car at Sebastian Bridge. One of the victims was John’s nineteen year old nephew. Laura was distraught. She tried to take her own life on several occasions and three years after John’s death, she succeeded. She was helping her mother run a gas station and general store in Canal Point. Accounts vary – some stories say that she was in an argument with a customer and others say that the police were there to arrest her. Whatever the situation was, she grabbed a bottle of a toxic liquid (disinfectant or something similar), drank it and died almost at once. She was just thirty years old.