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