The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

Who is more obsessed? The feather thief, Edwin Rist or the author of The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century covers the bizarre museum “heist” by American flutist, Edwin Rist. At the time of his crime, Rist was only 20 years old and a superstar among the fly-tying community. The what you may ask?

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

Most people can picture what fly-tying is but not really understand it. It is a holdover from the Victorian era where fishermen would create elaborate ties to use for fly-fishing, usually trout or salmon. For those in the community, it is an intense hobby that appears to be in the realm of obsession. At least from Johnson’s writing, there are practically zero casual tiers.

Johnson takes several chapters explaining how he became interested in Edwin Rist’s crime and the history of fly-tying. Johnson was fly-fishing with a guide that casually mentioned the heist and from there it snowballed into the murky depths of the world of fly-fishing.

I have to admit I glazed over much of the details pertaining to the art of tying. Even after looking at pictures of tied flies, it doesn’t really spark me in terms of artistic value. The feathers used are much more beautiful on a living bird than some arts and crafts arrangement on a hook.

But as any good true crime story, The Feather Thief isn’t so much about what was stolen but the characters involved. Of course, stealing centuries old bird skins (entire preserved birds) from a museum is pretty unique. And as a birder, the thought of killing birds for their feathers is historically disgusting yet continues still today.

Johnson covers the ornithological history of bird collecting for science, a mostly noble endeavor. He also discusses the plume trade that nearly sent several amazing birds into the pit of extinction, most notably egrets.

Edwin Rist is a multi-talented man. At a young age he became interested in fly-tying and soon became one of the best. He was well-known and respected in the fly-tying community. He is also a flutist and the reason he was in England was to attend a prestigious school there. His hyper-focus on these two pursuits immediately had me suspecting he was on the Autism Spectrum. More on this later.

Rist plans for several months to break into the Natural History Museum at Tring. He even gains access to the bird collections under false pretense prior to his heist. Under the guise of researching for a book, he is left alone with all the cabinets of the most sought-after birds in the fly-tying community.

On the night of his break-in, Rist already knows where to go and what drawers to empty. He simply breaks a window with a rock after dropping his glass cutter, goes in and methodically takes as much as he can stuff in his suitcase. Then he leaves and makes a 45 minute walk to the train station which takes him back to his apartment.

It takes the museum a long time to even realize they were broken into and even longer to figure out what was stolen. Only by chance do they finally discover that entire collections of specific birds have been swiped.

Eventually, because of Rist’s arrogance and some happenstance, he is caught by the police. He was literally selling feathers of the birds he stole on eBay and making posts in a fly-tying forum. Once caught, he admits to to the theft and this actually puts a damper on any further investigation into what feathers he sold to whom.

At his trial, the defense has Rist evaluated (by a relative of the actor Sacha Baron Cohen) and it is determined Edwin has Asperger’s. This determination leads to a favorable ruling for Rist; basically a slap on the wrist. He has to pay fines but receives no jail time.

This is where the obsession of the author goes into overdrive. He tracks down various people in the tying community and eventually lands an interview with Edwin. This interrogation lasts for hours and the author basically comes away discouraged and disbelieving that Rist has Autism. (Which I disagree with.)

Kirk Wallace Johnson continues to follow any and all leads regarding the missing bird skins, traveling to Norway to visit the presumed accomplice of Rist. The obsessiveness of Johnson is ratcheted up more. He spends countless hours in the hopes of returning the skins to the Tring. And I’m not sure why. The museum admits that they are essentially worthless without their tags, and especially worthless if not a full skin.

Overall, The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century was a great read, devoid of the usual brutality of most true crime stories. There is no bloodshed and it involves long dead birds. The fly-tying community comes off as being less than ethical, with many members seemingly participating in the black market trade of bird feathers. The issues of environmental ethics are on full display and well discussed throughout the book.

I feel like Edwin Rist most likely has Autism Spectrum Disorder. But whether he should have essentially gotten away with his crime is up for debate. Regardless, the collection and sale of wild animals and their parts is disgusting. International laws, the Endangered Species Act, etc. do not seem to do enough to discourage this horrible mindset. But alas, it falls into that sinful trap commonly known as greed.

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