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

by Kirk Wallace Johnson

We begin this non-fiction story of the Feather Thief with Edwin Rist as he breaks into the Tring museum. Of course, its the author’s recreation of the event after interviewing Rist, museum officials, and others, but it feels very definitive.

Then we are taken through a little tour of history in terms of feather collection- the explorers, the now-extinct birds, the fashion for whole birds on Victorian hats, etc.

Meanwhile, back in the book’s present time, the author is fly fishing, and being troubled by what seems like inconsistencies in the heist story: like Rist’s Asperger’s diagnosis, his claims about being solo, the number of still-missing bird skins.

Woven throughout is a story of human greed, greed and men so obsessed with Victorian fly-tying using “authentic” materials that they will go to great lengths (including felony and the destroying of priceless historical records of extinct birds) to obtain them.

This book doesn’t paint fly-tiers in a good light, by the way. And Rist comes off as a calculating villain.

The author does a good job of presenting his POV of the whole affair, I find myself completely frustrated at the consequences Rist faced and the evidence of further heists within the community (as well as stubborn insistence on remaining ignorant of conservation). Informative and interesting, but I took off a point because the “story” of the author’s suspicions about whether Rist acted alone or not seemed silly to me as he narrated the heist at the start.