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The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson: Book Review

March 13, 2019

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Kirk Wallace Johnson
Viking (Penguin Random House) 2018.
254 pages plus 35 pages of notes and 16 pages of photographs.

In June, 2009, American music student Edwin Rist broke into the ornithological collection of the British Museum of Natural History and stole hundreds of bird skins worth over one-half-million dollars. This collection was located in Tring, a suburb of London, and had begun with 280,000 skins sold to the museum by the Rothschild family in 1931. Walter Rothschild had spent a fortune amassing the largest private collections of bird skins and other natural history specimens the world has ever seen. A great many of the skins, including Birds-of-Paradise, had been collected by Alfred Russel Wallace during his explorations through what was then called the Malay Archipelago. It was here, laid low by one of many attacks of malaria, that Wallace dreamed up the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and – when sufficiently able – wrote it up in a letter and sent it off to Charles Darwin, whom Wallace greatly admired. Darwin, upon receiving it, panicked, and moved quickly to get his own writings in order, in order to simultaneously present his work and Wallace’s letter to the Royal Society. The rest is history.

Is this convoluted enough for you yet?

Painting of salmon fly ‘Jock Scott’ from The Salmon Fly by George Mortimer Kelson (Wikipedia)

This crime story is laid out like an historical novel, and tension mounts as you read.
Along the way you will learn about:

  • Bird skin collectors and collections
  • Walter’s Rothschild and the world’s largest collection of bird skins
  • Alfred Russel Wallace – collector extrordinaire with the worst luck in the world, co-discoverer of evolution
  • The Tring ornithological collection
  • Victorian fly-tiers and the development of a Very Odd Obsession
  • What is the ‘Indian Crow’
  • Dead birds and feathers on women’s hats, and the Origin of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society
  • Modern day fly-tiers, and why their creations never hit water
  • Asperger’s Disorder and the rule of law
  • How were the skins sold, who sold them, who bought them
  • And much, much more

You will find this book both entertaining and informative. Highly recommended!
[Chuck Almdale]

Diagram of salmon fly ‘Jock Scott’ from The Salmon Fly by George Mortimer Kelson (Wikipedia)

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