The Feather Thief

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 11 Apr 2019

Member Reviews

The Feather Thief is a quirky,and extremely entertaining,tale of theft,Fly Tying, ladies hats,fishing, exploration,evolution,the failures of the British legal system and obsession. If that sounds a strange brew it is but author Kirk Wallace Johnson has done a sterling job of moulding disparate but connected topics into an interesting and absorbing read. 
The main strand of the tale is the theft of rare bird skins and feathers from the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire by 20 year-old American Edwin Rist.. A crime that  probably barely merited a sentence in the national media. of the time, Johnson heard the tale and decided to investigate for himself. What follows is an insight into the secretive and somewhat bizarre community of fly tying,many of whom do not even fish. Convinced that Rist did not act alone Johnson's investigation becomes as obsessive as those who hunt down rare feathers as he treks across the world looking for clues.
While this is ostensibly a book on a somewhat niche subject to say the least I hope it gets the success it deserves as there's so much interesting information here about so many different subjects that it really is a gem . Like Deborah Cadbury's excellent "The Dinosaur Hunters" the obsession and borderline lunacy of the various protagonists is all part of the story.
An excellent read that I thoroughly enjoyed. big thanks to Netgalley, Kirk Wallace Johnson and  Random House UK for the free copy in return for an unbiased review,
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A great read. Written really well. I can recommend this book. 
Thank you to both NetGalley and Random House for my eARC of this book in exchange for honest unbiased review
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A crazy true story told with enthusiasm and remarkable attention to detail - proof that anything can be fascinating in the right authorial hands!
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My first true crime and I did enjoy it, but only up to an extent. The authors fascination with birds and Edwin Rist is contagious and I certainly enjoyed those bits. They were informative and as a student of Zoology, I didn't feel like an outsider to those terms.
The writing was good and the author went in-depth with everything including the tiny details of the actual theft and his subsequent investigation. The pace was extremely slow and other than my interest in ornithology, there was very little to hold my attention. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book, but now that I know what True Crime books are made of, I might stray clear of this genre (especially because the author’s obsession might not necessarily interest me)
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The Feather Thief é um livro sobre história natural, sobre uma comunidade de pessoas com uma paixão, sobre a ligação entre o homem e a natureza, os limites éticos na relação entre estes e um fantástico policial.

É o arquétipo do meu livro de não ficção preferido: que me proporciona novos conhecimentos e o faz de forma envolvente.
Sem dúvida, uma das minhas leituras preferidas deste ano. 


The Feather Thief is a book about natural history, about a community of people with a passion, about the connection between man and nature, the ethical boundaries between them and a fantastic true crime book.

It is the archetype of my favorite nonfiction book: it gives me new insights and it does so in an engaging way.
Undoubtedly, one of my favorite readings this year.
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I’ll be honest – If it wasn’t for the #Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot I would never ever have picked this book up. It’s such a weird topic to write about, a completely bizzare story and features lots of different topics, none of which I’m particularly interested in.

You see, The Feather Thief is the true life story of Edwin Rist, a salmon fly tier who becomes so obsessed with the hobby that he ends up stealing a huge number of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring in order to use their feathers to make salmon flies (and also makes pretty hefty profit selling the feathers on to other salmon fly tiers – Edwin is also a prodigal flautist and wants a new professional grade flute). 

Sorry, did I lose you there for a second? You don’t know what a salmon fly is? Or how it relates to dead museum birds? Or what this book is even about?

Yeah, that was pretty much my response when I read the blurb but I needed to read a book of true crime, sooooooo….yeah. I chose to read it.

And guess what?


I genuinely can’t believe how interesting this book was – especially for someone like me who knew literally nothing about salmon fishing, Victorian bird hunting or the esoteric (good word) world of modern day salmon fly tying. And now – now I know LOADS about all of these things and they are FASCINATING.

Let me explain…

The Feather Thief begins with an introduction into the world of the fishing fly. These are the things that you attach to your fishing hook (like a lure) to make the fish think that your hook is food or something to be attacked. Either way, the fish ends up with the hook in it’s mouth and you end up with a charming photo of you holding it by the tail before hopefully putting it back in the river. So, fishing flies are generally functional objects that help you to catch fish. People either buy them or make them using bits of feathers, tinsel, coloured plastic etc. – anything to grab the fish’s attention.


Except there is a bizzare, kinda underground world of people who create massively intricate, hugely expensive salmon fishing flies purely for fun – not fishing. They often follow Victorian instructions for such creations and as such need to get hold of the kinds of materials that would have been used at the time. This is where it gets interesting. You see, the Victorians loved feathers – especially from rare and/or exotic birds. Also, they didn’t give a tuppeny fig about ideals such as animal welfare, conservation or protecting vulnerable species – to be fair, none of these things had been invented yet. To the Victorians, if it moved then you should shoot it then either eat it, stuff it, preserve it or wear it. And if it came from a far flung country and looked fabulously exotic, so much the better for showing off your wealth and excellent taste. 

A huge market arose for the importation of feathers from the tropics and Asia (primarily for fashion) and so it was only natural that a gentleman interested in country pursuits should show off with a display of the finest, most highly decorative salmon flies that money could buy, whilst his wife paraded around with a dead bird on her hat. 

Cut to the present day…

For some bizzare reason, people are still interested in creating Victorian salmon flies (I guess everyone has to have a hobby). However, many of the materials required are now protected by law – the Victorians pretty much decimated much of the natural populations of thousands of animal species, particularly exotic birds. So, demand for rare feathers in the world of salmon fly tiers is particularly high – especially as their availability is so scarce.

Still with me?

Ok, so this is where Edwin Rist comes in. He’s a young American teenager with meagre funds but an all-consuming obsession with fly tying. Studying in the UK, he hears about the collection of bird skins that were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Darwin) who painstakingly caught, labelled and preserved exotic birds in the wild and had them shipped back to the UK for scientific research. Edwin views some of the collection (now housed at the British Museum of Natural History in Tring), scopes the place out then returns at a later date and steals hundreds of the specimins, specifically to create salmon flies (or to sell on to other tiers).

No, really. He absolutely decimates the collection of irreplaceable scientific specimens so that he can create salmon flies – display purposes only. 

The Feather Thief investigates everything from Wallace’s voyages to the tropics and the Victorian fascination with feathers to Edwin Rist himself, what happened when he raided the museum, how he was eventually caught (tiny spoiler – the museum didn’t even notice that the birds were missing for MONTHS) and also tries to trace the missing birds. It features interviews with some of the main players in the fly tying world and eventually the author even manages to talk to Rist himself. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and far more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

I loved learning all about the history of collecting bird specimens (for scientific research, private collections and for profit) and the huge industry that this created. Although this could have been a pretty dry info-dump the conversational tone of the author brought the subject matter to life. Johnson’s overall style reminded me of Bill Bryson (who as far as I’m concerned could make any subject captivating) and I could really feel how personally invested he was in the story. Although I’m pretty ignorant about the history of feather trading, The Feather Thief seemed to be very well researched and was heavily referenced throughout.

As the book progressed and Johnson focused more on the psychology of why Rist would risk everything to commit such a crime (and the arguments that his defence lawyer used to mitigate his sentencing) the manuscript becomes more of a psychological thriller. Who really is Edwin Rist? Was his sentencing fair? Where are the birds that he stole? How many members of the fly tying community knew about the heist or suspected they were buying stolen birds/feathers but didn’t say anything? Johnson investigates all of these questions and whilst he doesn’t necessarily come up with the answers, he objectively presents all of the evidence available and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Cleverly constructed, impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, The Feather Thief is an incredible book. I was completely sucked into the murkey world of salmon fly tying and the story of how a teenager could pull off such a high stakes, valuable, devastating heist with little more than some wire cutters, a rock he found on the ground and a wheelie suitcase. Seriously – just go and read it for yourself.
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One word review: Bonkers

Rambling review: A wild read about a wild tale - I found myself saying “who knew?!” out loud numerous times, Because who did know?! The world of fly tying was completely foreign to me, let alone the theft.

The author guides you through the story and its relevant history exceptionally well, without cloying up the pages with footnotes and caveats. It feels like you are being told a tale, rather than studying a topic (OK, yes, maybe it is quite obviously that I don't read a lot of nonfic!) Unsurprisingly (for those who know me well), my favourite chapters were those which centres on Wallace and his adventures in the Malay peninsula. The variety of history covered - from Wallace, to the Victorian empire and its impact on British ports. to fishing and fly tying - means this book will appeal to a wide range of readers.

But what I enjoyed most about reading this was the authors unavoidably apparent and undeniably abundant enthusiasm for the case. This was very endearing and makes the reader emotionally invested in his quest.

A great read for those, like me, who don’t often dip their toe into nonfiction.

P.S. I would recommend reading the Acknowledgements, as it's really rather adorable.

**blog post scheduled to go live on friday**
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It’s testament to how well a written book this is that while reading it I became genuinely fascinated with the world of fly-tying. For the uninitiated this is the tying together of feathers and other materials to make bait for catching salmon and other fish. Few of the tying enthusiasts are fishers but rather do it for the love and challenge of tying itself. Judging by this book 50% of their time is spent tying and the other 50% spent trying to track down and buy rare feathers. This is where Edwin Rist comes in. At a mere 20 years old he’d already been tying for several years but became frustrated about the expensive feathers that were out of his budget. With a promising career as a flautist ahead of him, Rist risked everything by stealing hundreds of feathers from the Tring museum. Enter the author Kirk Wallace Johnson, who hears about the story while fishing with a friend and finds himself, if you’ll pardon the expression, hooked. 

This is a fascinating book. Johnson is an engaging writer and his obsession and thoroughness makes for an absorbing read. He’s obviously done a ton of research and his sometimes clumsy attempts to infiltrate the world of fly-tying did bring a smile to my face. Rist is an interesting and frustrating character who would fit in comfortably any work of fiction. Johnson does excellent work in tracking him down and getting him to agree with to an interview but often feels that the truth of where Rist’s haul ended up is just out of reach. 

To say much more would be to spoil too much so I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover. I’ve seen this book on a list for readers who want true crime without the violence of a murder and that’s very apt. An enthralling story brilliantly told.

I received a ARC from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair review.
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This is one of those books that has everything

Truth, facts, fiction and a little bit of history this is a terrific read. 

While this usually isnt a  book I would read, I got into it very quickly and was quite entertained by it.  I always thought I was a gangsters moll in a previous life so the museum heist was what I enjoyed the most.

Fascinating, amazing and most of all brilliant I loved it
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This is a fascinating read. It is a remarkable true story. It is hard to believe how someone could steal from the Natural History Museum and then sell some of what he stole.  The details of The authors journey to recover the feathers and birds is intriguing and really well put together. The whole book has obviously been very well researched and is a pleasure to read. 

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy.
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The Feather Thief defies all expectation. An amazing stunner of a story, it is such a fantastical tale you simply couldn't make it up! The shock, anger and sheer befuddlement (on my part) at the crime, the outcome and the sad lack of respect for laws and history is gobsmacking. I am working incredibly hard to keep myself from overusing the exclamation mark so I hope you can appreciate my restraint as this book really got to me.

Where to begin? Firstly, I have to congratulate Kirk Johnson on this book. It's such a gripping read. I struggled to set it aside and spent more than one night reading far later than is normal. I just couldn't get enough. Setting the stage with the historical significance of Alfred Russel Wallace's commitment and hard work brought a fresh appreciation for the invaluable nature of what had been lost... erhm, stolen. This crime - stealing Victorian era, historically important bird skins of protected, even extinct species, to tie salmon flies - is just so incomprehensible. It makes my heart hurt to think of it. I love birds. I love history. I love museums. I know nothing of salmon fishing but the way it is explained here made me care enough to learn about it and those willing to break the law to mimic an insect with illegal materials. 

The timeline of the book is faultless. We learn how the birds were collected for science and the great pains necessary to safeguard them, we learn of how birds became the 'it' accessory and then how that eventually came to an end. It was thoroughly fascinating and well presented. I was hooked well before we reached Edwin and his museum break-in. I could go on and on, and would happily, but fear I will let slip details which are best discovered for yourself. 

Read this book. You will not regret it. It will enlighten you and make you appreciate the nature word in a new way. I am so pleased to have found you, Mr. Johnson, and will keep my eyes open for more injustices that you can shed light upon. Thank you!
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What a fascinating book this was! The fact that somebody had the audacity to even consider breaking into the British Natural History Museum and let alone do it, was intriguing enough for me to request this on NetGalley.

The author tells an absorbing tale of how he first heard about the incident, and then how he follows the trail to find out how and why the thief did what he did.

As well as the story about the theft, the historical research into the feather industry was absolutely fascinating. I loved reading about the trends of feathers in the fashion industry, starting with Marie Antoinette and continuing until the Victorian times when  people began to discover that birds were becoming extinct for the sake of fashion.

The obsession the salmon fly-tying community has with acquiring feathers is quite something as well and unless I’d read this I really wouldn’t believe it.

If you’re looking for a true crime story but without murder and gore, then this is definitely the book for you.
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Rating is 3.5

Non-fiction books are a wonderful way to learn more about the world and the people who live in it.  In The Feather Thief, I learnt more than I thought was possible about the world of fly-fishing, or more specifically fly-tiers who have a passion for Victorian fly tying designs and a commitment to recreating them.

It’s a passion that led to one man, Edwin Rist, breaking into the British Natural History Museum and steal over 200 rare birds specimens.  Scientists consider the specimens priceless.  And, while Rist said that the theft had nothing to do with money and was all about his art, he ended up making thousands of pounds from the brightly coloured feathers he harvested and sold on.

It’s an incredibly strange story and one I still haven’t completely gotten my head around – why someone would risk a prison sentence in order to make flies when they didn’t even fish.  The colour of the feathers and their rarity are the key.  As with many things in life, when people can’t have something, they focus on how much they need it rather than look for alternatives.

It’s also a fascinating story.  This is a community that doesn’t seem to welcome strangers easily and one that probably has a lot to hide. The trade in rare feathers is still going on, despite Rist being caught, and as not all the specimens Rist stole have been found, feathers from these birds are likely part of that trade.  How it works and how much money passes hands is hard to comprehend.

Spoiler Alert – Don’t read the next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to know how it all ends 

What it also is, is a story that doesn’t have a very satisfactory ending.  Johnson, who wrote the book was obsessed with Rist once he found out about the theft and spent years trying to track down the missing birds and confronting Rist about what he had done.  By the end, he’s met the man he has been obsessed with but is still on the hunt for the birds and their feathers.

Not knowing what has happened to them, and that we might never know, left me feeling frustrated.  In part, I think because that is what the book felt like it was leading up to, a happy ending.  It left me disappointed and it’s coloured my opinion of the book if I’m honest.  The first two thirds, I loved.  I was completely engrossed and I couldn’t put the book down.  The last third left me flat.

I should say this has nothing to do with Johnson’s writing, which had a conversational style I enjoy.  It was just the story and how it ended.  A shame really, but there you go.
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I'm not one to automatically choose a Non-Fiction book for pleasure but I promised myself I would try to read more this year. I’m always doubtful whether I’ll find enjoyment or worry I’ll drift off wishing I had read something else – fortunately this wasn’t the case at all.
Not only was The Feather Thief informative it was thrilling which ultimately gripped me with suspense. I couldn’t put this book down – my head buried in the pages. What surprised me was the array of different emotions I felt and how these feelings changed throughout.
The author jumped straight into the action, describing the events that took place when Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum in 2009. By doing this, he created excitement and hype for the rest of the book. While reading this I kept thinking to myself, “what’s the issue? It’s just feathers?” – it didn’t seem like a big deal. Edwin’s actions felt relatively harmless as he hadn’t physically hurt anyone – he was after feathers for his fly tying hobby. Crazy is how I would describe it, someone had actually taken the time to research and break into a museum just for feathers.
The next section saw a historical background around the feathers and how they came to be at the museum in Tring, England. The author introduces us to Alfred Russell Wallace, an explorer who discovered the rare and beautiful bird skins. After a lifetime of exploring in remote locations he was able to collect and document these rare bird skins. It was at this point that my opinions of Rist began to shift ever so slightly – Wallace had spent years devoting his life to his work only to have it ruined by a single student.
What I found intriguing was the background of feathers in the Victorian era and how people were so madly obsessed with using feathers for fashion purposes. Having a rare bird sat on top of your head meant you had a high social status. Birds were frequently sought after and people would do anything for an exotic feather. This opened the door to fly tying – Edwin Rist’s hobby.
Though I did appreciate this information and it’s obvious that Kirk Wallace had done extensive research, it did begin to drag somewhat for me.

My favourite section of the book is when the author decides to take things into his own hands, trying to figure out the mystery of remaining missing feathers. It was at this point I could not put the book down, it was important that I found out what happened too. It felt like I was being taken with Kirk Wallace on his journey around the world.
Kirk Wallace did an excellent job of changing my opinion on Edwin Rist. By the end of book I wanted to seek out Rist myself and demand where the remaining feathers were and ask how he could feel no remorse for actions.
I did not expect to like this book but I fell for it. I implore that you read The Feather Thief!
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Every so often a gem of a book comes along, a book with a story so strange that you would struggle to find it plausible as a work of fiction, How much more surprising and fascinating to find out that not only could the events have happened, they actually did. The Feather Thief by Kirk W Johnson is just such a book, and I found myself engrossed in the strange tale of the musical museum thief and his obsession with feathers. 
To briefly sum up the events that the book is base on, in 2009 an American music student studying in London broke into a Natural History Museum and stole almost 300 rare bird skins, apparently motivated by a desire to use the rare feathers to recreate salmon fishing ties popular in the Victorian era. It really does sound too bizarre to be true, but the thief was eventually caught and charged with the theft, and selling the rare feathers for profit. 
Impeccably researched , it is clear that this book is a work of passion for the author, and as we read, we learn that he became so caught up in the mystery that he took it beyond the scope of the police investigation and endeavored to recover some of the skins that were unaccounted for, something that took him across the world.
The book is a delight to read, entertaining , and while it contains a lot of detailed information and history, it does not become bogged down at any point. Beginning with the Victorian craze for natural history and the discovery of new bird species, it then describes how so many of these species became endangered or even extinct due to the popular fashion of using feathers and even whole bird skins to decorate ladies hats. Moving on it switches direction to the use of feathers in creating fishing flies, and it is at this point that we are introduced to Edwin Rist, a muscial prodigy who becomes obsessed with the art of tying. This obsession will eventually lead to him committing the crime at the centre of the book., and this theft, the hunt for the thief and the missing skins , and the court case make up the majority of the book.
An unexpeced gem of a book that proves the adage that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction
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I'm not completely sure how to review this book, as while reading it I made no notes whatsoever. From the blurb alone I was intregued, but from the very first page I was completely imersed (so much so in fact that it didn't occur to me to take notes). This book involved so many narratives, and clearly went to lengths to tell the whole story, despite discouraging people at every turn. I understand the author's need for more information on this case as it is incredibly strange, though thankfully less so now that I have read this brilliant book. The author asked some critical questions, and I think ultimately this book is very important for the Tring case. I had never heard about this crime as I was 7 when it happeneded but I am so glad I read this book and incredibly happy to be able to give it a 5 star rating.
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A whodunnit for bird lovers and fly fishermen

“Beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century” is the very apt description on the title page of this book. In effect the book divides itself in two – the first half, leading up to the heist, gives a fascinating overview of mankind’s obsession with things of great beauty. In the 18th and 19th centuries exotic birds, such as birds-of-paradise, were hunted in vast numbers, stuffed and displayed as fashion accessories. Witnessing their beauty was just not enough. Possession was all, at whatever price. At one time an ounce of exotic feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold ...

The fly fishing brigade was not slow to see the potential of these brightly-coloured feathers in the tying of salmon flies. The earliest record of feathers used as fishing lures occurs in the 3rd century, but in the 19th century, the availability of these colourful, shiny feathers from Indonesia catapulted the art of fly-tying from a passion into an all-consuming obsession.   

In 1899, in the era of excessively plumed hats, there was a stand-off between the flourishing fashion and millinery trade and the fledgeling conservation movement which, aghast at the wholesale and worldwide slaughter not only of birds but of wildlife in general, persuaded U.S. government in 1900 to pass the Lacey Act. This was followed by the introduction of strict conservation laws which effectively put an end to the millinery trade and forced the fly tyers underground. The feathers became almost unobtainable, but there is an allure in what people know to be taboo ...

Cut to 2007 and enter one Edwin Rist, a young American student at the Royal Academy of Music to whom fly-tying was an obsession (when was it not?). He was told about the Natural History Museum’s enormous and priceless ornithological collection at their satellite museum in the small midlands town of Tring and managed to fudge his way into the museum in the guise of research. He took a great number of photographs of the various exotic bird “skins” and, at the same time, surreptitiously took photographs of the precise location of each type of skin that interested him. This gave him a visual map of the vault, and the planning for the heist began.  

In June 2009, with extraordinary attention to planning and detail and an equally extraordinary amount of luck, Edwin managed to make off with 299 bird skins worth millions of pounds and stuffed into a single suitcase. Unbelievably his crime went undiscovered for over a month when the case was handed over to the police. Edwin’s luck finally ran out in November 2010 and he was arrested, immediately pleading guilty to the crime. Of the 299 skins stolen, 174 intact specimens were recovered in his apartment. 125 were missing, of which 61 were eventually returned to the museum. The case came to trial in November 2010, but Edwin’s attorney pleaded for leniency on the grounds of his Asperger’s Syndrome tendencies and he received a 12-month sentence suspended for 2 years.  

The second half of the book reads like a whodunit. The author recounts how he became fascinated with this case and set himself the task of discovering what happened to the 64 skins still unaccounted for, retrieving them and returning them to the museum in Tring. He became more and more obsessed with the search (obsession again!). He was extremely thorough, interviewing just about everyone who had any connection with fly-tying or with the museum, including Edwin. Was he telling lies? Did he fake his Asperger’s symptoms? Was he acting alone or did he have an accomplice? Who else was lying, and who was telling the truth? Unanswered questions, red herrings, untruths, dead ends, obfuscation, denial and hostility were the order of the day. He persevered for years until he finally accepted the fact that the museum had written off the skins as lost to science. The tight-knit community of fly-tyers wanted nothing to do with him and Edwin had pleaded guilty and the case was closed. The long arm of the law saw more urgency in the pursuit of ivory smugglers and rhino poachers.

This book ticked all of my boxes plus some I didn’t know I had. The author writes a fast-paced, thoroughly-researched and fascinating story of an extraordinary crime, and I couldn’t put it down. I am hoping he will develop more obsessions and deliver more books like this one! If I could give it more than five stars, I would.
Bennie Bookworm.

Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.
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