Martin's Must Reads: 'The Feather Thief'

Jul 2, 2019

“Man is seldom content to witness beauty. He must possess it.” 

I’m Betty Martin with "Martin’s Must Reads" and that’s the quote author Kirk Wallace Johnson chose to use to preface his book The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist.

Johnson is the  founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, an incredibly stressful position.  He recharges his battery by fly fishing in remote locations with a friend.  It is on one of those trips that his friend tells him about Edwin Rist who stole 299 rare bird specimens for their feathers from the Tring Museum in Britain.  Johnson becomes intrigued by this story and sets out to research the history of fly tying and how the heist came about.

The initial chapters are about Alfred Wallace who, in 1858, came to the same conclusions as Darwin about the origin of the species.  He did this through eight years of collecting animals, insects and 8,050 birds. To protect the bird skins from Hitler’s bombers, the skins were moved to mansions throughout the English countryside, one of which was in the tiny town of Tring. These endangered bird species are protected by international laws, but with the advent of the Internet a community of men obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying found ways to circumvent the laws and buy the rare feathers. 

At age 22, Edwin Rist became obsessed with fly-tying and frustrated that he couldn’t afford, or find the exotic bird feathers that the wealthy used to tie flies for catching salmon.  When he learned about the Tring museum’s collection he devised a plan to steal them. 

If you’re a fly fisherman or like the story of a good heist, then you must read The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson.