Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson was an interesting book with the subtitle Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Johnson tells the story of Edwin Rist, who, as a twenty-year-old studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music, burglarized an outpost of the British Museum of Natural History in the city of Tring, stealing hundreds of bird skins, with some collected by the famed adventurer and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace.

Johnson tells well the story of how Rist stole the bird skins for their feathers, with them used in elaborate fly-fishing ties, done not for use on the river, but for the art of making the same flies as from the Victorian fly-tying era. The actual crime is completed and Rist arrested around halfway through the book, with the rest of it about the ramifications of the crime for Rist, and how others in the fly-tying community appeared to be at least somewhat, if not very complicit in the crime based on what happened with the feathers after the theft.

Johnson as the author has an interesting backstory as he wrote of suffering from mental scars out of working in Iraq helping coordinate the reconstruction of Fallujah for USAID and then founded the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Refugees, trying to get them out of the region and to safety in the US. When he then learned of the Rist heist and began digging into it, he seemed to have been taken down a similar rabbit-hold of obsession as those he wrote about in the book. In Johnson's case, though, he was attempting to figure out what happened to all of the stolen bird skins and valuable feathers, which are from protected species such as Birds of Paradise and not supposed to be sold, but available on eBay and traded within the fly-tying community.

It was interesting reading of Johnson researching, using the Internet Wayback Machine to peruse long since deleted website entries offering feathers for sale and trying, often in vain, to get people to really care about the crime and it's consequences. The book was very much a deep-dive into something held dear by a small community, and in this was quite compelling.