Heists: Feathers, Maps and Works of Art

Our library closed in mid-March due to COVID, but our librarians are still writing weekly columns for the Transcript. We directed our focus on writing about library services beyond the walls of the library building. In this unfamiliar, unprecedented time, we are reinventing our professional lives by working from home. We are committed to teaching our non-library users to sign up for a library card online.

We've shared our news about the Chat with Us box on our website that is staffed 9-5 on weekdays. (After-hours chats are addressed directly to our adult services librarian's email where they are responded to the next morning.) We are expanding our services with more robust 24/7 WiFi available in the parking lot. We are offering online book discussions, children's storytimes, and other innovative programs by way of Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook Live.

In addition, we are focusing on the library's digital collection - books, audiobooks, movies, magazines, and music available through our digital services – OverDrive (and the Libby app), Hoopla, Kanopy, Flipster and our newest offering, RB Digital.

If you appreciate non-fiction crime and intrigue, I have three excellent suggestions for you that are available as OverDrive Advantage ebooks – digital copies that are shared only with Norwood cardholders. You won't have to wait in line with other Massachusetts library users outside of Norwood to check them out.

Two years ago, in the winter of 2018, I attended the American Library Association MidWinter Meeting in Denver, Colorado. As usual, I registered for a morning session of Penguin-Random House book talks. At these events for librarians, we are offered a selection ARCs (otherwise known as advanced reading copies, pre-press copies, or galleys.) These pre-publication copies are incomplete in that they need a final proofread, and sometimes a final cover design. Reviewers are always given copies of ARCs – especially those who will write comments that will appear on the back of the final book. Publishers do, however, always want to get books into the hands of librarians who are going to suggest books to readers. They are hoping that we read them with a great recommendation.

Flying to and from conferences with minimal baggage doesn't permit me to bring home much complimentary swag, especially books. But that morning, I jockeyed my way around the publisher's ARC table eager to grab a copy of The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. The title fascinated me and the subtitle even more: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. The bright cover with a plethora of blue, green, purple, and red feathers added to the book's charm. I tucked it, and a few others from various other publishing events, into my suitcase to bring home.

Fast forward to the winter of 2020. I'd acquired a final copy of the Feather Thief for the library that spring, but I never seemed to find the time to read my own advanced reading copy. One day this past February, I happened to listen to an encore episode of This American Life that initially aired two years ago in February 2018. I sat in my car listening closely. You may recognize these so-called Driveway Moments: the times when you sit mesmerized by the topic or the speaker. Host Sean Cole, sitting in for Ira Glass, interviewed author Kirk Wallace Johnson.

Enchanted with the story, I realized that my copy of the Feather Thief sat unread on my bookshelves. I immediately searched for it, cracked it open, and began to read the sometimes crazy, always tragic, story of a heist of prized and invaluable bird feathers. Author Kirk Wallace Johnson stumbled upon the story of this feather heist while he was fly-fishing in New Mexico.

As a young man he graduated from the University of Chicago and went on the serve in Iraq, where he coordinated reconstruction efforts in Fallujah. The son of parents well-versed in government service (his father served several terms as Illinois state representative and senator; his mother was a policy advisor), Kirk felt obligated to serve humanitarian efforts in Iraq. His first book, To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind (2013) is the account of how he managed to help thousands of Iraqis (Iraqi nationals assisting the US in Iraq) resettle in the United States.

Following a highly stressful decade, and the publication of his first book and subsequent author tour, Kirk was de-stressing and fly fishing when an exotic salmon fly in his fishing guide's tackle box caught his eye. Studying the brilliant colors and silver thread that intricately tied them together, Kirk's guide explained the beautiful fly. He assured Johnson that he would also be intrigued by the story of Edwin Rist, a notorious feather thief.

Rist was a young American flautist who was studying with London's Royal Academy of Music in 2009, not far from the village of Tring. An outpost of the British Museum of Natural History in Tring had a collection of rare bird skins and feathers, among them the priceless 150-year old collections of naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. One night in June 2009, 21-year old Edwin Rist succeeded in breaking effortlessly into the museum, packing his suitcase with beautiful bird skins and feathers, and taking off into the night.

Amazingly, the theft went undetected until the next day when Rist was long gone back to London. Hundreds of bird skins (the epidermis of a bird complete with feathers) of Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Spangled Cotinga, Resplendent Quetzals, and Birds of Paradise had simply disappeared from the drawers that had held then safe for decades.

Listening his guide's story, author Johnson was hooked. He spent the next five years researching, hunting, and investigating the heist and the thief, Edwin Rist. The resulting story in the Feather Thief is captivating - teeming with natural history, ornithology, child psychology, hobbyist obsession, the intricacies of fly-tying, and even women's hat fashion in the early 20th Century.

Rist was eventually found out, but many of the beautiful specimens were never found. Two other digital books of thievery that you can check out with your library card are the Map Thief (Michael Blanding, 2014) and the Gardner Heist (Ulrich Boser, 2008). The Map Thief is the story of E. Forbes Smiley III, an erudite and proper map dealer turned thief. Smiley visited libraries where he was a trusted authority. Undetected, Smiley slipped maps from books, sometimes cutting them out with an Exacto knife. He pled guilty in 2006 to stealing the missing maps.

Like the feathers, though, many of the maps have never been recovered.

The Gardner Heist is another captivating narrative of intrigue and possibly obsession. Unlike the Rist and Smiley, the stolen Gardner Museum art has never surfaced, and the mystery has never been solved.

Please Chat with a librarian on our website if you need help registering for an online library card and introduce yourself to our OverDrive collection, and the Libby app, to check out these digital books.

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