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Chicken Hearted
May/June 2015

I must say, in the 35 years that we’ve been publishing Decoy Magazine, this is a first. But maybe we should start from the beginning.

In 2004 we published an article by Jamie Reason on Charles Sumner Bunn, a Shinnecock Native American who Jamie was convinced made the duck and shorebird decoys that had long been attributed to Bill Bowman. According to Bill Mackey, who introduced him to the decoy collecting world in 1966, Bowman was a drunk who lived in a tent in the marsh on the south shore of Long Island where he reportedly carved and painted some of the finest shorebird decoys ever made in America.

In the following two to three issues of the magazine we fielded numerous letters from collectors who either agreed or disagreed with his conclusions. Many took neither side, simply stating that regardless of who made them they were, indeed, superior works of art. We were more than happy to host this debate.

In our November/December 2014 issue, we published an article by Joe Jannsen, who took a slightly different tack in making the case for Bunn by approaching it through his proximity and relationships with the owners of four important rigs with ties to Southampton, the location of the Shinnecock Reservation where Bunn lived. We received and published two letters that applauded his efforts.

We then heard that Ron McGrath, an early Long Island collector and a personal friend of the Herrick family, who owned the largest group of “Bowman” shorebirds to ever surface, intended to write an article for another sporting collectibles magazine that would finally provide tangible proof of the existence of Bill Bowman the decoy maker, who reportedly traveled to Long Island from Maine every hunting season. We’d heard rumors since the original story was published in 2004 that such an article was in the works, and looked forward to finally hearing the true story of this mysterious man, who until now had no documented history. Was he actually anything more than a legend?

So we were greatly disappointed when this long-awaited “biography” hit the newsstands. Rather than provide proof of Bowman’s existence, McGrath simply attempted to poke holes in Jannsen’s thesis, completely unconvincingly, in our opinion. Accusing Jannsen, and others who share his opinions, of venturing into an “arena of conjecture,” McGrath failed to provide one iota of fact concerning the existence of Bill Bowman and his life as a decoy maker. In a thinly veiled, condescending tone he injected his personal disdain that anyone would suggest that a Native American might have possibly made the Bowman decoys. Oh, but he did provide all sorts of hypotheticals, none of which pinned the tail on the donkey, so to speak.

Jannsen decided to pen a response to McGrath’s article and emailed it to the publisher of the sporting collectibles magazine, expecting that he would publish it as a Letter to the Editor. The publisher refused, suggesting that since Jannsen was not a subscriber and had published his original article in Decoy Magazine, that we should publish his response.

The sporting magazine publisher further suggested it was “ludicrous” for him to provide space and that a similar request from McGrath to respond in Decoy Magazine “would have been denied.” That is a ludicrous statement, because neither of them requested space for a response and we had already published a letter by McGrath over ten years ago when the topic was first presented.

Since the other sporting magazine publisher is too cowardly to debate the topic, or unwilling to have one of its writers challenged in its own pages, we feel we have no recourse but to present Jannsen’s letter in ours. And indeed, this is a first. We know some of our readers subscribe to both publications. For those who don’t, maybe McGrath’s article can be accessed online. Or get in touch and we’ll share it with you. Give it a read and then check out Jannsen’s letter on page 12.

We’re going to take this discussion a little further by presenting an article by Jamie Reason on page 8, entitled “Dating the Charles Summer Bunn Decoys.” Up to this point, accepted decoy history has Bowman leaving this world in 1906, which is the year he died. At least one Bill Bowman who lived in Maine died that year, although it’s never been proven that he is the same purported Bill Bowman who supposedly made decoys in the marsh in Long Island.

But what if the best “Bowman” shorebird decoys, including the ones from the Herrick rig, were made after 1910? Supposedly the Herrick rig was made in 1875, but that would place them in service for over 40 to 50 years, depending on the species. Yet all of them are in near-mint condition.

Check out the articles and Jannsen’s letter of response and draw your own conclusions. We’re more than pleased to provide the space to keep the conversation moving, even if you don’t agree with the conclusions.

I have one more observation to share in response to McGrath’s article. In Jannsen’s article in the November/December 2014 issue, he discusses the Lawrence rig of “Bowman” shorebirds that was sold at Sotheby’s in 1997. Jannsen claimed that “According to a number of sources, the staff at Sotheby’s was informed by the family that their grandfather had purchased the decoys from the Shinnecock Indians.”

McGrath disputed this comment, writing that “It is most unusual that the staff from any auction company, especially Sotheby’s Auction, would divulge the un-cataloged information of a consignor.”

Maybe it is unusual, but the employee who went to Texas to pick up the consignment and sent them the contract called us directly after the article was published in 2004. He told us the consignors had no idea who Bill Bowman was, and were even a bit indignant while letting him know. They never did mention Charles Sumner Bunn by name, but the family insisted they were purchased from the Shinnecock Indians.

But then again, it was just one of McGrath’s many hypotheticals.