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.
I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t often read non-fiction, but I have recently been listening to Book Riot’s For Real podcast, where I first heard about this book. Everything about it is insane; a man steals hundreds of dead bird from a museum in England – priceless dead birds – to sell them to victorian salmon fly fishers on the black market. No, not fly fishers – fish fly tiers, who never intend to use those flies to fish. The flies are apparently considered artworks, all made according to victorian recipes, and those recipes call for hundreds of feathers from endangered birds. This book is about what happens when an extremely niche interest causes such a big amount of drama that is has consequences in the outside world. In this case, the loss of hundreds of priceless scientific artifacts, and a culprit who didn’t even go to prison.
The author weaves a fascinating narrative, taking us from the first capture of birds of paradises by Alfred Wallace (the man who came up with the theory of evolution in a fit of fever at around the same time as Darwin was about to publish his book, and then was super chill about letting Darwin have the credit for it, since he did work on his theory for far longer than Wallace had) to the height of the salmon fly craze in the victorian era. He takes the time to explain to us the entire backstory of the crime, so that the reader can truly grasp the enormity of what is happening, as well as the utter ridiculousness of it. Then he devolves into his own reaction upon hearing about Rist’s crime, and his subsequent obsession with finding the missing birds skins, and trying to get Rist to face some consequences for his acts.
This book is endlessly fascinating, and I read it in a couple of days. It has sparked an interest in me for weird non-violent true crime, a part of me that was so far limited to seeking out book drama on twitter. I recommend it to anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours immersed in the strangest tale I’ve heard this year. I also heard it has a great audiobook.
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