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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.

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