The Feather Thief
The Feather Thief, Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century By Kirk Wallace Johnson
A book review by Bob Randall
Like to tie flies? Yes, then you like feathers. This is a book about the theft of museum quality feathers by an obsessed salmon fly tier. The theft was approximately 10 years ago in England and it was perpetrated by an American. They weren’t just museum quality, they were a part of one of the most important scientific collections in the world. They were valuable because of the history they represented as some of them were collected by a very important 19th century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. They were valuable because some of them were part of the collection that helped Wallace come up with his theory of evolution. You see, Wallace was a contemporary of, and in some ways a competitor of, Charles Darwin. Wallace and Darwin both came up with the same theory of evolution independently. Darwin published his work first. They were further valuable because scientists still utilize museum collections to answer questions about genetics, zoogeography, populations, phylogeny, and questions that have yet to be asked. They were also valuable because a subculture of fly tyers, salmon fly tyers, insist on certain rare feathers from even rarer birds. Some of those tyers are willing to do almost anything for some of those feathers. In this case, Edwin Rist burglarized the British Museum of Natural History to steal hundreds of priceless bird skins.
I was most fascinated by the chapter titled, “The Trials of Alfred Russel Wallace. I was fascinated how Wallace persevered in his quest for scientific information. I was devastated reading how the ship on which he was returning to England with thousands of his South American specimens burned to the waterline hundreds of miles from land. As I finished the chapter, I thought the best was over.
Then the author described the history of salmon fly tying. What an interesting story! There was a lot to learn here. Next, I was obsessed by the details of the heist and the plans to convert some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bird skins to cash. I thought the book must be over until I read the chapter about the investigation, the arrest, and the trial. Each time I thought the story must be over; each time I realized I was wrong as I read the next chapter. How can a book about the theft of feathers be such a crime thriller?
Of course, Rist justified the theft in his mind feeling that his use for the feathers was greater than the scientific value to society. He was wrong, of course. More troubling was the fact that some of his fellow tyers felt the same way. Did Rist have an accomplice? Was Rist suffering from a mental problem? Did Rist get away with it? Were the feathers ever recovered? Rist was and is a black spot on the reputation of fly tyers, especially when some of them stonewalled the investigation and even questioned whether a museum collection really has a value beyond the cash they represent or the salmon flies that can be tied with them. I guess you have to read the book. You can request the book from the Greene County Library at this link: http://catalog.coolcat.org/iii/encore/search/C__SThe%20Feather%20Thief,%20Beauty,%20Obsession%20and%20the%20Natural%20History%20Heist%20of%20the%20Century?lang=eng