The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Genres: True Crime, Non-Fiction
Maturity Level: 5-
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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.
This. Book. Was. Nuts! In the very best possible way.
Okay, let’s start with the obvious. This book is about a group of people whose hobby is making Victorian fish-hooks with exotic bird feathers. They don’t fish with their fish-hooks, they just make them. For fun. And since the Victorian era was rife with the killing of animals for their body parts, they make these fish-hooks with the feathers of rare and endangered birds. These people are so obsessed with having exactly the right exotic bird feather that they are willing to pay THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for a few feathers. Yeah. It’s crazy!
I discovered while reading this book that my preferred genre of non-fiction is bizarre and extremely specific sub-cultures. I could not get enough of the history behind salmon-fly-tying, profiles of prominent tiers, and pictures of the hooks. Even without the “natural history heist of the century” I was completely engrossed. Johnson did a great job of presenting a lot of information with an extremely broad scope in a way that was both informative and accessible. Despite having zero background in fly-fishing, I didn’t have any trouble keeping up. It was fascinating, and so, so strange.
You guys, not only did this guy rob a freaking museum for millions of dollars worth of bird feathers AND GET AWAY WITH IT, but after they caught him he managed to avoid spending even a single day behind bars by convincing the judge he had Asperger’s syndrome! He is still out in the world sitting pretty on all of the money he made and did not have to give back because he also convinced the British government that the feathers weren’t that valuable and he didn’t have any money. WHAT?!?!?!
So that’s where the author, Kirk Wallace Johnson came in. He heard about this, got interested, and then appointed himself a detective on the story to find out what really happened and where the rest of the birds were. No police background. No journalism career. No private investigator. Just a regular dude trying to crack a case that the police and museum had long given up on.
Y’all, there’s a reason that the word obsession is in the sub-title. Every person in this book is as obsessive as they come. The author, the crook, even the natural historians responsible for collecting the birds almost 200 years ago.
This book was fascinating, riveting, and extremely well-written. I have to say the end was a little unsatisfying, but it was nice to see that Johnson’s efforts have caused some members of the fly-tying community to start thinking more ethically. And if anyone would like to send me a copy of a classic Victorian fly-tying guide so I can pull the illustrations out and frame them on my wall, I’d be okay with that.