The Feather Thief Untangles the Knots on The Natural History Heist of the Century

The Feather Thief

Edwin Rist is the feather thief. Was he a young man, too easily indulged by parents, and full of obsession? Was Edwin a detached manipulator? Was he autistic? Or did he fake autism to get out of prison? What we know of Edwin Rist is that he is a talented flautist. He is an expert fly tier. And, he’s a convicted thief, having ripped off the Tring Natural History Museum of 299 rare and valuable specimens. Edwin is also pretty remorseless about his crime.

However, before we get to Edwin Rist, Kirk Wallace Johnson begins with his own story of burn out and stress relief through fly-fishing. Kirk hears the story of Edwin Rist from his fishing guide while he’s at a writer’s residency that’s not going so well. It’s in this moment that Kirk’s obsession with the Tring heist begins as he enters the world of the feather thief.

Foregrounding the Past

Johnson sets the stage for The Feather Thief by introducing us to the Alfred Russel Wallace who was a self-taught biologist who travelled the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago collecting samples of wildlife and sending them back. Wallace is a fabulous figure who comes up with the theory of natural selection, independent of Darwin, while collecting Birds of Paradise. Wallace also records valuable bio-data for each specimen he collects and which scientists still use today.

The foregrounding continues with a brief history of the rise and fall of feathers in fashion and how public attitudes changed toward the relentless killing of birds for their feathers.

Victorian Fly-Tying

[/media-credit] Plate I from George M. Kelson’s ”The Salmon Fly” (1895)

As the reader now understands the background and importance of this collection, Johnson proceeds to tell the story of Victorian fly-tying and the classist way Salmon flies were used. The intricate flies are no better at catching a salmon than flies made with more common material. However, it was a way in which men of means could show off and create barriers to their hobby.

Skip to the present and we find a group of men obsessed with tying Victorian flies. But to practice their art, they want, no they need feathers from protected or extinct birds. As we’re shown this community, we also see Edwin’s introduction to it as well. Caught up in their hobby, some of these people have no disregard for the law or in the value of rare bird skins beyond being plucked, cut, and tied to a metal hook.

Edwin Becomes The Feather Thief

The next section of the book tells the story of Edwin’s obsession, how he justifies the crime, commits it, and the aftermath. It’s engaging to read. There’s a constant tension of how Edwin will trip himself up. Can a college student really rob a natural history museum? Is this like Mission Impossible or an episode of An Idiot Abroad?

The Accomplices Take Wing

The final section of The Feather Thief involves Johnson trying to track down the remaining stolen bird skins. Did Edwin work alone? Who were his fences and buyers? How complicit is the fly-tying community?

I’m not sure how satisfying the conclusion is for Johnson or the reader. While the crime is solved, it feels like Rist skated through the British legal system. Moreover, those whom are obsessed with Victorian fly-tying are still buying and selling stolen feathers. Time passed and with it a collective shoulder shrug. Perhaps the International Fly Tying Symposium will be busted by the department of fish and game. Perhaps another person will steal birds for their hobby. The feathers are rarer and rarer. In the midst of criminals like Rist, there needs to be a commitment to protecting natural history for today and tomorrow.


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