There's nothing frightening in our Treasure Coast Halloween forecast
Weather is projected to be great for trick or treaters of all ages Oct. 31, 2018. CHERYL MCCLOUD/TCPALM
(EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this column included the incorrect name for the Sebastian Bridge.)
I love a good ghost story.
So much so that, as a young reporter, I spent a night in the Bell Witch Cave in search of a talethat would be fitting for the holiday we're celebrating this weekend.
The Bell Witch is kind of like Tennessee's version of the Loch Ness Monster. If you Google her, you'll find plenty of interesting reading.
Now that I'm back in Florida, I wanted to find a local equivalent.
Our intrepid entertainment reporter Laurie Blandford produced a pieceearlierthis month about the most haunted places on the Treasure Coast. I want to check some of those places out.
However, it's going to be hard for a few unexplained creaks and groans in some old buildings to top the story involving the demise of the notorious Ashley Gang.
The gang's exploits are well documented. Its members were accused of a variety of crimes in South Florida and the Bahamas during the late 1910s and early 1920s, ranging from bank robbery to moonshine running to generalized murder and mayhem.
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Some of the historical accounts of those crimes are quite colorful, such as the time gang member Handford Mobley allegedly robbed a Stuart bank while disguised as a woman. Or the time the gang left a suitcase on the side of Dixie Highway near Miami as bait to attract robbery victims.
Some accounts describe the gang as havingRobin Hood-like qualities that endeared them to the local populace, although I've also heard those parts of the story may have been based more on romantic revisionism than fact.
All of which is interesting, but there are paranormal elements to the gang's legend as well.
For example, "Ghosts of the Treasure Coast," an excellent book by Patrick S. Mesmer and Patricia A. Mesmer, describes how gang leader John Ashley once had a dream while he was in jail about two of his brothers being lost at sea during a liquor smuggling run to the Bahamas.
In his dream, Ashley reportedly saw three rival smugglers approaching his brothers' boat during a storm.
When he awoke, Ashley learned his brothers had, in fact, gone missing at sea and were never seen or heard from again.
A few months later, a similarfate befell the three rival smugglers from Ashley's dream, which could have been coincidence ... or payback if Ashley believed his dream was prophetic.
Ashley's life, along with the lives of three of his lieutenants, ended the night of Nov. 1, 1924, in theatrical fashion.
According to an account published in The (Fort Pierce) Tribune in 1997, Ashley and the other three gang members were headed north toward Jacksonville, possibly with plans to relocate out of state, when law enforcement agents got wind of where they were going.
Police and sheriffs'deputies from several jurisdictions set up a roadblock at the SebastianBridgelocated on the border of Indian River and Brevard counties, and took the outlaws into custody.
Eyewitnesses said the gang members were captured and handcuffed at the scene, but later their bullet-riddled corpses were taken to a funeral home in Fort Pierce.
Were the gang members, who had been feuding with law enforcement officers for years, executed in cold blood? Or were they shot while attempting to escape?
The Tribune took excerpts from Ada Coats Williams' book, "Florida's Ashley Gang," which included an interview with Ed Merritt, a descendant of one of the law officerspresent that night.
Merritt said the gunplay might have been triggered by a sudden moment by one of the captured men.
"My grandfather said John Ashley had dropped his arms," Merritt recounted. "He'd been known to carry a sleeve gun. That's when the shooting started."
Merritt said the gang members were well-knownescape artists, which may have also played a factor in the violence that night.
"There was no way they were going to put those guys in jail," Merritt said. "It just wasn't going to happen."
The Nov. 6, 1924 edition of The Stuart Messenger described the shooting's aftermath in a relatively short front-page story with a Fort Pierce dateline:
"Sunday, from early morning until the bodies had been removed, there was a crowd congregated in front of the undertaking parlors. People from every section of the county and many from Palm Beach county (sic) came here hoping to get a glimpse of the dead men."
The Messenger story went on to say about 300 people attended the dead men's funeral later in the week in Fruita, a small hamlet in what is now Martin County.
The "Ghosts of the Treasure Coast" version of the story had a chilling footnote, from the years following the men's death:
"In the early morning hours of the first day of November, people would find four puddles of blood in the very spots where the outlaws were shot. No one saw anything during the night, but the puddles would always be there. According to locals, this continued for many years after the shootings. Was this a paranormal occurrence or a ritual perpetrated by someone to remember the bloody truth of what happened that night?"
The younger version of me would be on that bridge Halloween night, keeping vigil to see if the grisly ritual would be repeated this year.
The oldbridge where the shootings happened is long gone, though.So I guess I'll get to stay home and eat all our leftover Halloween candy instead.
Like I said, I love a good ghost story.I love Reese's Peanut Butter Cups even more.
This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay.Contact him via email at email@example.com at 772-232-5424.
Who needs the Headless Horseman Bridge? We've got the Ashley Gang's final stop | Opinion - TCPalm