The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

by Kirk Wallace Johnson
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

by Kirk Wallace Johnson


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As heard on NPR's This American Life

“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

From the author of The Fishermen and the Dragon, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101981634
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 27,072
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kirk W. Johnson is the author of The Fishermen and the Dragon and To Be a Friend Is Fatal, and the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, which he started after serving with USAID in Fallujah. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and on This American Life, among others.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

I Dead Birds and Rich Men

1 The Trials of Alfred Russel Wallace 13

2 Lord Rothschild's Museum 38

3 The Feather Fever 43

4 Birth of a Movement 49

5 The Victorian Brotherhood of Fly-tiers 55

6 The Future of Fly-tying 65

II The Tring Heist

7 Featherless in London 85

8 Plan for Museum Invasion.Doc 94

9 The Case of the Broken Window 102

10 "A Very Unusual Crime" 108

11 Hot Birds on a Cold Trail 115

12 Fluteplayer 1988 122

13 Behind Bars 127

14 Rot in Hell 131

15 The Diagnosis 137

16 The Asperger's Defense 141

17 The Missing Skins 148

III Truth and Consequences

18 The 21st International Fly Tying Symposium 155

19 The Lost Memory of the Ocean 163

20 Chasing Leads in a Time Machine 177

21 Dr. Prum's Thumb Drive 187

22 "I'm Not a Thief" 198

23 Three Days in Norway 211

24 Michelangelo Vanishes 230

25 Feathers in the Bloodstream 239

Acknowledgments 249

Notes 255

A Note on Sources 281

Bibliography 283

Index 291

Reading Group Guide

1. The Feather Thief shines a spotlight on the dark, illegal underbelly of a seemingly innocent hobby: fly-tying. Why do you think fly-tiers are so obsessed with rare bird feathers?

2. Many of the fly-tying community’s conversations and transactions take place online, from discussion forums to eBay to Facebook. In what ways do you think the Internet enables these types of obsessions? Do you think Rist would have pulled off his heist—or even attempted it in the first place—without the resources of the Internet?

3. The story of the actual crime is recounted in just a few chapters, but the tension remains high throughout the book. How does Johnson maintain suspense and keep readers hooked? What was the most suspenseful part for you?

4. Why do you think Johnson chose to include the story of his own investigation, as well as the historical and scientific context for the feather craze, in the book? What do you think the mix of genres accomplishes that a straightforward true-crime narrative might not?

5. Rist’s lawyer described the theft of the bird skins as “a very amateur burglary” (page 133), and yet Rist wasn’t caught for more than a year and a half. Would you agree with the characterization of his theft as amateurish? Do you think he planned his infiltration of the museum well, or did he just get lucky?

6. Although Rist was eventually caught, he was subsequently released without ever having to spend a night behind bars, thanks in large part to a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Do you think his case should have been handled differently? If so, how?

7. Were you surprised to hear that Edwin Rist finally agreed to speak with Johnson, after multiple refusals? Why, in your opinion, might he have chosen to do so?

8. Johnson experiences a range of emotions when interviewing Long Nguyen, from concern to frustration to annoyance to sympathy. How did you feel about Nguyen’s actions, before and after the theft? Did you sympathize with him? How would you have acted differently?

9. Johnson tells us that bird populations in twenty-six states dropped by nearly half from 1883 to 1898 as a result of a “feather fever” taking over fashion. “Before the Hermès bag or Louboutin heel,” Johnson tells us, “the ultimate status indicator was a dead bird” (page 43). Can you draw any parallels with trends today, in fashion or otherwise, that are destructive to our environment?

10. Rist’s theft was an extremely serious crime, in part because of the immense loss to the scientific record, and yet it’s also an extremely strange one. Before reading this book, would you have ever believed that someone would break multiple laws in order to steal feathers? Does it remind you of any other crimes that seem incomprehensible to outsiders?

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