In 1868, Walter Rothschild was born into what one historian described as the richest family in human history. His great-grandfather is credited with founding modern banking. His grandfather helped finance the British government’s stake in the company that built the Suez Canal.
His father was friends with princes and routinely consulted by heads of state. Walter, by contrast, consorted with dead animals.
When he was four, the Rothschilds moved into Tring Park, a 600-acre expanse anchored by a mansion of red brick and stone. Three years later, while on an afternoon stroll with his German governess, young Walter came across the workshop of Alfred Minall, a construction worker who dabbled in taxidermy. For an hour, the boy watched him skin a mouse, transfixed by the menagerie of taxidermy creatures and birds cluttering the cottage. At afternoon tea, the seven-year-old stood to make a sudden pronouncement to his parents: “Mama, Papa. I am going to make a Museum and Mr. Minall is going to help me look after it.”
Terrified of infectious diseases, drafts, and sunstrokes, his mother kept him confined to the family estate at Tring Park. Walter, chubby and afflicted with a speech impediment, did not play with boys his age. Instead, he darted around with an oversize butterfly net, pinning his quarry to bits of cork. By fourteen, he had a large staff at his disposal to aid in his obsessive collecting of insects, blowing eggs, and ordering rare birds. He arrived at the University of Cambridge with a large flock of kiwis, logging an underwhelming pair of years before returning to the security of his burgeoning natural history collection at Tring. His father had long hoped his firstborn’s obsession with the natural world might fade, allowing him to assume his role in the financial realm as a Rothschild, but it only seemed to intensify. By twenty, he’d accumulated some forty-six thousand specimens. For a twenty-first-birthday present, his father built him the only thing he seemed to want: his own museum, erected in a corner of Tring Park.Floor-to-ceiling glass cases were filled with stuffed polar bears, rhinoceroses, penguins, elephants, crocodiles, and Birds of Paradise. Taxidermy sharks hung from chains overhead.
Walter was compelled by his father to try his hand at banking at the N. M. Rothschild and Sons New Court headquarters in London, but he was miserably out of place. Six foot three, three hundred pounds, with a stutter, he was nervous around others, but as soon as he returned to the museum after a day’s work, he relaxed and bubbled with enthusiasm over the latest acquisitions. In 1892, when he was twenty-four, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum on Akeman Street in Tring was opened to the public. The museum soon attracted thirty thousand visitors each year, a staggering figure for a small-town museum in those days but a sign of the voracious public appetite for the strange and exotic. Floor-to-ceiling glass cases were filled with stuffed polar bears, rhinoceroses, penguins, elephants, crocodiles, and Birds of Paradise. Taxidermy sharks hung from chains overhead. Outside, a zoo of living animals wandered the grounds of Tring Park: fallow deer, kangaroos, cassowaries, emus, tortoises, and a horse-zebra cross called the ze-broid. Lucky visitors caught glimpses of Rothschild astride Rotumah, the 150-year-old Galápagos tortoise he’d sprung loose from an insane asylum in Australia.
Rothschild sported a jaunty Vandyke and bowled around the building “like a grand piano on castors.” He paid no attention to the museum’s budget, buying up specimens like an addict, unwrapping package after package of skins, eggs, beetles, butterflies, and moths sent by an army of nearly four hundred collectors throughout the world. And while he had an exceptional eye for the minutest details of a rare bird skin, he was a disaster when it came to the daily tasks of running a museum and such a large network of collectors. For years, he carelessly threw bills and other correspondence into a large wicker basket. Once it was full, he padlocked it shut and found another one.
Rothschild never escaped the overweening attention of his mother, and he never moved out of Tring Park. He never won the respect of his father, from whom he went to great lengths to conceal his enormous spending. After two live bear cubs were deposited on the front steps of N. M. Rothschild and Sons, his incensed father tried to put a stop to Walter’s collecting, but not before his son managed to arrange for another delivery of cassowaries from New Guinea. When his father cut him out of the will and removed his portrait from the walls of the bank, Walter admitted to his sister-in-law, “My father was absolutely right—I can’t be trusted with money.”Cut off from the family coffers and desperate to keep the potential scandal hidden from his mother, he raised the funds the only way he could: by offering up the bulk of his bird collection for sale.
Little did she know that among the many expenses Walter had concealed from his family was a blackmail attempt, made by a British peeress with whom he’d once had an affair. Cut off from the family coffers and desperate to keep the potential scandal hidden from his mother, he raised the funds the only way he could: by offering up the bulk of his bird collection for sale. In 1931 his collection of 280,000 skins was sold to the American Museum of Natural History for $250,000, in the largest accession of specimens in the New York museum’s history. In the final stage of negotiations, Rothschild extracted a promise that a signed photograph of him would hang in perpetuity near his collection. “He was as jubilant over it as a schoolboy on the ‘honor roll,’” wrote a bird curator at the museum: “Although he always carries the front of a Lord, he is also an extraordinarily simple man.”
According to his niece, Miriam Rothschild, “Walter seemed to shrink visibly in the period following the sale. . .He felt tired and distrait, and spent only about two hours before lunch in the Museum. It was winter—the birds had flown.” When he died in 1937, what remained of his beloved collection was bequeathed to the British Natural History Museum. Upon prying open his padlocked wicker baskets, his niece discovered the blackmail demand and the identity of his blackmailer, but she never disclosed it. On his tombstone was inscribed a verse from the Book of Job: “Ask of the beasts and they will tell thee and the birds of the air shall declare unto thee.”
Before it all came to ruin, Walter Rothschild’s obsession had brought him the greatest private collection of bird skins and natural history specimens ever amassed by a single person. The collectors he employed risked life and limb in the pursuit of new species: one had his arm bitten off by a leopard, another died of malaria in New Guinea, three from yellow fever in the Galápagos, and still others succumbed to dysentery and typhoid fever. According to a visiting cartographer, a map depicting the locations of the Tring’s collectors resembled “the world with a severe attack of measles.” Alfred Newton, one of his professors at Cambridge and a champion of Wallace and Darwin’s theory of evolution, chided his former pupil: “I can’t agree with you in thinking that Zoology is best advanced by collectors of the kind you employ. . .No doubt they answer admirably the purpose of stocking a Museum; but they unstock the world—and that is a terrible consideration.”
But if Rothschild’s collectors were measles on a map, another class of hunter was the gangrene: no matter how many specimens were scooped up for the Tring, nothing compared to the widespread slaughter of birds that had begun to unfold in the world’s jungles, forests, swamps, and bayous. In 1869, when Alfred Russel Wallace first expressed his fears of the destructive potential of “civilized man,” he couldn’t have imagined how swiftly they would materialize, in what historians have described as the Age of Extermination: the greatest direct slaughter of wildlife by humans in the history of the planet.
In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of millions of birds were killed, not for museums but for another purpose altogether: women’s fashion.
From THE FEATHER THIEF by Kirk Wallace Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by MJ + KJ, Inc.