The tiny hamlet of Flamingo bravely faces Florida Bay from its precarious position at the southern tip of Everglades National Park.
It's the northernmost outpost of Monroe County and has been an ecotourism hotspot since the second half of the 20th century. These days it's little more than a marina and store since its park ranger housing and tourist lodge were destroyed by Hurricane Wilma's floodwaters in 2005.
As the name suggests, it's also a great place for bird-watching.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, the waters around Flamingo ran red with the blood of birds, such as the snowy egret, being hunted for their feathers, used in the making of fashionable ladies' hats.
This plumage was so precious to New York City-based milliners that it came to be worth more than gold, leading to indiscriminate hunting throughout South Florida. This brought several bird species to the brink of extinction and conservationists from the recently founded Audubon Society to Tallahassee. Restrictive hunting laws were passed and game wardens were hired.
Among the men who signed on for the unpopular task of policing his neighbors was Guy Bradley.
This is the story of how he came to be America's "first environmental martyr."
Plume hunter at first
Guy Morrell Bradley was born to an educated Chicago family in 1870. The clan moved to Lake Worth, Fla., six years later, where Guy's father, E.R. Bradley, worked first as a "barefoot mailman" delivering the post from Palm Beach to Miami along the beaches, and later as the Dade County superintendent of schools.
As an adolescent, Guy Bradley got his first taste of "plume hunting." At the age of 15, he and his older brother participated in a weekslong Everglades expedition that netted 1,397 individual birds of 36 different species. Guy Bradley had taken to the outdoorsy lifestyle like a wading bird to water.
By 1900, E.R. Bradley had begun working in real estate, and the family moved with him to dinky Flamingo after hearing that hotel and rail bigwig Henry Flagler had decided to run his Overseas Railroad through the area. Flagler later changed his mind and the anticipated land bonanza never materialized, but E.R. stayed on anyway as the town's postmaster.
Life at the isolated and mosquito-infested settlement was hard. Many of the pioneers who moved there were loner/misfit-types who eked out a meager existence raising asparagus, eggplant and tomatoes -- and by hunting for gator skins and bird plumes. Like frontiersmen everywhere, most had moved to Flamingo to be left alone to live as they saw fit and thus had zero patience for limitations placed on them by "government men." Guy Bradley had grown up hunting and fishing like most of his Flamingo neighbors, but his family came from a studious law-and-order background. In time, Bradley Jr. began to agree with the consensus growing in the rest of the country that something had to be done to protect wild birds from unscrupulous hunters and hatmakers.
There wasn't much daylight between these two points of view, and before long, events took place that set the stage for violent confrontations, one of which involved Guy Bradley.
Bestial, bloody industry
The hunting of wild birds for their plumes for hats had been intensifying since the 1870s and taken such a heavy toll on the winged wonders that the surviving population had been pushed farther and farther south, away from major population centers. In Florida, this meant that the largest concentrations of birds, such as the famed Cuthbert Rookery, were located in and around the Everglades, home to all manner of unprincipled poachers.
What's more, this industry that existed to service the fashion scruples of the fair sex harbored a dirty secret: It was bestial and bloody. Not only were the birds being slaughtered at an unsustainable pace, but they were shot or more likely scalped to death during nesting season, when their plumes were at their finest and their nestlings at their most vulnerable. This scorched-earth practice led to orphaning of the helpless chicks and was described in 1891 by T. Gilbert Pearson, later president of the National Audubon Society.
"Upon approaching, the screams of young birds reached our ears. The cause of this soon became apparent by the buzzing of green flies and the heaps of dead herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding ... young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish from exposure and starvation."
By the time of the passage of the 1900 federal Lacey Act, which forbade trade in illegally harvested species such as Florida wading birds, one such hunter was more than ready to hang up his rifle. Guy Bradley.
"I used to hunt plume birds, but since the game laws were passed, I have not killed a plume bird," he told early conservationist William T. Dutcher. "For it is a cruel and hard calling notwithstanding being unlawful. I make this statement upon honor."
By 1901, Dutcher had managed to persuade the Florida Legislature to pass bird protection laws at the state level, but no money was allotted for enforcement. The National Audubon Society ponied up the cash to hire four lawmen in South Florida, and based on the recommendation of writer and state Audubon Society vice-president Kirk Munroe, Guy Bradley was soon hired as the official Monroe County game warden. Yet as a former hunter, Bradley's enthusiasm for his new gig was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the new conservation laws were being widely ignored -- and that he was about to make a number of well-armed enemies.
"Filled with Righteous indignation" and "tough as a red mangrove" Bradley set about his new job with the zeal of the converted. Patrolling a vast area from the 10,000 Islands in the northwest Everglades all the way down the Keys to Key West, Bradley soon became a vilified figure and was occasionally targeted by brigands in the course of his duties. Despite his best efforts to educate area hunters and patrol the areas around the biggest rookeries, the poaching continued, and even increased as the bird populations made a comeback.
It was tough slogging and by July 1903, Bradley moved his family to Key West to get away from the mosquitoes, bad weather -- and likely the growing number of death threats directed his way.
The following year visiting ornithologist Frank M. Chapman made a sadly prescient prediction: "That man Bradley is going to be killed sometime. He has been shot at more than once, and some day they are going to get him."
The day of death
On July 8, 1905, Bradley was sitting in his Flamingo home when he heard gunshots coming from the area around the Oyster Keys Rookery in Florida Bay. He jumped in his skiff and set off to investigate. Before long he sighted a vessel belonging to Walter Smith, a known plume hunter and patriarch of a family the Bradleys had known for years. The game warden had arrested Smith's son Tom before, leading the elder Smith to declare "that if Guy Bradley ever attempted to arrest him or any of his family again, he would kill him," according to a tract published by the Audubon House in Key West.
Accounts of what happened next vary, but there's no disputing one fact. Smith shot Bradley, mortally wounding him, before sailing away from the scene of the crime. The slain game warden's body, still in his skiff, was found by his brother Louis about 10 miles from the rookery. He had bled to death.
A short time later, Walter Smith sailed to Key West to turn himself in. He claimed that Bradley had fired at him first with a .32-caliber pistol, and pointed to a slug embedded in the mast of his boat as evidence.
Bradley's gun did not appear to have been fired.
Also, the dead lawman's family claimed that the bullet that killed Bradley seemed to have entered through his back, supporting their claim that he never would have fired first and had probably been rowing toward Smith's boat with his back to the gunman.
With no other witnesses, however, the authorities felt their case was weak. A jury agreed and the officials declined to prosecute Smith. He was released after spending five months in jail in lieu of $5,000 bond.
The old hunter didn't get off scot-free, though. Upon his return to Flamingo, he discovered that his house had been burned to the ground by, some claimed, the brothers of Bradley's widow. A short time later, he and his family moved away.
"Every movement must have its martyrs, and Guy Bradley is the first martyr to the cause of bird protection," said William Dutcher, by then the president of the National Audubon Society. "A home is broken up, children left fatherless, their mother widowed, a faithful and devoted warden cut off in the movement. For what? That a few more plume birds might be secured to adorn heartless women's bonnets! Heretofore, the price has been the life of birds. Now human blood is added."
Upon Bradley's death, no new warden was hired and the carnage soon picked up steam once again. The Society did buy Bradley's family a spacious house on Carsten's Lane in Key West, where they began a new life together.
In time, Bradley's children grew to understand and respect what their father had fought and died for. The "Feather Fight," as it came to be known, was finally won by the conservationists with the passage of the Audubon Plumage Bill by New York State in 1910. The act essentially legislated the urban feather markets and plume hat milliners out of existence. Its passage was strongly influenced by the renewal of bird hunting/poaching as well as the outrage that followed the murder of Guy Bradley, his fellow game warden Columbus G. McLeod three years later in Charlotte Harbor, Fla., and the killing of Audubon Society employee Pressly Reeves.
Subsequent legislation cemented this political victory. The open season on Florida's wild birds had finally come to an end.
Guy Bradley was buried in a lonely grave at Cape Sable not far from where his body was discovered. The headstone, which washed away during Hurricane Donna in 1960, read simply:
Guy M. Bradley
FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH
As Game Warden of Monroe County He Gave His Life
for the Cause to Which He Was Pledged
This story will be included in Terry Schmida's "True Crime Stories of Key West and the Florida Keys" Vol. 3. Vols. 1 and 2 are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.