The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Kirk Wallace Johnson, 2018
Why this book?
While most of the non-fiction books I read are popular science, I have a soft spot for white-collar crime, especially heist stories. I sometimes joke that if I hadn’t gone into science, I might have pursued a life as an art thief (think: Matt Bomer in White Collar). I’m also possibly the only person who thought Ocean’s Eight was a good movie. This is just a fantasy, though. Real white-collar crime is pretty gritty—I recommend The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser for anyone who needs to be convinced that museum thefts are anything but glamorous.
I first heard about The Feather Thief on a rerun of This American Life on NPR, and while it technically isn’t from my backlog, it’s been on my GoodReads list for almost a year. I had naturally high expectations for the book, but I’m pleased to report that Johnson delivers everything I was hoping for and tells a compelling story of science, theft, and the inherent value of museum specimens.
How the book stacked up:
The book begins with Alfred Russel Wallace’s natural history exploration of the Malay Archipelago (Brunei, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and surrounding area). Here, Wallace collects spectacular birds-of-paradise specimens and, during a malaria-induced fever dream, works out the basic principle of evolution by natural selection. Darwin had scribbled a few notes on the subject but was not especially close to publishing when he received a copy of Wallace’s manuscript in 1858.
I’m a longtime fan of Wallace’s. Seven years ago, I told a room full of Princeton professors that he was my hero because Darwin gets too much of the credit for evolution, and I stand by the sentiment. Darwin may not have even published in his lifetime if it weren’t for Wallace, and yet somehow, Darwin is always painted as the victim of “scooping” — a dynamic that was even featured on a recent episode of Schitt’s Creek. I’ll save my full commentary on the matter for when I review Darwin’s Ghosts later this year but for now, suffice to say, I’m glad Johnson took a deep dive into Wallace’s life and accomplishments.
Johnson astutely explains why Wallace—if he’s remembered at all— is a less significant figure than Darwin. Darwin came from an aristocratic background. As a member of the Wedgwood family, his ancestors would go on to produce my parents’ Kutani Crane wedding china. Wallace, on the other hand, was a self-taught naturalist from a modest background, and he was about fifteen years younger. Though credit was officially given equally to both Wallace and Darwin, due to rampant classism, only Darwin is remembered.
After setting the backstory of Wallace’s birds-of-paradise museum specimens, Johnson begins to discuss the heist itself, and “weird” is the only word I can think of to describe it. Edwin Rist (yes, that is his real name) becomes interested in the Victorian art of fly-tying as a child and carries the obsession into his early adulthood. I grew up spending summers in Montana near a fly-fishing community, and I knew a few people who tied their own flies as a casual hobby. Edwin Rist, however, immerses himself in a diehard subculture. They follow original “recipes” from the 1800s, which means spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on feathers from birds that are either extinct or incredibly endangered, thanks to over a century of leisurely exploitation. Assuming the money is no issue, the act of even purchasing these feathers is largely illegal, as many are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
It’s not clear how many members of the fly-tying community are also avid fishermen; fly-tying is an entirely separate hobby. Traditional salmon flies that follow all the Victorian era rules do not offer any kind of competitive advantage in fishing. You’re no more likely to catch a fish with the special elusive feathers than with drab ordinary and sustainable materials. Yet, thousands of people think it is great fun to source expensive and illegal materials and follow century old instructions to tie a fly, just for the art of it.
In 2009, Edwin Rist was a cash-strapped music student at the London Royal Academy of Music. Though he had been forced to leave most of his fly-tying materials in the U.S. when he came to the U.K. as a student (or risk customs agents), his obsessive fly-tying tendencies are ripe for a fix and he desperately needs a new flute. He pieces together that there are hundreds the exact birds-of-paradise species (many collected by Wallace) needed for his precious flies were sitting in drawers at the Tring annex of the British Museum of Natural History, a short train ride away.
Edwin cases out the place and then returns to break in through a window in the middle of the night. He fills a suitcase with nearly 300 bird skins and then catches the train home a few hours later. Although he is eventually caught, only about 2/3 of the specimens are returned to the museum, with over half of them missing their tags, rendering them scientifically useless.
This book is a masterpiece. Johnson expertly weaves history, science, and true crime reporting into a fast-paced read for anyone who enjoys a good thriller. The story is also embedded in Johnson’s PTSD recovery, as he works to investigate this most bizarre crime and secures an exclusive interview with Edwin Rist. Beyond the expert retelling of the crime, the buildup, and the aftermath, this book sharply highlights a lack of understanding for the value of museum specimens, or more generally, the entire process of science.
During a phone call with Ruhan Neethling, one of the purchasers of the stolen feathers, Johnson learns that Neethling only plans to return the feathers if the museum can spell out exactly how the birds will be used for scientific advancements in the immediate future. The museum will never be able to offer this, of course, because that is not how science works. As Johnson points out earlier in the book, the birds (and all other museum specimens) hold answers to questions that haven’t even been asked yet. Neethling, however, concludes that a lack of a clear plan means the birds are not truly useful to the museum.
This sentiment is later echoed by Rist during his hours long interview with Johnson in a Dusseldorf hotel room. Rist explains that the museum had over a century to work with the specimens. He doesn’t deny that the specimens had some scientific value, just that it’s already been spent, and the feathers should be fair game for other uses. Even though the scientific value of all museum species has been spelled out for Rist extensively during his trial, the idea that scientific knowledge gradually accumulates overtime and can never really be “spent”, doesn’t seem to stick.
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