His story sounded like something made up on the spot: Honest, officer, I was hired by Lord Rothschild to kill these birds. The Lake County game warden must have thought the poacher before him was a clumsy liar or maybe daft; why would one of the world’s richest men send some guy to Lakeport to illegally shoot birds?

Incredibly, the story was true. The man was Dr. Charles M. Harris, a renowned taxidermist who could skin fifty birds in a day. For more than a decade, he had indeed worked for Walter Rothschild, the eldest son of fabulously wealthy London banker Baron Rothschild. While other powerful bankers in the late 19th century loaned money to giants of industry, the House of Rothschild funded nations, having built the largest fortune in modern world history. Walter, however, wanted to spend money as fast as possible. He was an amateur zoologist, and a collector on a scale that made William Randolph Hearst look like a piker. He seemingly wanted one specimen of everything that flies, walks, crawls, swims or slithers, alive or dead. He was an eccentric but fascinating man, often so obsessed with his collections that his sanity was in doubt.

Before charging down the trail that led Dr. Harris to Lake County in 1908, indulge me a paragraph of rant. The story of Walter Rothschild is now my quintessential example of how unreliable the Internet can be for research. Except for a bare-bones Wikipedia page offering random facts, there are only a handful of online resources (biblio below in addition to article links) that tell even a part of his remarkable tale, and sometimes the facts are cockeyed or the rough patches are sanded flat. In a couple of my research dead-ends, Google Books blocked critical pages in “preview view” or hinted in “snippet view” that intriguing information may (or may not) be found in a book. Look, I would happily buy a digital copy of the book (or even just that essential page!) on the spot, since a scanned copy is obviously on their hard disks. But that’s not an option, even though these are books long out of print and usually can’t be obtained through inter-library loan. If I hadn’t lucked across a copy of “Dear Lord Rothschild” – a biography written by his niece and difficult to find in the U.S. – I wouldn’t have even known how to properly research his life. The takeaway lesson is threefold: Even in 2011, loads of critical information is still not available online; Internet articles – including this one – have no standing next to a real book that took years (decades?) to research and write; also, a Google Book search is no substitute for a good book index and bibliography. End of rant.

The first anecdote usually told about Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) has him announcing at seven years old that he was going to build a little museum of insect specimens in a garden shed. But an incident from age five was even more revealing. He brought a dead butterfly to his mother, which she told him was a “nice Tortoiseshell.” The little boy disagreed: “No, it’s not. It’s different.” And he was right – that butterfly really was from another, rarer species.

The next vignette from Walter’s youth finds him at 13, when he met Albert Günther, head of the zoology department at the Natural History Museum in London. Walter quickly attached himself to Günther and made him a mentor, writing through his teenage years hundreds of letters to the man ten years older than his father. Günther was cautious in encouraging the boy, aware that the powerful family was expecting Walter to become a financial Napoleon instead of a hunter of bugs.

Walter had no formal childhood education, but attended colleges in Germany and at Cambridge for three years (at the latter, he brought along a flock of brown kiwis, which can grow as large as a big chicken). When he turned twenty-one in 1889, Walter and his father came to an understanding; he would join the bank to learn the trade, and his father would give him a plot of land on the outskirts of “Tring Park,” the family’s six square-mile country estate where he could build a museum to house his collections. In truth, his father probably wanted the museum to be built as much as Walter; the manor house, sheds and rented buildings were overflowing with boxes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of mounted beetles, butterflies, moths, and things larger.

If Baron Rothschild hoped his son’s interest in zoology would wane as he grew older, he was quite wrong. From his banker’s chair over the next twenty years, Walter would fund over 300 collecting expeditions, including Dr. Harris’ bird-hunting trip to Northern California. If anything, his collecting mania grew out of control, and some thought he was mad. When Walter ordered Dr. Harris to the Galápagos islands with the mission to capture every single giant tortoise they could find, Harris first secretly told Albert Günther about the planned trip, giving him the opportunity to intervene (he didn’t).

The Galápagos expedition is well-documented, and shows that these trips came with considerable risks. Four men died and Harris was nearly killed by yellow fever. Walter found his expedition budgets swelling with payments to doctors, widows, morticians, and collectors seriously injured – on another trip, a man had his arm ripped off by a leopard. But Dr. Harris managed to bring sixty live giant tortoise to England. (Capturing a giant tortoise is the easy part, as it turned out. When Harris and the others would find one, they turned it onto the back of its shell and weighted it down with a rock before going off to search for more. But when they returned, they would sometimes find the animals had shaken the rocks off and flipped themselves back over. Thus the mission became not the hunt for rare tortoise, but the search for nice heavy rocks.)

(Images courtesy of Natural History Museum at Tring)

Walter’s herd of giant tortoises became the signature part of his menagerie; one of the most famous photographs of him is the one at right, wearing a proper Edwardian morning coat and top hat while riding on the back of a tortoise being coaxed along with a leaf of lettuce on a stick. The other best-known picture has Walter driving a four-in-hand carriage pulled by zebras, a stunt he performed in a courtyard of Buckingham Palace to demonstrate they could be tamed – although he later admitted he was terrified of what might happen when a young girl in the royal family tried to pet one of them. Also roaming the grounds of his museum were kangaroos, ostriches. wild horses, emus, deer, turkeys, cassowaries, a tame wolf, a monkey, an anteater, and an opossum, which slept under his desk during the day. And when these pets died, he had them skinned and stuffed for his museum, which became known by local children as the “Dead Zoo.” (His ‘evolution of the dog’ exhibit is particularly creepy.)

Although there was a trench separating the museum grounds from the rest of the estate, escapes likely added to the tensions between Walter and his father. The kangaroos would regularly tear up the flower beds surrounding the manor house, causing the Baron’s staff of gardeners to often have to replant daily. One of the cassowaries – a flightless bird that can grow taller than an adult human – attacked the Baron’s horse when he was on a morning ride, and a dingo bit several horses in the stables.

The crisis came in 1907-1908, when it became clear that Walter’s spending had gone off the rails. Most of the property he owned had been mortgaged, and the museum was deeply in debt. The Baron disinherited his son, and Walter resigned from the bank. The estate would go to his younger brother Charles, who remained in banking. (Charles, by the way, was also a lifelong entomology buff, building the world’s top collection of fleas and discovering the identity of the plague flea.) Walter would inherit the title (becoming the Second Lord Rothschild) and £1,000,000, more than enough for him to continue expanding his museum and funding new expeditions.

The one thing that Walter desired most he could not buy: Membership into the scientific community. He had pissed off everyone at the Natural History Museum except Günther with his fits of pique; once he threatened to break his promises of specimen donation when the curator named one of “his” giant tortoises without Walter’s permission. Rarely would a scientific journal publish his letters or studies, and when his work was questioned or rejected, he responded with tirades insulting the editor. And despite having amassed the most significant collection of bugs on the entire planet, he wasn’t even allowed to join the Royal Society until 1911. Stymied in gaining any foothold in this fraternity, he gave up and launched his own scientific journal, with himself as editor.

In many ways, Walter Rothschild was like Luther Burbank. Both expected (demanded, really) due respect as scientists even though they ignored the basic precepts of the scientific method, such as keeping good notes on your research. More than once, Walter mistakenly claimed to have discovered a new species when the creature was actually still a juvenile or only had individual variations in color or markings. And of the millions of butterflies in his collection, he liked to boast, “I have no duplicates,” a claim that defies belief.

Walter also had a career as a Member of Parliament, and played a key role in the movement to establish modern-day Israel, a topic explored in depth on many other web pages. He continued to expand his museum, set back only by the 1931 purchase of his entire stuffed bird collection by the American Museum of Natural History. That Walter sold anything – particularly one of the crown jewels of his life’s work – seems antithetical to his nature, and it was. But he needed to raise $225,000 because he was being blackmailed by a former mistress, said to be a peeress and her husband. While he could have tapped the family coffers for the sum, he couldn’t bear the thought of his elderly mother learning of his indiscretion.

In the end his collection included 300,000 bird skins, 2,000 stuffed birds (presumably stuffed after the blackmail sale) and over 2 million butterflies and moths. He left it all to the UK Natural History Museum, and exhibits are still on display in his museums. If you visit, skip gallery six with the creepy dogs, all of them with glass-marble eyes sadly looking at you as if they want someone to explain why their old companion did this to them. (UPDATE: There was a dog cemetery at Tring, so few, if any, of these animals were actually pets of the family.)

Whatever his failings and foibles, what Walter Rothschild created was simply incredible, never attempted before by an individual and rarely by nations. A member of the Rothschild Archive summed it up well:

It is hard to absorb the scale of these numbers, but the logistics of collection which lie behind them is, to me, still more staggering. Walter was employing collectors and arranging expeditions, as we have seen, from the time he was up at Cambridge. He continued throughout his life. The journey for each one of his specimens, ending in a drawer in Tring, begins in some remote part of the globe and involves, in each case, a collector, a packer, a sequence of transporters, in some cases a dealer, a taxidermist or setter in the case of insects and, finally, one of the Tring trio to identify, label, record, file and perhaps publish. All of this repeated millions of times. And at the heart of this, one man’s drive, organizational ability and finance…. It was equally significant that, perhaps for the first time, the man with resources could conceive a scheme on a global scale and actually have a chance of pulling it off. As a Rothschild, Walter would have been used to hearing his relatives in business talking in such global terms: their day-to-day business involved resources and finance for virtually every corner of the globe. And as a Rothschild, he had access – or so it seemed – to unlimited resources.

But wind the clock back to 1908, the crucial year that Dr. Harris found himself under arrest in Lake County. What a loss that neither Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley nor other local newspapermen knew who he was, or his link to one of the most eccentric and interesting persons in the world. What a story it would have made to sit down with him and ask, “tell me about your boss. Tell me what it was like to sail a ship with a cargo of sixty giant tortoises around Cape Horn. Tell me about all your other adventures hunting for the great Dead Zoo.”


Something in the Genes: Walter Rothschild, Zoological Collector Extraordinaire
A sheltered life: the unexpected history of the giant tortoise
The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors
Introducing Walter Rothschild (interesting but whitewashed video from The Natural History Museum at Tring)

Deputy Lea Lands a Man Who Claims He is Securing a Collection for the Rothschilds

In order to provide the Rothschilds, the wealthy London bankers, with a collection of California birds of all descriptions, Charles N. Harris says he went gunning in Lake County. When arrested he already killed about 140 birds. Deputy Game Commissioner A. F. Lea made the arrest in Lakeport the day before yesterday, and Harris is awaiting trial.

Deputy Lea stated yesterday that Harris was in the habit of killing the birds and then take them back to San Francisco where they were stuffed and mounted. The Rothschilds are to pay a big sum for the collection when it is completed, according to Harris’ story. Some of the birds he secured in Lake County are said to have been Mountain Quail.

– Press Democrat, March 25, 1908
Case is Unique in Annals of Prosecution of Violations of the Game Laws

Mention was made in the Press Democrat Wednesday morning of the arrest in Lakeport of Charles N. Harris, who is securing an exhibit of stuffed birds for the Rothschilds of England, on a charge of killing birds out of season. The Lakeport Press adds these additional details of the case:

“Game Warden Alonzo Lea and A. M.. Fairfield dropped into town Thursday and yesterday arrested Charles M. Harris, a cousin of Jack Wilson, who has been in the county about five weeks. The charge against the man was that of killing quail out of season. He appeared before Justice Bruton, pleaded guilty and was released on $150 cash bail, and April 4th was set as the date for pronouncing sentence. Seventeen charges are held pending against him but will probably not be prosecuted.

“The case is an interesting one and unique in the annals of the prosecution of violations of game laws. Harris is an expert taxidermist and has traveled over much of the world in his business, and is said to have been in the employ of the Rothschilds, the millionaire bankers of Europe, preparing specimens for their private collection. The Sunday Examiner a short time ago had a page account and pictures of some of his work. Here he has been making a collection of the native birds of this county, and the Wardens seized 148 specimens of various bird skins, particularly prepared for mounting. The killing of protected birds is permitted by law when they are taken for public institutions of science on a regularly authorized permit but Harris admitted that he was collecting for private sale and had no permits.

The collection was a revelation of the wealth and beauty of bird life in this county. The confiscated skins will probably be presented by the Game Commission to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which lost all his collection in the big fire.”

– Press Democrat, March 26, 1908

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *