No. 465
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
April 06, 2020

The Feejee Mermaid.

In August 1842, a sensational new curiosity called the Feejee Mermaid was exhibited by P. T. Barnum.
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The Feejee Mermaid.

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. Though it was advertised throughout the country with pictures of traditional, topless female mermaids, the real Feejee Mermaid looked more like an
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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 monkey grafted onto the tail of a fish. It was described by one critic as the “incarnation of ugliness.”
 
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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. In addition to the misleading advertisements, Barnum created the story of Dr. J. Griffin, an English naturalist who captured the mermaid near the island of Feejee.
 
P T Barnum
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.”

 


Sources:

  • 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.