Of one allusion, however, 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 Fee-jee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.
Charleston Courier, January 21, 1843*
The Feejee Mermaid is one of my favorite monster hoaxes, a curiosity in the early P.T. Barnum circus and side-show acts.
In early 1842, Barnum composed and posted 3 letters from different Southern U.S. cities describing a Wonder in the possession of a Dr. J. Griffin–a mermaid from the South Pacific. Those letters went to press members in New York, who swarmed Dr. Griffin upon his appearance in New York.
Barnum later visited the newspapers, offering them the “exclusive” use of a woodcut he’d made to advertise an exhibition of the mermaid that Dr. Griffin would not allow him to put on. Just as these papers went out, Barnum had his workers distribute about 10,000 pamphlets about mermaids throughout the city.
The images of the mermaids released to the public were seductive, beautiful. People were excited, and interested. The public wanted to see the mermaid from the Feejee Islands. Rather reluctantly, Dr. Griffin agreed to exhibit the mermaid, and huge crowds swarmed the exhibit. The mermaid was then moved to the Barnum museum—and ticket sales skyrocketed.
But the mermaid was a gaff, and Barnum had always known that he was pedaling a gaffe. He bought the mermaid, and after consulting a naturalist knew certainly that it was a fake. It was he who posted the letters from the Southern cities, and Dr. Griffin was an associate of Barnum’s in disguise.
The mermaid herself was likely created in the 1810s in Japan, then bought by Dutch merchants and then by an American seaman, whose son sold it to Moses Kimball–the owner who leased it to Barnum.
She is half-monkey and half-fish, nothing like the beautiful woodcuts with which Barnum supplied the papers. She had the tail of a large salmon, sagging breasts, and a semi-human face with a horrible toothy grimace.
The mermaid probably perished in a fire in the late 1800s, but the term Feejee Mermaid has become synonymous with mermaid exhibitions in sideshows, the gaffs that allow us to pretend, even for a moment, that mermaids are real. And in those moments, the moments we can believe in monsters, there’s magic.
*images via Wikipedia