The Edwardian fabulist who stole from the British Museum and got a whole species declared erroneously extinct

Meet Richard Meinertzhagen, a fascinating and disturbing character from the golden age of Edwardian science. I first learned about him last weekend, reading the Extinction Countdown blog. Meinertzhagen was single-handedly responsible for convincing a couple generations of scientists that the Indian forest owlet was extinct when it actually was not. How?

Turns out, Meinertzhagen had a habit of stealing taxonomic specimens from museums, altering them, and then resubmitting them to different museums as his own discovery, complete with fabricated information about where and when he found the animal. His forest owlet, for example, was an 1884 specimen swiped from the British Museum of Natural History sometime after 1925. He later repackaged the bird as his own specimen, collected in 1914. The problem: Meinertzhagen claimed to have found the forest owlet in an Indian state where the owlets don't live. Later researchers, upon not finding any owlets in that state, concluded the birds must be extinct. This assumption wasn't disproven until 1997. But that's not even the weirdest stuff in Meinertzhagen's biography ...

Also a member of the British military, Meinertzhagen managed to get himself falsely credited with the creation of the "Haversack ruse" — when the British allowed a small bag with fake battle plans to fall into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. He also claimed to have rescued one of the Russian Grand Duchesses from death at the hands of the Bolsheviks and to have insulted and then almost-but-not-quite assassinated Hitler. That's some of the stuff he made up about himself. His true biography includes the murder of a personal assistant that he covered up as a death from plague. Seriously. This guy's story is nuts.

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  1. Wow, I live such a boring life...

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