Popular in women’s fashion, plumes were the ivory of the turn of the 20th century. But instead of elephant kills, they represented kills of the glorious egrets, ibises and other wading birds of our Everglades.
The slaughter was massive. At the height of the carnage, birds were being killed at the rate of 5 million a year. Colonies of the birds dotted the Everglades. When poachers uncovered them, they shot and plucked the birds, leaving their carcasses to rot. Unprotected eggs became easy meals for predators, and newly hatched birds could not withstand the elements.
Florida finally passed a law putting some muscle behind a national law protecting wildlife. And to enforce that law, officials chose a rangy woodsman and surveyor named Guy Bradley as one of the country’s first game wardens.
Bradley, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth and Miami, was the son of Chicago law enforcement officer Edwin Bradley. The elder Bradley moved his family to Florida when Guy was young, and held a succession of jobs, including being one of the first “barefoot mailmen.”
When he was 15, Guy and his older brother Louis served as scouts for French plume hunter Jean Chevalier on his trip to the Everglades. At the time, plume feathers selling for $28 to $35 an ounce were as valuable as gold. The Chevalier expedition, which extended as far as Key West, killed birds of 36 different species. While working various jobs during his 20s, Guy Bradley continued to augment his income with an occasional plume hunt until he saw the light with the passage of the Lacey Act of 1900. In a letter to the Florida Audubon Society, Bradley wrote, “I used to hunt plume birds, but since the game laws were passed, I have not killed a plume bird. For it is a cruel and hard calling, notwithstanding being unlawful.”
When the Florida legislature passed the American Ornithologists’ Union law banning the killing of plume birds, the search was on for a competent warden to enforce it. Kirk Munroe, a friend of the Bradley family and a founding vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, recommended Guy Bradley for the position in 1902.
Munroe said that Bradley was different from the other “wild” young men in Flamingo, a lawless frontier town 90 miles southwest of Miami at the tip of the Everglades. (The elder Bradley had dragged his family there after leaving Miami.) Munroe described Bradley as “a social asset to the isolated, frontier community, clean-cut, reliable, courageous.” Bradley was also a pretty good shot. And the wardens then (he was also a deputy sheriff) had the option to shoot poachers if threatened.
Bradley was responsible for a massive area: from the Ten Thousand Islands on Florida’s west coast through the Everglades to Key West. He tried to educate locals, including his unhappy former comrades in the trade. He posted warning signs and also set up a network of assistant wardens during plume season.
On July 8, 1905, he came upon a Flamingo neighbor, whose wife was a good friend of his mother, in a boat with his two sons. The sons, known plume hunters, had dead fowl right there in the boat.
Bradley rowed over, and neighbor Walter Smith asked what he wanted. “I want to arrest your two sons,” Bradley said, according to an account in The Miami Herald.
“Well if you want them, you’ve got to come abroad and arrest them,” replied Smith.
Bradley rowed closer and asked Smith, who had now raised his rifle, to put it down.
Smith leveled the Winchester “and shot Bradley through the chest.”
The body was found two days later. Bradley was 35.
One obituary read: “A faithful and devoted warden, who was a young and sturdy man, cut off in a moment, for what? That a few more plume birds might be secured to adorn heartless women’s bonnets.”
The National Audubon Society claimed him as a hero and martyr for the cause, providing a home for his wife and two sons. The New York Times and others reported the tragic story widely. Indignation about the birds – and hats – spread.
Though not a household name even in South Florida, Guy Bradley has not been forgotten. He was the model for the hero in “Plumes” by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1930) and immortalized in the novel Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen. A 1958 film starring Christopher Plummer, Wind Across the Everglades, was loosely based on his life. And Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism by Stuart McIver was published in 2009.
In typical Florida justice at the time, his slayer, Walter Smith, was found innocent. Smith’s plea: “Self-defense.”
Happily, during the three short years of Bradley’s wardenship, the devastated plumed bird populations in the Everglades started regaining strength. Within a decade, they were flourishing again.