The True Story of a Fake Mermaid
You might want to start being nice to me, because I’m going to be a millionaire. While I have, historically, put a lot of eggs in the ‘hope to win the lottery without ever actually buying tickets’ or ‘befriend an old man at a bar and then have him will me all his money for some reason like in that Billy Currington song” basket, I think I have hit upon an even surer plan in recent years. My road from rags to riches will be paved in blood. Sort of.
I’ve observed the rise of vampire literature firsthand, reading all the Twilight books in the name of science (and by ‘science,’ I mean ‘love’). If Stephanie Meyer can make her fortune with lines like “Hold on tight, spidermonkey!” I am forced to consider why we all couldn’t do the same. What mythical creature, I pondered, is next in line to captivate tweens and middle aged moms and I alike?
I think it’s the mermaid, and I think I’m the girl to do it. Think about it. Mermaids are humanesque, half attractive/half gross (hello, 130 year old teen heartthrob vampires!) and perfect for marketing exploitation. I am already planning my own line of scaly Fin Flops, Sea Cup bras, and Whittle Mermaid pocket knives. My novels will not only pay me well, they will pay homage to a great tradition of mermaid profiteering. Take the Feejee mermaid (please!).
Mermaids have long been part of cabinets of curiosities, traveling side shows, and carnival oddities. Sometimes dugongs, a type of manatee that I guess sort of looks like a mermaid if you’ve just come back from the optometrist and had to get your pupils dilated, worked well enough. Other times, people affected with sirenomelia, a congenital disorder in which the legs are fused together, were billed as the mythical creatures.
Most famous of all is the the ‘fiji mermaid.’ The creatures had long been made by Japanese fishermen, who stitched the torso and head of monkeys onto the tails of fish. They used some of the creatures in religious ceremonies and sold the rest to sailors looking for exotic souveniers. The creations were made famous by PT Barnum. Barnum was proprieter of “P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan Camp; Hippodrome", a crazy traveling circus, and of the American Museum in New York City.
Among Barnum’s most famous exhibits were Jumbo, the big ol’ elephant and Tufts mascot (J-U-M-B-O!), Tom Thumb (a little person- these were way, way less compassionate times), and a pair of beluga whales.
In his 1855 autobiography, Barnum recalled his introduction to what would become one of his most profitable exhibits, Monkey Ariel. Boston ship captain named Samuel Barrett Eades traveled the world in the service of a Boston commissioning house, Perkins Camp; Co. After saving his crew from an attack by a Dutch man-of-war off the coat of the East Indies, he hoped that the government of the Dutch East Indies would reward him for his bravery. He pulled into port and hung out, waiting for someone to appreciate what a gangsta he was. Since no one seemed particularly eager to do so, he found himself hanging out a good long time. During this period, a local merchant approached him and offered a private showing of an oddity he said had recently been found by Japanese fishermen.
In this way, Eades was introduced to the black, shriveled body of the Feejee mermaid. It had a face only Quasimodo could love, a head half covered in stringy black hair, creepy piranha teeth, and droopy breasts. Eades knew he had to have it, imagining a life for himself of millionaire millions. Sure that he would be hailed as a great explorer, Eades took 6k from the ship’s funds to buy it, asked his first mate to take over the helm, and kicked it to London to try to re-sell what he was certain was a valuable find.
On his journey back to London, the ship on which he was traveling stopped briefly in Cape Town. Here, Eades showed his prize around in an effort to raise funds for his journey. He found a steady stream of local interest. One missionary fell to his knees upon seeing the creature, declaring that he could now die with the blessings of God. Another English missionary wrote home to British papers about what he had seen. “I have to day seen a Mermaid, now inhibiting in this town. I have always treated the existence of this creature as fabulous; but my skepticism is now removed.” Eades, by all accounts, seems to have genuinely agreed. He truly believed that the creature in his possession was the real deal.
Back in London, Eades was initially confronted with a very different reaction. British custom authorities seized the mermaid, holding it as contraband for weeks. Only after this scare was he able to market his find, discovering a sizeable interest in his monkey-fish in London town. He toured it extensively in the fall of 1822, with some reports totaling his daily visitors in the hundreds. Local scientists accepted it as a new species. “The introduction of this animal into this country will form an important area in natural history,” opined one naturalist. The mermaid was a hit.
Everyone was fan- everyone, that is, besides the dude who owned the ship Eades had sold to buy this dumb thing. Eades refused to repay him for his losses,so the owner took the matter to the courts. British magistrates barred Eades from taking the mermaid out of the country. Eades was fine with this, finding no shortage of interest there. All this was ruined when Eades publicly declared that a prominent naturalist had deemed his mermaid to be the real deal. The naturalist, annoyed, made it terribly clear that this was not the case. Soon, word spread that the experts could tell that the supposed mermaid was nothing more than the torso of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish.
That sort of killed interested.
Twenty years later, Eades died with only the mermaid to his name. His kids, who sound like ungrateful punks, went and sold off their dad’s most precious possession once he kicked the bucket. The buyer, Moses Kimball, operated the Boston Museum. He brought it to famed showman PT Barnum to see what he thought.
PT says that he then took the mermaid to a naturalist, asking him to check it out. The naturalist replied that it wasn’t an obvious fake, but that it couldn’t be real- he didn’t believe in mermaids. "That is no reason at all," Barnum replied "and therefore I'll believe in the mermaid, and hire it." PT agreed to ‘lease’ the mermaid from Kimblell for $12.50 a week. Man, why wasn’t it that easy for me to find a job?
Barnum then decided to "start the ball a-rolling" (his words) by placing inconspicuous news items in papers all over the country, casually mentioning amidst crop reports and weather forecasts that a mermaid had been found in the Fiji islands. It was in the possession, the articles said, of a Captain Griffin. He was in the employ of the British Lyceum of Natural History.
Captain Griffin, was, in fact, Barnum’s employee, Mr. Lyman, and The British Lyceum of Natural History didn’t even exist.
Barnum had asked Lyman to pose as the mysterious mermaid-holder and rent a room a fine hotel in Philly. During his stay in America’s finest state, Lyman wined and dined city’s socialites. As he checked out of the hotel, he thanked the hotelier by inviting him to see something special up in his room. "I will permit you to see something that will surprise you,” he said.
This, to me, personally, in my opinion, sounds like the kind of sketchy invite I would be likely to turn down. The hotelier, however, had no such qualms. He followed Lyman up to the suite. There, the Captain showed him the lovely lady he had been sharing his vacation with. The hotelier was impressed, and begged permission to show the oddity to some of his friends…including some newspaper editors. Evvvvverything was going according to plan.
Barnum began to hawk ‘mermaid pamphlets’ with teasing bits of information, selling ten thousand in a matter of weeks. The press certainly took notice. More and more stories appeared all over the country. The Feejee Mermaid toured the nation, appearing in convention halls and eventually in PT’s American Museum in New York City. In a world where scientific fact and fiction were as confused as DJ Pauly D at a screening of Inception, anything was possible. To a curious public, the idea of a mermaid was no more unlikely to exist than any other creature from a far-off land.
"We've seen it! What?” blared The New York Sun. “Why that Mermaid! The mischief you have! Where? What is it? It's twin sister to the deucedest looking thing imaginable—half fish, half flesh; and 'taken by and large,' the most odd of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced." While some might suggest that the Sun quit starting their pieces with vaguely accusatory topic sentences, their excitement was otherwise shared.
In fact, some observers thought the mermaid was as logical as it was sensational. Barbum billed the specimen as proof that every earthly creature had a counterpart in the sea. One paper agreed that it was a natural progression:
“The proprietor having been engaged for several years in various parts of the world in collecting wonderful specimens in Natural History, THE ORNITHORHINCHUS, from New-Holland, being the connection link between the Seal and the Duck. THE FLYING FISH, two distinct species, one from the Gulf Stream, and the other from the West Indies. This animal evidently connects the Bird with the Fish. THE PADDLE-TAIL SNAKE from the Reptile and the Fish. THE PROTEUS SANGUIHUS, a subterraneous animal from a grotto in Australia--with other animals forming connecting links in the great chain of Animated Nature”
“If it be indeed artificial,” another journalist echoed, “it is the very perfection of art, imitating nature in the closest similitude. We are rather inclined to have faith on the occasion, for the connection, which this curious object establishes between fish and women, is only in analogy with that which every body knows to exist between monkey and man.”
While the theory provides interesting insight into the popular understanding of evolution at the time, there were oversights.
Both pieces neglected to mention the Monktopus,
And Princess Unicorn.
Bu,t as I mentioned. science was still developing.
While our understanding of marine biology may still have been in its infancy, journalists’ willingness to deem women hideous was fully matured. “Of one allusion,” a critic lamented, “the sight of the wonder has forever robbed us--we shall never again discourse, even in poesy of mermaid beauty, nor woo a mermaid even in our dreams--for the Fee-jee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.” She probably would have to build a shrine to some unattainable prince if she ever could hope to find a man. Amirite, ladies??
Barnum’s profits doubled in the months the mermaid toured the eastern seaboard. It wasn’t until the mermaid hit Charleston that problems arose. There, two local papers engaged in a public battle over whether the specimen was legit. People who had spent money on the alleged fake-out started to get annoyed. Barnum recruited the help of a Universalist minister he was friends with, who gave a sermon chastising those who doubted God’s endless creativity. It didn’t help. With the threat of riots looming, Barnum was forced to take the mermaid back into the safety of his American Museum in New York.
Barnum’s museum mysteriously burned down in, possibly taking the mermaid with it (Want to investigate potential arsonists? Check out this edutainment action. The graphics are pretty ah-maze-ing). The Peabody Museum at Harvard University however, claims to have the mermaid in their archives. Whether or not the creature in their possession is in fact Barnum’s famous exhibit remains in question. Since this is Harvard, and not Tufts, I am inclined to call them liars. Most historians seem to agree with me, but who knows? After all, there’s a sucker born every minute.
“The Advantages of Notoriety.” The New York Times. 26 June 1855. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0613FF3B59157493C4AB178DD85F418584F9
Advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid from the Charleston Courier,January 1843.
Barnum on the FeJee Mermaid, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855
Bondeson, Jan. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1999. http://books.google.com/books?id=zsQAc_QlB5cC&printsec=frontcover&dq=feejee+mermaid&hl=en&ei=dzE-TYLSE4W0lQfx9dHmAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
The Exhibition at the Masonic Hall, Charleston Courier, January 21, 1843
“The Feejee Mermaid.” Museum of Hoaxes. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive/permalink/the_feejee_mermaid/
Harding, Lee. Elephant Story: Jumbo and PT Barnum Under the Big Top. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, Inc. http://books.google.com/books?id=iDllhLZcF0IC&pg=PA76&dq=feejee+mermaid&hl=en&ei=V2hHTZ67B4eglAe2ksX6BA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CEAQ6AEwAzgK#v=onepage&q=feejee%20mermaid&f=falseå
Levi, Steven. “PT Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid.” Western Folklore. Vol. 36, No. 2. April 19777. Pp. 149-154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1498966
“The Lost Museum.” American Social History Productions, Inc. http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/182/