Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Amazing Feejee Mermaid

In August 1842, a sensational new curiosity called the Feejee Mermaid was exhibited at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. P.T. Barnum was a man to be reckoned with.  Born July 5th 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. He moved to New York City in 1834 and at age 25 found his calling in the world of exhibitions. P.T. Barnum became the Greatest Show Man in the world.  His ideas, his creativity, and his expert manipulation of the press made him a household name
Though it was advertised throughout the country with pictures of traditional, topless female mermaids, the real Feejee Mermaid looked more like an unnatural amalgam of dissimilar species. Which, in fact, it was. Instead of seeing an alluring full-sized mermaid of legend, visitors to the museum found a small, taxidermically preserved specimen with the withered head and abdomen of a baby monkey, grafted onto the tail of a fish and a papier-mache bridge in between them. It was described by one critic as the “incarnation of ugliness. “It was, dried-up, black-looking specimen about three feet long . . . that looked like it had died in great agony.
The Feejee Mermaid was not new when Barnum introduced it. The mermaid had been on display for months in a museum in Boston and had been exhibited twenty years earlier in London. It took the showmanship and promotional skill of P. T. Barnum to make the Feejee mermaid a star.
Barnum 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 realized that it wasn't important whether or not the mermaid was real. All that was important was that the public be led to believe that it might be real. So he hired a phony 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.'"

Not everyone believed in the mermaid’s authenticity. The Feejee Mermaid had as many skeptics as it had avid believers and heated debates went on wherever it as exhibited. P. T. Barnum did not care whether people believed in the mermaid or not, as long as they came to see it. As he (allegedly) said, “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”
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.
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 skilfully crafted. So the real Feejee Mermaid probably met her end in the 1880s.
But although the original Feejee Mermaid is gone, it lives on lives on in popular culture it has also appearances in episodes of the X-Files and Scooby doo. Furthermore the name “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.
  • Barnum, P. T.. Struggles and triumphs, or Forty years' recollections of P.T. Barnum written by himself. Author's ed. Buffalo, N.Y.: Warren, Johnson, 1873.
  • Boese, Alex. The museum of hoaxes: a collection of pranks, stunts, deceptions, and other wonderful stories contrived for the public from the Middle Ages to the new millennium. New York, NY: Dutton, 2002.

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