The topic of faked marvels has been touched upon before. However, one would be foolish not to include the most famous gaff (fake) of all. The history of The Feejee Mermaid was, and continues to be, one of the most unique and enduring of all sideshow frauds.
As the picture above illustrates, The Feejee (Fiji) Mermaid did not represent the popular ideal of the mermaid of folklore. Far from being a beautiful fish maiden, The Feejee Mermaid was essentially a disgusting abomination of taxidermy often described as a ‘salmon with sagging breasts’. The face, while moderately human in appearance, carried an indescribable look of horror that terrified many an observer.
The great P. T. Barnum is often credited as being the originator of The Feejee (Fiji) mermaid. The creature was not entirely his creation but he was responsible for popularizing the sapien-fish during the crux of Darwinism.
The first man to exhibit the mermaid was an American sea captain named Samuel Barret Eades. The mermaid was first brought to his attention by a merchant in the Dutch West Indies territory and it was purported to have be caught off the coast of Japan. The merchant demanded such a high price for his bizarre discovery that Captain Eades actually sold his ship to raise the funds needed to purchase it.
His venture to exhibit the mermaid never really got off the ground. First, after booking passage back to England with his purchase in tow, the mermaid was confiscated by customs. When it was returned to him he ran several ads in local papers purporting his mermaid as the most important discovery ever made. The ads drew a great deal of attention, including the attention of the man who purchased his ship and financed the procurement of the mermaid. The buyer was dissatisfied with the vessel he bought from Eades and he sued for the return of his money. Eades was, of course, completely broke at this time. To add insult, the ads also drew the attention of naturalists who determined that the mermaid was a fraud.
The ‘human’ portion of the mermaid was determined to be the body of an orangutan and the bottom belonged to a large salmon. While the taxidermy appeared to be quite gruesome, it was actually masterfully done and no seams were visible to the naked eye.
Despite this revelation, Eades continued to show the creature as real. However, the public was not very interested. His exhibit ran from 1823 to 1825 before closing and Eades spent the rest of his life trying to pay of his large debt and legal fees.
In 1842 Moses Kimball, curator of the Boston Museum, was contacted by an unknown Englishman who had inherited an unusual item from his father. When Kimball saw the specimen he bought it for a very small sum. He then contacted his good friend P. T. Barnum.
Barnum leased the creature, the Eades Mermaid, from Kimball and went into publicity mode.
Barnum named the creature The Feejee Mermaid and created a story involving its capture in the Fiji Islands. The reason for the spelling of Feejee is unknown, but is assumed to be due to a misprint in a various newspaper articles. In what would be a very famous publicity stunt, Barnum visited every newspaper in the area and presented each with a woodcut of a beautiful and bare-breasted mermaid. He told each paper that the image was exclusive and that it depicted his mermaid discovery. Each paper, believing that they had an exclusive story ran the image and article on the same day. Thus, all of New York was a buzz with news of the discovery, a discovery so legitimate that every paper in the city found it necessary to make mention of it.
When the exhibit opened, to huge crowds, the mermaid was accompanied by Dr. J. Griffin a naturalist and member of the British Lyceum of Natural History. Dr. Griffin proclaimed the mermaid to be authentic. In reality, Dr. Griffin was really a man named Levi Lyman and he was in the employ of Barnum. There was no such society as the British Lyceum of Natural History. Lyman was not even English.
Despite being a huge initial success, the novelty of the exhibition quickly wore of and New Yorkers became indifferent to the mermaid exhibition. Barnum eventually moved on to other fantastic displays. For the next twenty years the mermaid split its time between Barnum’s museum in New York and Kimball’s museum in Boston. It did have one unsuccessful tour of the south and one tour or London which also proved uneventful.
Today, The Feejee Mermaid is lost. No one is quite sure as to its whereabouts. Its last documented location was in Kimball’s museum in 1859. Common theory supposes that the mermaid was destroyed when Barnum’s museum burned down in 1865 or when Kimball’s did the same in 1880. There are several sideshows and private collectors claiming possession of the original mermaid most notably Canada’s Carnival Diablo’s World of Wonders Freakshow and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The term ‘Feejee Mermaid’ now essentially refers to any gaffed mermaid, of which there are now many.
Image: a famous artists representation of Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. No photos exist.