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The FeJee Mermaid–now part of the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

The Feejee Mermaid

The Feejee Mermaid was originally brought to the American Museum in 1842 at a most extraordinary expense for the evaluation of a “discerning public.” The patchwork creature was one of Barnum’s most outlandish and popular hoaxes, appealing to Americans’ fascination with puzzles and enjoyment in testing illusion.

Nine or 10 inches from forehead to tail, the “mermaid” lies nestled in layers of diaphanous white like a freshly unwrapped present. The fish parts are easy to recognize—there’s the mouth, with its needle-like teeth, and the spines that serve as stiff little fingers. The rest, less so. The narrow rib cage is patchy with fluff, and the stick-like arms are fashioned out of papier-mâché. With the jaunty upwards flick of its wrists and its surprised expression, it’s a bizarre, hairy pastiche of The Scream.

The Feejee Mermaid is one of the most famous hoax “mermaids” of all time and the pride and joy of the Peabody Museum. It’s appeared everywhere from the American Museum of Natural History to “The X-Files,” but has resided at Harvard ever since 1897. She’s seen a lot of the world already.

The legend of the mermaid has persisted for thousands of years. Travellers of the sea still keep their eyes open in hopes of catching this mythical creature. Actual mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries. They were often dugongs. During the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, the remains of mermaids were a staple of cabinets of curiosities.

In mid-July, 1842, an English gentleman named “Dr J. Griffin”, a member of the British Lyceum of Natural History, arrived in New York City bearing a remarkable curiosity — a real mermaid supposedly caught near the Feejee Islands in the South Pacific. The press were expecting him since throughout the Summer they had been receiving letters from Southern correspondents describing the doctor and his mermaid. So when he checked into his hotel, reporters were waiting for him, demanding to see the mermaid. Grudgingly he obliged. What they saw totally convinced them of the creature’s authenticity.

Soon after this, the showman P.T. Barnum visited the offices of the major papers where he explained that he had been trying to convince Dr Griffin to display the mermaid at his museum. Unfortunately, the doctor was unwilling to do so. So Barnum volunteered to give the papers use of a woodcut of a beautiful, bare-breasted mermaid that he had prepared since it was now useless to him. The papers (each thinking they had an exclusive) happily accepted the offer, and on Sunday, July 17, mermaid woodcuts appeared in all the papers. Simultaneously, Barnum distributed ten thousand copies of a pamphlet about mermaids throughout the city. The mermaids in the pamphlet were also represented as seductive ocean maidens.

P.T. Barnum. Source: Frederick Hill Meserve Collection National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

With all this publicity, anticipation to see the Feejee Mermaid (as it was now being called) became enormous. (Note: it’s also often spelt Fiji or Fejee as well as Feejee.) It was the main topic of conversation throughout the city. Everyone was talking about whether it was a real mermaid. They had to see it for themselves. So Dr Griffin agreed to exhibit it for a week at Concert Hall on Broadway.

Huge crowds showed up for the exhibit. Dr Griffin lectured for these crowds about his experiences as an explorer and described his theories of natural history. These theories were a bit peculiar. For instance, his main argument was that mermaids must be real since all things on land have their counterpart in the ocean — sea-horses, sea-lions, sea-dogs, etc. So, therefore, we should assume there are also sea-humans! Meanwhile, the press continued to lavish attention on the mermaid, with rave reviews appearing in papers, such as this from the New York Sun:
“We’ve seen it! What? 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 oddest of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced.” (The New York Sun, August 5, 1842.)

Not the kind of mermaid your child wants to theme a birthday party around. The Feejee Mermaid, as depicted in Barnum’s autobiography. There were two images or illustrations that were used to advertise the FeJee Mermaid when it was exhibited in New York and later in Charleston, South Carolina. The first, of a grotesque fish-monkey composite, was published in the New York Sunday Herald in 1842. It contrasts sharply with the second, of an alluring sea-siren out of a sailor’s dream, that appeared in the Charleston Courier on January 21, 1843. The discrepancy between the images was likely due to the constraints of geography and printing technology. A local sketch artist in New York City could render an accurate likeness of the “mermaid,” while a faraway newspaper had to rely on stock printers’ engravings to advertise the attraction that was coming to their city.

After the week-long engagement at Concert Hall, Dr Griffin agreed to allow the mermaid to stay longer in New York City. So it was moved to Barnum’s American Museum, where it was exhibited for a month “without extra charge.” Ticket receipts at the museum promptly tripled.

Throughout all this, the deception of the public had been three-fold. First, although advertisements had shown the mermaid to have the body of a young, beautiful woman, the creature itself was far less attractive. It had the withered body of a monkey and the dried tail of a fish. As a correspondent from the Charleston Courier put it: “Of one allusion… 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 Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.” In his autobiography, Barnum later described the mermaid as “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms were thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.”

Second, Dr Griffin was a fraud. He was no English gentleman. In fact, there was no such thing as the British Lyceum of Natural History. Griffin’s real name was Levi Lyman, and he was Barnum’s accomplice-in-deception. The mermaid’s introduction and exhibit had been the brainchild of Barnum all along. Barnum had arranged for letters about Dr Griffin to be sent to New York papers throughout the summer and had then carefully orchestrated the mermaid publicity once Dr Griffin (Lyman) “arrived” in New York. This had all been done to give the mermaid a veneer of scientific respectability.

Advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid from the Charleston Courier, January 1843.

Finally, the mermaid itself was a fake, and Barnum knew it. He had leased the mermaid from Boston showman Moses Kimball (who, in turn, had bought it from a seaman), but before doing so Barnum had consulted a naturalist to inquire about the mermaid’s authenticity. The naturalist had assured him it was quite fake. Nevertheless, Barnum realised that it wasn’t important whether or not the mermaid was real. All that was important was that the public is led to believe that it might be real. So he hired a phoney naturalist (Dr Griffin) to vouch for the creature’s authenticity, placed pictures of bare-breasted mermaids in the newspapers, and thereby manipulated the public into wanting to see it. As Barnum’s biographer A.H. Saxon puts it, the Feejee Mermaid was a classic example of Barnum’s ability to “take a mildly interesting object that had been around for some time and to puff it almost overnight into an earthshaking ‘event.'”

This portrait shows Barnum in 1851, the year he sponsored Jenny Lind’s tour, in an 1860 carte de visite taken by Mathew Brady.

A playful publicity photo shot by famed photographer Mathew Brady. This portrait features Ernestine de Faiber, a dancer who performed in Barnum’s lecture hall. She posed for a series of souvenir photographs at the Brady studio and in one image a leering Barnum appeared in the stage prop. Source: Frederick Hill Meserve Collection National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The beautiful mermaids of legends and lore lured men to a watery grave with their siren songs and fishy wiles. Described since antiquity by sailors, pirates, and fishermen, the stories date back at least a thousand years and span cultures around the globe from ancient Assyria to Norman England and beyond.

Perhaps surprisingly, first-hand reports are abundant, including in 1493 when a trio of frolicsome mermaids were spotted off the coast of Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus and his men, described by the disappointed-sounding crew as simply “not as beautiful as they are represented.”

In 1610, Henry Hudson reported seeing a mermaid off the coast of Greenland. He wrote a more alluring account of the encounter: “One of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid and, calling up some of the company to see her, one more came up and then she was close to the ship’s side looking earnestly on the men. Soon afterwards a sea came and overturned her. Her back and breasts were like a woman’s, her body as big as one of us, her skin very white and long black hair hanging down behind. In her going down they saw her tail, like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like mackerel.”

Mermaids have stood for longing and loss, been the embodiment of the loneliness of sailors far from home, and a symbol of the danger of both women and the sea. Their beauty is always a trap.

Mermaid-inspired fiction, poetry, and artwork flourished in the Victorian era, appearing as a staple in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, described as self-absorbed mean girls in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and, most famously, as the innocent lover the tragic fable The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, published in 1836. An eager public was primed in this, the last great era of exploration and the modern era of scientific discovery, for a true specimen to be discovered and caught at last… which is exactly what happened in New York in the spring of 1842.

Mummified mer-creatures had been kicking around sideshows and fishing villages — particularly in Japan — for generations, some more impressive than the diminutive beast that appeared in New York City. But none of those were backed up by the creativity of Phineas Taylor Barnum. American P.T. Barnum was an immensely successful promoter who founded the circus he coined “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1871.

He first rose to prominence by engineering a famous hoax.

In 1835, Barnum launched his career in entertainment by purchasing Joice Heth, a blind slave touted as being the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. After billing Heth as “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world,” Barnum put her on display in New York and took her on a small tour of New England. Visitors lined up to gawk at her withered body and hear her tales of “dear little George,” and Barnum helped fuel popular interest by spreading a rumour that she was actually an automaton controlled by a ventriloquist. The truth about Heth didn’t emerge until after her death in February 1836. During a public autopsy—staged by Barnum at the price of 50 cents for admission—it was revealed that she was most likely no older than 80.

Barnum had exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in upwards of $1,000 per week.

Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum in lower Manhattan in December 1841 and reopened it as Barnum’s American Museum, where he displayed the “Feejee Mermaid” and other oddities of dubious authenticity among its 500,000-plus exhibits.

Barnum never said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Barnum is often credited with having coined the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” in reference to his gullible customers, yet there is no proof of him ever using it. The quip’s precise origins are unclear, though some claim one of Barnum’s rivals may have first said it after seeing crowds queued up for one of his exhibits. For his part, Barnum always maintained that his patrons were not “suckers” but willing participants in his lighthearted pranks and hoaxes. “The people like to be humbugged,” he once said.

A consummate showman and entrepreneur, Barnum was famous for bringing both high and low culture to all of America. From the dulcet tones of opera singer Jenny Lind “The Swedish Nightingale” to the bizarre hoax of the Feejee Mermaid, from the clever and quite diminutive General Tom Thumb to Jumbo the Elephant, Barnum’s oddities, spectacles, galas, extravaganzas, and events tickled the fancies, hearts, minds and imaginations of Americans of all ages.

You could say it was a giant hoax.

The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant was a hoax created by George Hull, a tobacconist and atheist to make a local Methodist preacher look foolish after the two quarrelled.

Hull had a 10-foot statue carved from gypsum in the likeness of a man.  He then had it buried on the farm of his cousin, William “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. Newell waited a year, then had a well dug, and waited for the diggers to find the giant. The giant “petrified man” was immediately proclaimed by some ministers as evidence of biblical giants, though archaeologists said it must be fake. Newell immediately started exhibiting the giant and turned a hefty profit.

Barnum wanted to buy the giant.  When the trust controlling the giant wouldn’t sell it, Barnum had his own created, and exhibited it as the “real Cardiff Giant.”

Barnum once used his circus animals to test the strength of the Brooklyn Bridge. Shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, rumours that it was structurally unsound sparked a human stampede that left a dozen people dead. The bridge’s owners had previously turned down a $5,000 offer from Barnum to let him parade his circus animals across it as a publicity stunt, but they changed their minds after the accident. On the night of May 17, 1884, he marched 21 elephants and 17 camels over the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The famous Jumbo was part of the procession, as was “Toung Taloung,” a white elephant Barnum had recently acquired from Thailand. The parade was a priceless piece of advertising for Barnum’s circus, and the combined weight of the elephants—many of which tipped the scales at over 10,000 pounds—helped put to rest any worries about the bridge’s stability.

Along with his reputation as the “Prince of Humbugs,” Barnum owed much of his fame to the runaway success of his autobiography. “The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself” was first released in 1854 and was then continuously re-edited and re-issued over the following decades. New editions and appendices appeared on a near-annual basis, and Barnum helped increase sales by putting the book in the public domain and allowing anyone to publish it. He even instructed his widow to write a new chapter that chronicled the events of his 1891 death. All told, the book sold more than 1 million copies during Barnum’s lifetime.

Museum-goers examine the Feejee Mermaid. Illustration from Barnum’s Autobiography.

Barnum himself didn’t create the Feejee Mermaid. As noted, he merely leased it from Moses Kimball. In fact, the creature had already enjoyed quite a colourful history before Barnum transformed it into a celebrity.
The Feejee Mermaid was an example of a traditional art form perfected by fishermen in Japan and the East Indies who constructed faux mermaids by stitching the upper bodies of apes onto the bodies of fish. They often created these mermaids for use in religious ceremonies. The Feejee Mermaid herself is believed to have been created around 1810 by a Japanese fisherman. It was bought by Dutch merchants who then, in 1822, resold it to an American sea captain, Samuel Barrett Eades, for $6000 (at the time, a huge amount of money). Eades had to sell his ship in order to afford the mermaid, but he hoped to make a fortune by exhibiting it in London. (Unfortunately for him, he didn’t own the entire ship, and this later proved to be a problem for him.)

By September, 1822 Eades had made it back to London with the mermaid, and it did prove to be a popular attraction. But it never made a fortune for him. Eades wasn’t as good a showman as Barnum would later be. In addition, British naturalists who had a chance to examine the mermaid soon debunked it in the press, dampening the public’s interest in it. Then Eades was sued by the other owner of the ship. The courts ordered Eades to pay back the money he had embezzled by serving the shipowner without pay until he repaid his debt. Eades sailed the seas for the next twenty years, trying to repay the debt. But he never did. When he died, ownership of the mermaid passed to his son, who promptly sold it to Moses Kimball for a fraction of what his father had bought it for.

After Barnum had exhibited the mermaid for a month at his Museum, he decided to send it on a tour of the Southern states. He entrusted his uncle, Alanson Taylor, with this responsibility. Barnum anticipated an uneventful tour, but this was not to be. When Taylor and the mermaid arrived in South Carolina, they found themselves embroiled in a bitter feud between two rival newspapers, the Charleston Courier and the Charleston Mercury, with the mermaid as the focus of the dispute.

The problem began when Richard Yeadon, editor of the Courier, wrote a review of the mermaid in which he declared his belief that she was real. Simultaneously, a local amateur naturalist, the Rev. John Bachman, published a review in the Mercury in which he blasted the mermaid as a crude humbug created by “our Yankee neighbours.” This difference of opinion quickly escalated into a bitter argument. (So bitter that, if not for the intervention of “mutual friends,” it might have ended in a duel.) This dispute brought an early end to the Southern tour, and the Feejee Mermaid had to be secretly shipped back to New York.

“The Mermaid, and Other Wonderful Specimens of the Animal Creation,”

1842

This advertisement reflects some of the ways that Barnum presented the FeJee Mermaid (supposedly discovered by Japanese fishermen) as a wonder of the natural world. From invoking “scientific gentlemen” and a prestigious natural history museum to listing the other zoological wonders that would be exhibited alongside it, Barnum effectively wrapped his fraudulent exhibit in the mantle of science.

The public are respectfully informed that, in accordance with numerous and urgent solicitations from scientific gentlemen in this city, Mr J. Griffin, proprietor of the Mermaid, recently arrived from Pernambuco, S. A., has consented to exhibit it to the public, positively for one week only! For this purpose, he has procured the spacious saloon known as Concert Hall, 404 Broadway, which will open on Monday, August 8, 1842, and will positively close on Saturday the 13th inst.

This animal was taken near the Fejee Islands, and purchased for a large sum by the present proprietor, for the Lyceum of Natural History in London, and is exhibited for this short period more for the gratification of the public than for gain. The proprietor having been engaged for several years in various parts of the world in collecting wonderful specimens in Natural History, THE ORNITHORHYNCHUS, from New-Holland, being the connecting 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.

Tickets of admission 25 cents each.

The Peabody Museum’s “Feejee Mermaid” (photographed in 1998)

A merman constructed out of wood carving, and parts of monkey and fish, Booth Museum, Brighton.

The Banff Merman, similar to a Fiji mermaid, on display at the Indian Trading Post.

For the next twenty years, the Feejee Mermaid split her time between Kimball’s museum in Boston and Barnum’s Museum in New York. Her biggest adventure occurred in 1859 when Barnum took her with him on a tour of London. When Barnum returned from London in June 1859, he brought her back to Kimball’s museum. This would prove to be the last place we know that she was. After this, her whereabouts are unknown.

According to one theory, she was destroyed when Barnum’s museum burned down in 1865. But this is unlikely since she should have been at Kimball’s Boston Museum at that time. More likely, she perished when Kimball’s museum burned down in the early 1880s.

Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology does possess a mermaid that some have speculated might be the original Feejee Mermaid. According to their records, this mermaid was saved from the fire that consumed Kimball’s museum and was later donated to Harvard by Kimball’s heirs. The problem is that the Peabody’s Mermaid doesn’t look anything like what we would expect the Feejee Mermaid to look like. It’s much smaller and far less skillfully crafted.

There is controversy today on whether the Fiji mermaid actually disappeared in the fire or not. Many claim to have the original exhibit, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, has the most proof that their exhibit is the actual original. It does not look completely the same, but it does have the same flat nose and bared teeth. The thought that the fires could have altered the appearance of the mermaid is the reason for it not looking completely like it did in Barnum’s possession.

Whether she is the “real” Feejee Mermaid that Kimball and Barnum exhibited or a hoax of a hoax, is unclear. Regardless, she’s credited with spurring the Victorian mermaid craze that led to lots of other people constructing mermaids. The Peabody’s other mermaid (affectionately dubbed the Merman because of the fuzz decorating his upper lip) is another product of this fad, as are the roughly 15 other specimens in the U.S.

Even if she lacks the creamy complexion and luscious red locks of Disney’s Little Mermaid, even if she fails to illustrate any true biological phenomena, the Feejee Mermaid beautifully exemplifies the history of museums. “From the cabinet of curiosity in the 16th century to the movement to a public museum,” museums speak to both education and entertainment—they were zoos, natural history, oddities… a bit of everything. As many hybrids, in other words, as the mermaid herself.

A guide to constructing a Fiji mermaid appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fortean Times magazine, in an article written by special effects expert and stop-motion animator Alan Friswell. Rather than building the figure with fish and monkey parts, Friswell used papier mache and modelling putty, sealed with wallpaper paste, and with doll’s hair glued to the scalp.

Barnum’s American Museum was so popular that people would spend the entire day there. This cut into profits, as the museum would be too full to squeeze another person in. In classic Barnum style, old P.T. put up signs that said “This Way to the Egress.” Many customers followed the signs, not realising that Egress was a fancy word for “Exit.” They kept on looking for this strange new attraction, the “Egress.” Many patrons followed the signs right out the door! Once they had exited the building, the door would lock behind them, and if they wanted to get back in, they had to pay another admission charge!

Though trickery was an element of Barnum’s attractions, Barnum made being tricked a feature, not a bug. Even as he conned people out of their money, they had such a good time, they never seemed to mind being conned.

But although the Feejee Mermaid is gone, her memory lives on in popular culture. “Feejee Mermaid” has become the generic term for the many fake mermaids that can be found around the world in sideshows, behind bars, or at the back of curiosity shops.

The Feejee Mermaid: Early Barnum Hoax – Live Science

The Fiji Mermaid: What Was the Abominable Creature and Why Was It …

THE FEEJEE MERMAID – The Famous Fake Circus Freaks and …

The Feejee Mermaid (1842) – The Museum of Hoaxes

Fiji mermaid – Wikipedia

The Incredible Myth Behind the Feejee Mermaid – Scribol.com

The Feejee Mermaid – one of the most unique and enduring of all …

PT Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid – jstor

FeeJee Mermaid Exhibit – The Lost Museum

Dr. Wilson’s Incredible Sideshow: Feejee Mermaid

Can of Mystery: Legend of the Fiji Mermaid

This ‘mermaid’ will make your skin crawl – The Boston Globe

The Littlest Mermaid | Magazine | The Harvard Crimson

Objects of Intrigue: Fiji Mermaid – Atlas Obscura


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