Review of 'The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief'- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Review of 'The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief'

Review of 'The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief'

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As for the duchess, she was sold to J. Pierpont Morgan for a price Macintyre reports as £30,000 in one place and $30,000 in another. In 1991 she went on the auction block at Sotheby's, to be knocked down for $265,500 to a proxy for the present duke of Devonshire. And now she hangs in the ducal seat of Chatsworth House.

It is comforting to know that real life can follow Hollywood movie plots to the letter. Crime may not pay, but it can provide a rattling good story.

Robert Wernick, who writes from Paris, is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

It is 1973: psychedelically painted VW vans pump out Jefferson Airplane tunes. Drivers flash peace signs. Beside the highway stands a Jesus look alike, thumb out.

Kenn Kaufman certainly had the au courant long hair and beard, and hobo couture. But he did have one peculiar appurtenance: around his neck hung high powered binoculars, painted shiny gold. His ornithology fixation had already set in by his 9th birthday, when Kaufman's family moved from South Bend, Indiana, to Wichita, Kansas. En route he discovered hitchhikers, whose future modus operandi he later adopted. "Was there something wild, something from outside my comfortable world, in those faces?" he wondered. But mostly the boy in the backseat scanned fences, wires, the tops of elms. He had "a mission, a passion: I was watching for birds."

Other boys idolized halfbacks or shortstops. Little Kenn's hero was Roger Tory Peterson, the bird book man. Kaufman was an honors student. But at age 16 he quit school to chase birds. Among the few rules his trusting parents imposed was "no hitchhiking." But birding via Greyhound palled. He soon joined the roadside thumbers.

On his birding peregrinations, Kaufman slept under bridges, ate cat food, picked apples for traveling money. He was jailed in California for underage unsupervised roving. He sold his blood. Then true ornithomania hit--he discovered "listing." Drivers who gave him rides and fellow birders merely flash through this book, flickering phantasmagorically, so concentrated was Kaufman's focus on birds. But not precisely on birds, either. He was addicted to tallying birds, to adding to his species I have seen list.

Kingbird Highway is about Kenn Kaufman's "Big Year." He aimed to show up at the right habitats at the right moments to bag birds he needed for a record one year tally. Ornithologists figured 650 species normally lived in the United States and Canada, plus visitors. Nobody, it was assumed, could possibly see them all in one lifetime. Roger Tory Peterson, in 1953, totaled 572 species. In 1956, a lister hit 598. But by 1973, publications detailed which birds hung out at virtually all key North American sites. And a birder grapevine allowed no rarity to show its tail feathers without bird addicts converging within hours, brandishing scopes and Leicas. When Kaufman began his Big Year, the record stood at 626. Can our contender beat that?

It will prove one doozy of a hitching bout. But Kaufman has barely started, seabird watching from a chartered boat off New England, when he meets a Michigan college teacher, also doing a Big Year. Sir Lancelot versus Sir Modred. Our man has more time, if you subtract how long it takes to hitch from Arizona to New Jersey in an effort to bag a spotted redshank. But his opponent has more money.

By late July an exhausted Kaufman beats the record, hitting 630 birds. But is Sir Modred ahead? He hitches on, "beginning to feel the mileage." He gives us hitching hints (fewer cars after midnight, but drivers may want a rider to help them keep awake). He gives us ornithological insights--"The uninitiated are surprised to learn that dumps are very birdy places." Mostly, he gives us a running tally. White collared seed eater. Boreal owl. Black capped gnatcatcher. Sky lark. Cave swallow. Rhinoceros auklet. His list passes 640.

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