The Most Dangerous Job: The Murder of America's First Bird Warden

iStock.com/NicolasMcComber
iStock.com/NicolasMcComber

As the sun set over Florida Bay, Fronie Bradley gazed anxiously at the distant islands of Oyster Keys. It was a typical evening in Flamingo, Florida—gentle breezes, palm fronds rustling, scalloped waves lapping against tangled mangroves. It’s easy to imagine that the scene would have relaxed Fronie, but tonight was different. She could not put her mind at ease. Early that morning, on July 8, 1905, her husband, Guy Bradley, had left for Oyster Keys. Now it was well past supper, and his boat was nowhere to be seen.

When Guy failed to appear the following morning, Fronie called on her neighbor, Gene Roberts, and asked him to search for her husband. It was raining now, but Roberts did not mind. He boarded his sailboat and steered toward the keys. Peering through the gray drizzle, he saw no boat, so he sailed westward with the current toward the nearby village of Sawfish Hole. Near the water’s edge, he noticed an empty dinghy bobbing. Roberts immediately recognized it as Guy’s.

Splayed at the bottom of the boat was Bradley’s body: A gaping red gunshot wound festered by his collarbone and a .32 caliber pistol lay near one hand. Roberts inspected the weapon and determined that it had not been fired.

Around the time Roberts made this discovery, his neighbor, Walter Smith, was busy tying his schooner, The Cleveland, to a dock 70 miles south in Key West. There, he’d walk straight to the Monroe County Sheriff, Frank Knight, and deliver some unexpected news.

“I’ve shot Guy Bradley,” he said.

The reason, he’d later explain, had something to do with bird feathers.

 

In 1889, a fisherman named George Elliott Cuthbert found a feather that would change his life. For three days, Cuthbert had been canoeing through the Florida Everglades, bushwhacking a path through a buggy maze of mangroves in hopes of finding a treasure that would make him rich. As he paddled past the peering yellow eyes of alligators, Cuthbert noticed a white feather floating in the current and felt a rush of excitement.

Following the feather, Cuthbert would stumble upon the treasure he’d been seeking.

Thousands upon thousands of birds: Spoonbills, herons, wood storks, and snowy egrets—all eating, breeding, and squawking on a small hidden islet. This place, called a rookery, was undoubtedly one of the biggest bird breeding sites in North America, and it was beautiful, entrancing. “A flower, a beautiful white blossom,” is how Cuthbert described it. He gazed at the birds in wonder.

And then he began killing them.

Cuthbert fired, fired, and fired again. Once the smoke dissipated, hundreds of birds were dead. Cuthbert smiled, paddled toward the floating carcasses, and skinned them. Later, he’d take a second trip and succeed in killing nearly all of the other birds on the island. He’d earn more than $50,000 in today’s money selling their feathers.

The birds, which lived on an island now called Cuthbert Rookery, were martyrs to the whims of fashion. In the late 19th century, no fashion-conscious woman in New York or Paris could be seen without a hat bedazzled with bird feathers. This was especially true in New York, where “New Money” socialites wore feathered headwear—ornamented with a potpourri of flowers, ribbons, jewels, and the plumes of snowy egrets, called aigrettes—as the way to flaunt their wealth and status. These hats sold for as much as $130, the equivalent of $3300 today.

Aigrettes
Hulton Archive, W. G. Phillips // Getty Images

To meet demand, the millinery industry, which was based in New York, oversaw the killing of 5 million birds nationwide every year. It was a dream job for the rural poor; people such as Cuthbert could easily “shoot out” an entire rookery (that is, kill all the birds) in just a few afternoons. With feathers sometimes selling for $15 an ounce, a hunter could earn an entire year’s salary with just a few pulls of his index finger.

In the late 19th century, there were no limits to how many birds a plume hunter could kill. In Cape Cod, 40,000 terns were killed for the hat industry in one summer. In Florida, the slaughter was often indiscriminate and senseless. One popular pastime among tourists visiting the Everglades was to shoot critters from the comfort of boats, plinking alligators and birds with no intention of ever picking up their carcasses.

In southern Florida, bottomless plume hunting was a perfectly legal—and reasonable—way to make a living. Life in the swamps was difficult. The area had little arable land and no major industry. Residents made their money by fishing, fur trapping, harvesting sugarcane, or manufacturing charcoal. The demand for bird plumes offered a lucrative salary that no other job in the region could match. “Egret plumes are now worth double their weight in gold,” ornithologist Frank Chapman said in 1908. “There is no community sufficiently law-abiding to leave a bank vault unmolested if it were left unprotected. This is just the same.”

Among the many people who raided that bank vault was Guy Bradley. Raised on the east coast of Florida, he spent his teenage years sailing through the mangrove forests of south Florida in search of plumes, discovering the best places to hunt and becoming well-acquainted with other hunters across the state.

In 1898, the Bradley family moved farther south to Florida’s frontier, to a sparsely populated backwater town called Flamingo, which sat not far from the famed Cuthbert Rookery. Before making the move, they invited their friend Walter Smith to join them. Smith, an aging Confederate sharpshooter, accepted.

Once settled in Flamingo, the friendship would become irrevocably strained. Twelve-hundred miles north in New York City, the political winds were shifting—and they would jolt the Everglades.

 

“I don’t think in my reincarnation, if there is such a thing, that I want to come back to Florida,” Kirk Munroe, a Florida conservationist and personal friend of Guy Bradley, once said. “They are killing off all the plume birds. I remember when the spoonbills on the beach in front of my house made such a racket it was almost unpleasant. Now they are all gone—they never come back anymore.”

In 1886, George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist and editor of Forest and Stream, formed the first major bird protection society, which he named after John James Audubon, the ornithologist and painter who published the groundbreaking book The Birds of America. Within a decade, independent Audubon societies would pop up across the northeastern United States, claiming supporters as prominent as then-New York governor Theodore Roosevelt.

Egret
Istock.com/JackVandenHeuvel

“The object of this organization is to be a barrier between wild birds and animals and a very large unthinking class, and a smaller but more harmful class of selfish people,” wrote William Dutcher, a businessman and ornithologist who’d become the National Audubon Society’s first president. Dutcher knew exactly who he was matched up against: The millinery industry employed 83,000 people and was worth $17 million.

But Dutcher had friends in high places and believed he could convince politicians to pass legislation that could save America’s birds from extinction. He’d be a key lobbyist in helping pass the Lacey Act, which made it a federal crime to poach birds in one state and sell them in another. In 1901, he traveled to Tallahassee and successfully lobbied the Florida state government to pass a law protecting plume birds. With the help of state senator William Hunt Harris of Monroe County, an “Act for the Protection of Birds and Their Nests and Eggs, and Prescribing a Penalty for any Violation Thereof” was passed, barring any person in Florida from killing plume birds or selling their feathers.

It’s one thing to pass a law; another to enforce it. Most plume hunters lived in remote areas, hundreds of miles from the closest newspaper or courthouse. Dutcher knew that if the new law was going to be remotely meaningful, he’d need a warden who could enforce it—somebody who knew his way around Florida’s rookeries, who knew the tricks of the plume trade, who knew the plume hunters themselves.

That man would end up being an ex-plume hunter: Guy Bradley.

 

As Florida’s first bird warden, Bradley knew his job would become more dangerous as time wore on. At first, he’d be a one-man PR team: posting warning notices around the rookeries, distributing leaflets throughout villages, and meeting with Floridians to inform them of the law. Then eventually there’d come a time when everybody knew the law—and they’d either follow it or flout it.

Bradley was worried about how best to approach these lawbreakers, people who would definitely be armed and angry when confronted. For example: One of Bradley’s neighbors, Ed Watson, was a rumored plume hunter—and a rumored murderer who supposedly shot and killed 50 people. To preserve the law and his own life, Bradley knew he’d have to tread gingerly. “It would be necessary for a warden to hunt these people and hunt them carefully for he must see them first, for his own sake,” he wrote in a letter.

Guy Bradley
Allen3, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But the risk was worth it. Bradley was approached for the job in 1902, just as he was starting his life as a new family man. He had recently married a local woman, Fronie Vickers Kirvin, and the couple already had a baby, with a second on the way. The job not only promised Bradley and his family a steady income of $35 a month, it also offered him the dignity of becoming a law enforcement officer—a dream of his. (As a game warden, Bradley had to be sworn in by the Monroe County Justice of the Peace as a deputy sheriff.)

Bradley’s first months in the field went rather smoothly. He convinced the Audubon Society to give his brother and brother-in-law positions as his deputies, allowing him to cover more ground. He was relatively close with the local Seminole and Miccosukee tribes and had an easy time convincing them of the benefits of the conservation law. Many local hunters who were at first dismayed to hear about the law accepted the reality of their situation and vowed to follow the rules. If anything, the thought of being slapped with a $15 fine and being called a “poacher” deterred them. A rare few, who worried about the palpable decline in local birdlife, openly welcomed the law.

As Bradley wrote, “It is gratifying to me to see that a great many people are willing to abide by the law and even help me enforce it if they can.”

Wading Egret
iStock.com/MonicaNinker

Each day, Bradley trudged through the buggiest coves and inspected the remotest rookeries—including the replenished Cuthbert Rookery—where he accosted poachers shooting at the herons, flamingos, and snowy egrets. On a few occasions, men drew their guns and threatened to fire. But his biggest problems proved to be brewing in his backyard during his off-hours.

Since arriving in Flamingo, Bradley’s friend Walter Smith had attempted to carve out a position as the town’s unofficial “boss.” In an effort to amass power and build political connections, he regularly traveled between the remote settlement and the seat of Monroe County—Key West—where he schmoozed with the movers and shakers of local government. Smith, however, was not very popular back home in Flamingo—and his power was rivaled by his neighbor, an outsize figure nicknamed “Uncle” Steve Roberts. The two regularly butted heads.

In 1904, the Smith and Roberts clans started bickering over the location of their property line, with the Roberts family arguing that Smith was illegally squatting on their land. Eventually, the local surveyor determined that Smith was, in fact, trespassing. Smith took the case to court but lost.

The local surveyor’s name? Guy Bradley.

After the land dispute, things were never the same between Smith and Bradley. (Bradley’s sister had married into the Roberts clan, and Smith was convinced that—because of these familial connections—Bradley had been a biased surveyor.) The acrimony manifested in petty disputes, with both families refusing to help deliver each other’s mail or groceries.

The tensions would eventually boil over into Bradley’s work. Smith, like many people in Flamingo, supplemented his income by hunting plumes, and he deliberately broke the law around Bradley. By late 1904, Bradley had arrested and fined the old man once. He had also arrested Smith’s eldest teenage son, Tom.

This greatly aggravated the old sharpshooter. So when Bradley arrested Tom a second time, Smith approached the warden he once called “friend” and laid out his terms.

“You ever arrest one of my boys again,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”

 

“The natives are beginning to realize that the birds are to be protected and that the wardens are fearless men who are not to be trifled with,” the ornithologists A. C. Bent and Herbert K. Job wrote in 1904. “The Bradleys have the reputation of being the best rifle shots in that vicinity and they would not hesitate to shoot when necessary.”

Guy Bradley carried a nickel-plated .32 caliber pistol and went to work each day ready to use it. After two years on the job, he had literally dodged a couple bullets. The ornithologist Frank Chapman feared for the warden’s safety. “That man Bradley is going to be killed sometime,” he wrote in a letter.

Bradley’s efforts, however, were making a difference in southern Florida’s rookeries. “Under his guardianship, the 'white birds' had increased,” Chapman wrote. The victories, however, came with a share of losses. It was impossible to cover 90 miles of coastline at once, and in the winter of 1904, Bradley approached the Cuthbert Rookery and found 400 carcasses floating in the water. “You could’ve walked right around the rookery on them birds’ bodies,” he said.

The rookeries weren’t the only place receiving gunfire. In early 1905, Walter Smith and his family were eating supper when a hail of bullets tore through the home’s walls, forcing everybody to drop to the floor and panic. When the attacked ended, Smith accounted for his five children—no one was hurt—and poked his head outside. Nobody was there.

No one knows who attacked the Smith household or why, but Smith was certain the assault had been coordinated by the Roberts clan and their ilk. Neighborly tension had escalated from pettiness to violence: With the lives of his children at risk, the hardened veteran was not willing to turn the other cheek.

Months later, on the morning of July 8, 1905, Guy Bradley peered across the Florida Bay, looked toward the two small islands of Oyster Keys, and saw a blue schooner sitting in the mud of low tide. He immediately recognized the boat, The Cleveland, as belonging to Walter Smith. He also immediately recognized the sound of gunshots echoing from the islands: The Smiths were shooting a rookery, in plain sight of the warden’s house.

For Bradley, it was time to get to work. He grabbed his pistol, kissed his wife goodbye, and launched his dinghy at 9 a.m.

When Walter Smith saw Bradley approaching, he fired a warning shot into the clouds, signaling his boys—who were somewhere on the island shooting at birds—to return to the schooner. Bradley watched as the boys carried the bodies of two dead cormorants back to the boat. Tom Smith turned toward the rookery and fired his rifle into the nests.

“[Tom] tended to flaunt what he was doing a bit,” historian Stuart McIver says in an episode of Waterways, a public television program about the south Florida ecosystem. “If you were of a discreet [nature] about killing plume birds, Guy Bradley’s approach, from what I can gather, would have been to take you off to the side and talk you out of doing it again.” But the teenager wanted to make a fool of Bradley, and he made it a point to be seen defying the warden’s authority. McIver described the ensuing scene in his book, Death in the Everglades.

Bradley hollered at Walter Smith. “I want your son Tom.”

Smith clutched his rifle. “Well, if you want him, you have to have a warrant.”

Bradley shook his head. “I saw them shoot into the rookery and I see the dead birds. Put down your gun, Smith.”

“You are one of those fellows who shot into my house and I’ll not put down my gun when you are near me. If you want him, you have to come aboard this boat and take him, “ Smith said.

At this, Bradley clutched his pistol. Smith pointed his rifle at the warden.

“Put down that rifle and I will come aboard,” Guy responded.

What happened next is unclear, but Smith would later say that Bradley “never knew what hit him.”

 

When Smith sailed The Cleveland back to Flamingo, he told his family to pack up their belongings and get in the boat.

“I’m going to Key West to give myself up,” he told them. “I’ve killed Guy Bradley.”

In Key West, the sheriff charged Smith with murder and set bail at $5000. When word of Bradley’s death reached the Audubon Society, everybody assumed justice would prevail. Smith, after all, had openly admitted to killing a law enforcement officer. Senator William H. Harris—the same politician who helped push the bird law through the Florida legislature—was slated as the prosecutor.

The case attracted the attention of newspapers across the country. “A group of rook killers concerned in the secret traffic of bird plumage shot him in order to kill as many birds as they liked …” reported the Los Angeles Herald. “[Smith], it is pleasant to note, will suffer the full penalty of the Florida law.”

The reporters didn’t appear to know that Walter Smith had spent the past decade building political connections in Monroe County, where friends were encouraging him to open his purse strings and pay as much as possible for a lawyer who could reduce his prison sentence.

Turns out, Smith’s money would get him much further. Somehow, he managed to lure Senator William H. Harris to switch sides, from the prosecution to the defense.

Senator Harris, a local, knew that the grand jury would be composed of townsfolk—mostly poor fisherman and farmers—who opposed the bird-hunting law. He intuitively knew what talking points would resonate with them. So he repeatedly emphasized that Bradley was a bird warden and glossed over the fact that he was also an officer of the law. He argued that Smith was standing his ground in self-defense: Bradley, he claimed, had fired his weapon first.

As Harris bent the jury to his will, the out-of-town state prosecutors put on a masterclass in incompetence. They presented no evidence and called only one witness to the stand, the firebrand “Uncle” Steve Roberts. Gene Roberts, the man who found Bradley’s body—and found Bradley’s unfired pistol—was never questioned.

In December 1905, the grand jury dismissed the charges. Smith was set free.

The Audubon Society would never replace Bradley. “Few responsible men, after the murder of Guy M. Bradley, are willing thus to jeopardize their lives, for, if the laws of the state cannot be enforced and criminals brought to justice, no man has a guarantee for his safety,” Laura Norcross Marrs, the Chairman of the Florida Audubon Society’s Executive Committee, wrote in 1906.

Indeed, two more bird wardens would be killed. In 1908, Columbus McLeod’s boat went missing while he was patrolling Florida’s Charlotte Harbor. Weeks later, the sunken vessel was discovered weighed down by two sacks of sand. Nearby, McLeod’s hat was found containing two blood-stained gashes, which resembled axe marks. That same year, Pressly Reeves of South Carolina, an Audubon employee, was shot and killed. No arrests were ever made.

With three deaths in as many years, the Audubon Society shifted focus from stopping poachers to stopping the millinery industry in New York. In 1910, Audubon lobbyists convinced New York state lawmakers to pass a bill forbidding the importation of plumes. That was followed by the Weeks-McLean Act in 1913, which banned the importation of wild bird feathers, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it illegal to sell or transport hundreds of species of birds.

“It seems funny to have to say this,” McIver says on Waterways, “but [Bradley] probably did more for the cause by giving up his life, than if he had continued as before, if he just kept on being a warden for another 15 or 20 years.” His death, as well as the death of other game wardens, created so much palpable disgust that even the most ambivalent lawmakers were compelled to take action against the millinery industry.

The final blow, however, came from the world of fashion. In 1914, Irene Castle, an actress and dancer, had an appendectomy and cut her hair short before the surgery. When she returned to the limelight, her hair was bobbed—and audiences loved it. A trend was born. By 1920, film stars everywhere were flaunting short haircuts that made extravagant, feather-loaded hats look and feel awkward. By the roaring twenties, the plume business, like its victims, was dead.

 

When John James Audubon visited the Everglades in the 1800s, he claimed that the wading bird population was so high that flocks would “actually block out the light from the sun.” This is how it must have felt after the plume trade’s demise—the wading bird population in the Everglades exploded.

But only briefly. New threats would imperil the legacy Guy Bradley died for. Water diversion projects built in South Florida in the 1950s have since bled the area of vital freshwater, while climate change has caused Florida Bay to rise at least 6 inches since the mid-20th century. With freshwater choked to half its original levels and saltwater creeping, the ecosystem has deteriorated. Compared to the 1930s, the wading bird population in the Everglades today has dropped 90 percent.

Flock of Birds
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

But there are efforts to combat this. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan—“the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States,” according to the National Park Service—aims to improve the freshwater flow into the area. The plan has cost upwards of $16 billion. Writing for the National Parks Conservation Association, Laura Allen says, “The restoration’s success will be measured in birds.”

So far, results have been mixed. In 2017, the Audubon Society reported decent wading bird numbers, tallying more than 46,000 nests among seven species. This year’s census appear to show better numbers: Everglades National Park just reported the highest population of white ibis mating pairs in 70 years.

Much more work, however, is needed to return the Everglades to their heyday as a birdland paradise. Guy Bradley started that job 116 years ago. It will take a continued effort to ensure that he did not die in vain.

 
To learn more about Guy Bradley’s life and legacy, Mental Floss recommends Stuart McIver’s book, Death in the Everglades.

5 Fast Facts About Sake Dean Mahomed

Today's Google Doodle will be many people's first introduction to Sake Dean Mahomed, a noted traveler, surgeon, author, and entrepreneur who was born in Patna, India in 1759. Though he's been left out of many modern history books, Mahomed left a profound impact on Western culture that is still being felt today.

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the publication of his first book—The Travels of Dean Mahomed, a Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honorable the East India Company—on January 15, 1794, here are some facts about the figure.

1. He was the first Indian author to publish a book in English.

In 1794, Sake Dean Mahomed published The Travels of Dean Mahomet, an autobiography that details his time in the East India Company's army in his youth and his journey to Britain. Not only was it the first English book written by an Indian author, The Travels of Dean Mahomet marked the first time a book published in English depicted the British colonization of India from an Indian perspective.

2. His marriage was controversial.

While studying English in Ireland, Mahomed met and fell in love with an Irish woman named Jane Daly. It was illegal for Protestants to marry non-Protestants at the time, so the pair eloped in 1786 and Mahomed converted from Islam to Anglicanism.

3. He opened the England's first Indian restaurant.

Prior to Sake Dean Mahomed's arrival, Indian food was impossible to find in England outside of private kitchens. He introduced the cuisine to his new home by opening the Hindoostane Coffee House in London in 1810. The curry house catered to both British and Indian aristocrats living in the city, with "Indianised" versions of British dishes and "Hookha with real Chilm tobacco." Though the restaurant closed a few years later due to financial troubles, it paved the way for Indian food to become a staple of the English food scence.

4. He brought "shampooing" to Europe.

Following the failure of his restaurant venture, Mahomed opened a luxury spa in Brighton, England, where he offered Eastern health treatments like herbal steam baths and therapeutic, oil-based head massages to his British clientele. The head massages eventually came to be known as shampoo, an anglicized version of the Hindi word champissage. Patrons included the monarchs George IV and William IV, earning Mahomed the title shampooer of kings.

5. He wrote about the benefits of spa treatments.

Though The Travels of Dean Mahomet is his most famous book, Mahomed published another book in English in 1828 called Shampooing; or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.

12 Historic Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

John Goodwin/Getty Images
John Goodwin/Getty Images

January 15,  2019 marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta native who became one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. While it would be impossible to encompass everything King accomplished in a mere list, we’ve compiled a few intriguing facts that may pique your interest in finding out more about the man who helped unite a divided nation.

1. Martin Luther King was not his given name.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images

One of the most recognizable proper names of the 20th century wasn't actually what was on the birth certificate. The future civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, named after his father Michael King. When the younger King was 5 years old, his father decided to change both their names after learning more about 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, who was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. Inspired by that battle, Michael King soon began referring to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.

2. He was a doctor of theology.

Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Using the prefix "doctor" to refer to King has become a reflex, but not everyone is aware of the origin of King's Ph.D. He attended Boston University and graduated in 1955 with a doctorate in systematic theology. King also had a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary.

3. He made 30 trips to jail.

A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A powerful voice for an ignored and suppressed minority, opponents tried to silence King the old-fashioned way: incarceration. In the 12 years he spent as the recognized leader of the civil rights movement, King was arrested and jailed 30 times. Rather than brood, King used the unsolicited downtime to further his cause. Jailed in Birmingham for eight days in 1963, he penned "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a long treatise responding to the oppression supported by white religious leaders in the South.

"I'm afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time," he wrote. "I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?"

4. The FBI tried to coerce him into suicide.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
William Lovelace/Express, Getty Images

King's increasing prominence and influence agitated many of his enemies, but few were more powerful than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. For years, Hoover kept King under surveillance, worried that this subversive could sway public opinion against the bureau and fretting that King might have Communist ties. While there's still debate about how independently Hoover's deputy William Sullivan was acting, an anonymous letter was sent to King in 1964 accusing him of extramarital affairs and threatening to disclose his indiscretions. The only solution, the letter suggested, would be for King to exit the civil rights movement, either willingly or by taking his own life. King ignored the threat and continued his work.

5. A single sneeze could have altered history forever.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Our collective memory of King always has an unfortunate addendum: his 1968 assassination that brought an end to his personal crusade against social injustice. But if Izola Ware Curry had her way, King's mission would have ended 10 years earlier. At a Harlem book signing in 1958, Ware approached King and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, nearly puncturing his aorta. Surgery was needed to remove it. Had King so much as sneezed, doctors said, the wound was so close to his heart that it would have been fatal. Curry, a 42-year-old black woman, was having paranoid delusions about the NAACP that soon crystallized around King. She was committed to an institution and died in 2015.

6. He got a "C" in public speaking.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Jeff Kamen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

King's promise as one of the great orators of his time was late in coming. While attending Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951, King's marks were diluted by C and C+ grades in two terms of public speaking.

7. He won a Grammy.

At the 13th annual Grammy Awards in 1971, a recording of King's 1967 address, "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam," took home a posthumous award for Best Spoken Word recording. In 2012, his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (it was included decades later because its 1969 nomination was beaten for the Spoken Word prize by Rod McKuen's "Lonesome Cities").

8. He loved Star Trek.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on the phone.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

It's not easy to imagine King having the time or inclination to sit down and watch primetime sci-fi on television, but according to actress Nichelle Nichols, King and his family made an exception for Star Trek. In 1967, the actress met King, who told her he was a big fan and urged her to reconsider her decision to leave the show to perform on Broadway.

"My family are your greatest fans," Nichols recalled King telling her, and said he continued with, "As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it's on past their bedtime." Nichols's character of Lt. Uhura, he said, was important because she was a strong, professional black woman. If Nichols left, King noted, the character could be replaced by anyone, since "[Uhura] is not a black role. And it's not a female role." Based on their talk, Nichols decided to remain on the show for the duration of its three-season original run.

9. He spent his wedding night in a funeral parlor.

Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When King married his wife, Coretta Scott, in her father's backyard in 1953, there was virtually no hotel in Marion, Alabama that would welcome a newlywed black couple. A friend of Coretta's happened to be an undertaker, and invited the Kings to stay at one of the guest rooms at his funeral parlor.

10. Ronald Reagan was opposed to a King holiday.

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite King's undeniable worthiness, MLK Day was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan largely ignored pleas to pass legislation making the holiday official out of the concern it would open the door for other minority groups to demand their own holidays; Senator Jesse Helms complained that the missed workday could cost the country $12 billion in lost productivity, and both were concerned about King's possible Communist sympathies. Common sense prevailed, and the bill was signed into law on November 2, 1983. The holiday officially began being recognized in January 1986.

11. We could see him on the $5 bill—at some point.

The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to overhaul major denominations of currency beginning in 2020. Along with Harriet Tubman adorning the $20 bill, plan called for the reverse side of the $5 Lincoln-stamped bill to commemorate "historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial" including King's famous 1963 speech. In April 2018, though, the Trump administration announced that those plans were on hold and the bills would be delayed by at least six years.

12. One of King's volunteers walked away with a piece of history.

Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's
Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
Kurt Severin/Getty Images

King's 1963 oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, will always be remembered as one of the most provocative public addresses ever given. George Raveling, who was 26 at the time, had volunteered to help King and his team during the event. When it was over, Raveling sheepishly asked King for the copy of the three-page speech. King handed it over without hesitation; Raveling kept it for the next 20 years before he fully understood its historical significance and removed it from the book he had been storing it in.

He's turned down offers of up to $3.5 million, insisting that the document will remain in his family—always noting that the most famous passage, where King details his dream of a united nation, isn't on the sheets. It was improvised.

A version of this story first ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER