Cover image for The feather thief : beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century / Kirk Wallace Johnson.
Title:
The feather thief : beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century / Kirk Wallace Johnson.
ISBN:
9781101981610

9780525559092
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, [2018]

©2018
Physical Description:
308 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Abstract:
On a cool June evening in 2009, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist grabbed hundreds of bird skins - some collected 150 years earlier - and escaped into the darkness. Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? This is the gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice.
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Summary

Summary

"Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." --Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." -- Christian Science Monitor

A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the Woods , The Lost City of Z , and The Orchid Thief .

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins--some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them--and escaped into the darkness.

Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.


Author Notes

Kirk W. Johnson is the author of To Be a Friend Is Fatal and the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times , The Washington Post , and the Los Angeles Times , among others. He is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the American Academy in Berlin, and the USC Annenberg Center.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal) makes his true-crime debut with this enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime. In 2009, Edwin Rist, an American student at London's Royal Academy of Music, stole 299 rare and scientifically significant bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, England, plucked their feathers, and sold them for top dollar to men who shared his obsession with the Victorian art of salmon-fly tying. Johnson explores the expensive and exotic hobby of salmon-fly tying that emerged in the 19th century and uses that context to frame Rist's story, including his trial. Rist did not serve jail time after his lawyers successfully argued that Asperger's syndrome was to blame for his crime. In the book's final section, Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

IN JUNE 2009, Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old American flutist studying at the Royal Academy of Music, smashed a window at the Museum of Natural History in Tring, near London, and pulled off one of the more bizarre robberies of recent decades. Under the nose of a hapless security guard, Rist ransacked storage drawers and absconded with the preserved skins of 299 tropical birds, including specimens collected by the legendary naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-19th century. He intended to fence the birds' extravagantly colored plumage at high prices to fellow aficionados in hopes of raising enough cash to support both his musical career and his parents' struggling Labradoodlebreeding business in the Hudson Valley. Kirk Wallace Johnson's "The Leather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century" recounts Rist's odd crime and its even more curious aftermath. Johnson, a former U.S.A.I.D. employee in Lalluja, Iraq, and the founder of the List Project (a nonprofit organization that resettles Iraqis marked for death after working with the American military), first heard about Rist's robbery during a troutfishing holiday in New Mexico: "I don't know if it was Edwin's Victorian sounding name, the sheer weirdness of the story or the fact that I was in desperate need of a new direction in life, but I became obsessed with the crime within moments." So he set out to learn all he could about Rist, unspooling a complex tale of greed, deception and ornithological sabotage. Rist's feather obsession turns out to have rich antecedents. Johnson describes Wallace's 1854 expedition through the Malaysian jungle in pursuit of the Bird of Paradise, which "had an otherworldly beauty. ... Prom its tail emerged two wiry feathers that spiraled tightly into two glittering emerald coins." Walter Rothschild, the eccentric scion of the banking family, eagerly took in the specimens from the expedition and assembled the largest private collection of bird skins in the world at his Tring mansion, which later became a branch of the Natural History Museum. At around the same time, an insatiable demand for feathers among fashion-conscious Europeans and Americans set off a mass killing of birds for profit. This "slaughter of innocents," as one activist described it in 1875, led to the banning of the feather trade and the birth of the animal conservation movement. Decades later, the pursuit of rare feathers, by legal or illegal means, was taken up by salmon fly-tying experts, whose creations have become ever more esoteric and elaborate. One master, Paul Schmookle, according to a 1990 profile cited by Johnson, "will use up to 150 different materials, ranging from polar bear and mink fur to the feathers of wild turkeys, golden and Reeves pheasants, the African speckled bustard and the Brazilian blue chatterer." Rist became adept at tying flies as a teenager, but as a criminal he proved less successful. He made no effort to cover his internet footprint, and the British police busted him about a year after the robbery. In court, his lawyer argued that he suffered from Asperger's syndrome and had trouble distinguishing right from wrong, a dubious defense that the judge nevertheless accepted, handing Rist a one-year suspended sentence. Soon after the trial, Johnson embarked on a quest to track down Rist, identify his network of buyers and recover for the museum thousands of still-missing feathers, vital tools for DNA extraction and other important zoological research. Johnson draws a fascinating portrait of Rist as a self-rationalizing con man and exposes the culture of secrecy and opportunism that marks his fellow flytiers. Still, Johnson's self-aggrandizing pronouncements ("no one else was going to hunt them down but me") can be grating, as is his tendency to lapse into pumped-up, cliché-ridden prose. "I hopped in my car and bombed up the 1-95 to Boston, the revelation setting my imagination on fire," he writes after uncovering the identity of one of Rist's possible accomplices, a Norwegian fly-tier known as Goku. In the end, Johnson fails to make much headway in recovering the dispersed treasures. "We're a tightknit community, fly-tiers," one man tells him as he is digging into the crime, "and you do not want to piss us off." Beneath their artistry and collegiality, Johnson suggests, many of these craftsmen seem primarily interested in feathering their own nests. Joshua hammer's most recent book is "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu."


Library Journal Review

On June 24, 2009, a break in occurred at the British Natural History Museum at Tring. Nothing of value seemed to be missing, but several months later, the museum discovered that hundreds of rare birds, some of them collected by Darwin competitor Alfred Russell Wallace, had been stolen by fishing-lure aficionados. The author, a fly fisherman himself, stumbled on this story and found himself tumbling down a rabbit hole of obsessed Victorian fly-tiers, who need the feathers of now-endangered or extinct bird species to replicate the artistic lures created decades ago. The feathers themselves are worth a small fortune, and while the thief, American Edwin Rist, was captured, many of the birds' skins remained missing. Johnson took up the search within the secretive brotherhood of fly-tiers, tracking down new leads and interviewing wary or openly hostile members. The result is a mind-blowing account of a modern subculture and a riveting historical tour of the feather trade from the 1800s to the present. The resolution, however, is frustrating and demonstrates both the importance and difficulty of preserving our natural history. -VERDICT A different kind of detective tale that will appeal to lovers of natural history and criminal caper stories. [See Prepub Alert, 10/29/17.]--Deirdre Bray Root, formerly with MidPointe Lib. Syst., OH © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

PROLOGUE   By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train onto the platform at Tring, forty  miles north of London, it was already quite late. The residents of the sleepy town had finished their suppers; the little ones were in bed. As he began the long walk into town, the Midland line glided off into darkness. A few hours earlier Edwin had performed in the Royal Academy of Music's "London Soundscapes," a celebration of Hayden, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Before the concert, he'd packed a pair of latex gloves, a miniature LED flashlight, a wire cutter, and a diamond-blade glass cutter in a large rolling suitcase, and stowed it in his concert hall locker. He bore a passing resemblance to a lanky Pete Townshend: intense eyes, prominent nose, and a mop of hair, although instead of shredding a Fender, Edwin played the flute. There was a new moon that evening, making the already-gloomy stretch of road even darker. For nearly an hour, he dragged his suit- case through the mud and gravel skirting the road, under gnarly old trees strangled with  ivy. Turlhanger's  Wood  slept to the north, Chestnut Wood to the south, fallow fields and the occasional  copse in between. A car blasted by, its headlights blinding. Adrenaline coursing, he knew he was getting close. The entrance to the market town of Tring is guarded by a sixteenth-century pub called the Robin Hood. A few roads beyond, nestled between the old Tring Brewery and an HSBC branch, lies the entrance to Public Footpath 37. Known to locals as Bank Alley, the footpath isn't more than eight feet wide and is framed by seven-foot-high brick walls. Edwin slipped into the alley, into total darkness. He groped his way along until he was standing directly behind the building he'd spent months casing. All that separated him from it was the wall. Capped with three rusted  strands of barbed wire, it might  have  thwarted his plans were it not for the wire cutter. After clearing an opening, he lifted the suitcase to the ledge, hoisted himself up, and glanced anxiously about.  No sign of the guard. There was a space of several feet between his perch on the wall and the building's nearest window, forming a small ravine. If he fell, he could injure himself--or worse, make  a clamor that would  summon security. But he'd known this part wouldn't be easy. Crouched on  top  of the  wall,  he reached  toward the  window with the glass cutter and began to grind it along the pane. Cutting glass was harder  than  he had anticipated, though, and as he struggled to carve an opening, the glass cutter slipped from his hand and fell into the ravine. His mind raced. Was this a sign? He was think- ing about  bailing  on the whole  crazy scheme when  that voice, the one that  had urged him onward these past months, shouted Wait a minute! You can't give up now. You've come all this way! He crawled  back down  and picked up a rock. Steadying himself atop the wall, he peered around in search of guards before bashing the window  out, wedging his suitcase through the shard-strewn opening,  and climbing into the British Natural History Museum. Unaware that he had just tripped an alarm in the security guard's office, Edwin pulled out the LED light, which cast a faint glow in front of him as he made his way down the hallways toward the vault, just as he'd rehearsed in his mind. He wheeled his suitcase quietly through corridor after corridor, drawing  ever closer to the most beautiful  things he had ever seen. If he pulled this off, they would bring him fame, wealth, and prestige. They would solve his problems. He deserved them. He entered  the vault, its hundreds of large white steel cabinets standing in rows like sentries,  and got to work. He pulled out the first drawer, catching a waft of mothballs. Quivering  beneath  his fingertips were a dozen Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, gathered  by natural- ists and biologists  over hundreds of years from the forests and jungles of South America and fastidiously preserved  by generations of curators for the benefit of future research. Their coppery-orange feathers glimmered despite the faint light. Each bird, maybe a foot and a half from beak to tail, lay on its back in funerary repose, eye sockets filled with cotton, feet folded close against  the body. Tied around their legs were biodata labels: faded, handwritten records of the date, altitude, latitude, and  longitude of their capture, along with other vital details. He unzipped the suitcase and began filling it with the birds, emptying one drawer after another. The occidentalis subspecies that he snatched  by the handful had been gathered a century earlier from the Quindío Andes region of western Colombia. He didn't know exactly how many he'd be able to fit into his suitcase, but he managed forty-seven of the museum's forty-eight male specimens before wheeling his bag on to the next cabinet. Down in the security office, the guard was fixated on a small television screen. Engrossed in a soccer match, he hadn't yet noticed the alarm indicator blinking on a nearby panel. Edwin opened  the next cabinet  to reveal dozens of Resplendent Quetzal  skins gathered  in the 1880s from the Chiriquí cloud forests of western Panama,  a species now threatened by widespread deforestation and protected by international treaties. At nearly four feet in length, the birds were particularly difficult to stuff into his suitcase, but he maneuvered thirty-nine of them inside by gently curling their sweeping tails into tight coils.   Moving down the corridor, he swung open the doors of another cabinet, this one housing species of the Cotinga birds of South and Central  America. He swiped fourteen one-hundred-year-old skins of the Lovely Cotinga, a small turquoise bird with a reddish-purple breast endemic to Central America, before relieving the museum of thirty-seven specimens of the Purple-breasted Cotinga, twenty-one skins of the Spangled Cotinga, and another ten skins of the endangered Banded Cotinga, of which as few as 250 mature individuals are estimated to be alive today. The Galápagos island finches and mockingbirds gathered by Charles Darwin in 1835 during  the voyage of the HMS   Beagle-- which had been instrumental in developing  his theory of evolution through natural selection--were resting in nearby drawers. Among the museum's most valuable holdings were skeletons and skins of extinct birds, including the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon, along with an elephant-folio edition of John James Audubon's The Birds of America . Overall, the museum houses one of the world's largest collection of ornithological specimens: 750,000 bird skins, 15,000 skeletons, 17,000 birds preserved in spirit, 4,000 nests, and 400,000 sets of eggs, gathered over the centuries from the world's most remote forests, mountainsides, jungles, and swamps. But Edwin hadn't broken into the museum for a drab-colored finch. He had lost track of how long he'd been in the vault when he finally wheeled his suitcase to a stop before a large cabinet. A small plaque indicated its contents: paradisaeidae. Thirty-seven  King Birds of Paradise, swiped in seconds. Twenty-four Magnificent Rifle-birds. Twelve Superb Birds of Paradise. Four Blue Birds of Paradise. Seventeen Flame Bowerbirds. These flawless specimens, gathered against almost impossible odds from virgin forests of New Guinea and the  Malay Archipelago 150 years earlier, went into Edwin's bag, their tags bearing the name of a self-taught naturalist whose breakthrough had given Darwin the scare of his life: a. r. wallace.     The guard glanced at the CCTV feed, an array of shots of the parking lot and the museum campus. He began his round, pacing the hallways, checking the doors, scanning for anything awry Edwin had long since lost count of the number of birds that passed through his hands. He had originally planned to choose only the best of each species, but in the excitement of the plunder, he grabbed and stuffed until his suitcase could hold no more. The guard stepped outside to begin a perimeter check, glancing up at the windows  and beaming his flashlight on the section abutting the brick wall of Bank Alley. Edwin stood before the broken window, now framed with shards of glass. So far everything had gone according to plan, with the exception of the missing glass cutter. All that remained was to climb back out of the window without slicing himself open, and melt into the anonymity of the street. Excerpted from The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
I Dead Birds and Rich Men
1 The Trials of Alfred Russel Wallacep. 13
2 Lord Rothschild's Museump. 38
3 The Feather Feverp. 43
4 Birth of a Movementp. 49
5 The Victorian Brotherhood of Fly-tiersp. 55
6 The Future of Fly-tyingp. 65
II The Tring Heist
7 Featherless in Londonp. 85
8 Plan for Museum Invasion.Docp. 94
9 The Case of the Broken Windowp. 102
10 "A Very Unusual Crime"p. 108
11 Hot Birds on a Cold Trailp. 115
12 Fluteplayer 1988p. 122
13 Behind Barsp. 127
14 Rot in Hellp. 131
15 The Diagnosisp. 137
16 The Asperger's Defensep. 141
17 The Missing Skinsp. 148
III Truth and Consequences
18 The 21st International Fly Tying Symposiump. 155
19 The Lost Memory of the Oceanp. 163
20 Chasing Leads in a Time Machinep. 177
21 Dr. Prum's Thumb Drivep. 187
22 "I'm Not a Thief"p. 198
23 Three Days in Norwayp. 211
24 Michelangelo Vanishesp. 230
25 Feathers in the Bloodstreamp. 239
Acknowledgmentsp. 249
Notesp. 255
A Note on Sourcesp. 281
Bibliographyp. 283
Indexp. 291

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