no avatar

Coopersville criminal becomes 'greatest hero'

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:50 PM

He was born Jan. 10, 1871, to Amos and Elizabeth (Manning) Taylor. By the time he reached age 21, Bradley (as he was known) had earned a reputation as a dangerous hot-head with a criminal record.

Bradley Taylor was accused of stabbing Oscar Hunt at a Nunica tavern during an argument on May 29, 1891. He was charged with “assault with intent to commit great bodily harm,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported. He was convicted of the crime and served time in jail.

Taylor was arrested again on Dec. 13, 1891, charged with cruelty for beating a younger brother and sister.

“The boy (Taylor's brother) had taken some cookies from his trunk, which so angered (Taylor) that he pounded the lad until he was nearly covered with blood,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported. “He was brought to jail, but has been released on bail.”

If it wasn't for bad reputations, Taylor would have had no reputation at all.

After a few more scrapes with the law, Taylor moved away from Ottawa County. By 1893, he took to the little town named Virginia, one of the mining towns near Duluth, Minn. It was a place to work, and perhaps build a new identity for himself.

The next time Taylor made headlines was on June 19, 1893, when newspapers reported he was dead after suffering from burns during a historic fire that destroyed the town of Virginia and adjacent others.

The St. Paul Globe was one of many newspapers that included Taylor in reports of the Mesabi Range forest fires that consumed 75 square miles of territory and at least three towns, and left more than 3,500 people homeless.

The Globe wrote in a June 20 headline: “Heroic sacrifice of Bradley Taylor, who gave his life for a woman.”

But it was only half true. Taylor wasn't dead, but he was a hero.

Initial reports coming out of the Duluth area claimed Taylor lost his life. Subsequent articles stated he was very much alive.

“W. B. Taylor, at Virginia, was badly burned, but will live,” the Warsaw (Ind.) Daily Times reported. Other newspapers reported Taylor “might lose his hands,” but not his life.

Taylor, 22 at the time, was bedridden in the home where he lodged, suffering from typhoid fever when the forest fires broke out.

“Bradley Taylor, formerly of Coopersville, Mich., was terribly burned while rescuing a woman from the second story of the burning house,” the St. Paul Globe reported. “He got out of a sick bed, and getting a ladder, saved the woman's life. He is now in the Duluth hospital. His hands were nearly burnt off and his back terribly burned.”

It was reported while they were taking him off the train to the hospital, Taylor said: “God almighty, don't (carry) me by the back, you are tearing my flesh away.”

Taylor recovered slowly. And while reports of his demise were erroneous, reports of his heroism were very much alive.

“(Taylor) is looked upon as the greatest hero of the day,” the Globe reported. “His nerve is simply wonderful.”

Taylor returned to Coopersville after his recovery. There can be little doubt folks in his native town and Ottawa County, hearing of Taylor's selfless courageous act, gave him a hero's welcome home.

On April 23, 1895, Taylor married Lena Mae Dean, a native of Ravenna — where they settled for a life of farming. They had one child, born in 1896, who died a few months after birth.

Taylor then returned to Coopersville for the remainder of his life, which was short. He died of heart failure on Jan. 7, 1910, three days before what would have been his 39th birthday. He is buried in the Coopersville-Polkton Cemetery.

Lena Mae Taylor remarried a year later to Herbert D. Lawton of Coopersville. When that marriage failed, she wed Marvin Barton in 1924. She died in 1962 and is buried next to Marvin in Mears Cemetery in Oceana County.

Once a feared and loathed criminal, Bradley Taylor had been tested by fire — literally. Following the Iowa inferno, he endured a scarred and pain-ridden existence — but for one fleeting moment in time, he was recognized not as a criminal, but nationally as the “greatest hero.”

Recommended for You