Behold the Elusive Feegee Mermaid. “The Very Perfection of Art, Imitating Nature.”
by Carolyn Sotka
Throughout the mid to late 1800’s, P.T. Barnum’s traveling sideshows grew notorious through the showcase of ‘freaks’ of nature, curiosities and other oddities. Some of the human ‘live’ exhibits like Siamese twins, Tom Thumb, the bearded lady and the human skeleton were indeed caused by real mutations and deformities. Most though, were completely fabricated, constructed in imagination and held together by glue, smoke and mirrors.
One exhibit that drew thousands to the sideshow was the Feegee Mermaid, a grotesque mummified skeleton of a supposed half mammal and half fish version of a mermaid. Nothing like beautiful sirens in typically portrayed in ocean folklore, this thing looked like a mini monster that would happily eat your face.
P.T. Barnum’s feegee mermaid from 1842. Originally published in: The New York Herald
The Feegee mermaid is thought to have begun as an art form, sometimes intended for religious purposes, created by Japanese and East Indies fishermen. Presumably the mermaid’s name Fiji, Feejee or Feegee began because of the art crafts proximity to Fiji. In 1822, an American sea captain bought one specimen from Japanese sailors for $6,000, an extraordinary amount at the time, and lent it for display at the London Museum of Natural History. At the time of his death, the now penniless captain possessed no other property other than his Feegee mermaid. His son brought the specimen to P.T. Barnum, who shortly thereafter leased it for display at Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842.
Drawn from Nature by E. Purcell. Image from Sideshow World.
To draw attention to the new exhibit, Barnum, who coined the phrase “there is a sucker born every minute,” leaked a gossip campaign that his hired naturalist ‘Dr. Griffin’ had actually captured the mermaid and brought it back to the U.S. While Dr. Griffin in private doubted its authenticity, he played the part of the esteemed scientist and shared the wonders of the Feegee Mermaid with curiosity seekers.
“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!”
To continue the publicity stunt, Barnum sent several letters to newspapers in New York, Alabama, Washington D.C. and South Carolina, where he casually mentioned the find, and within weeks over 10,000 pamphlets had been printed to advertise the ‘discovery.’ In 1843, the Feegee Mermaid was brought to Charleston and displayed at the Masonic Hall.
Advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid from the Charleston Courier shows an artist rendering of a typical mermaid, because the exhibit was so hyped up yet no one from South Carolina had actually seen the ‘real’ thing until it came to Charleston. January 1843.
Here is the excerpt from the Charleston News and Courier ….
“Entering the room, were soon in full sympathy of wonder and enjoyment with adults and children at the …Fejee Mermaid and its associate curiosities. The superintendent of the varied show, hearing that a representative of the press was in the room, sent for us, and, voluntarily removing the glass case from the Fejee beauty, placed her in our hands, and invited us and two other gentlemen present to give here the closest scrutiny; and after the best examination that the eye and the touch enabled us to give the curious object, we all agreed, whatever may have been our varying degrees of faith or skepticism, that if there was deception, it passed the ken of our senses… The appearance is in every respect that of a natural and not an artificial object—it is certainly no compound or combination, as has been supposed, of ape and fish—but is either altogether nature’s handiwork, or altogether the production of art—and “if it be indeed artificial, it is the very perfection of art, imitating nature in the closest similitude”….
We are rather inclined to have faith on the occasion, for the connexion which this curious object establishes “between fish and woman, is only in analogy with that which everybody knows to exist between monkey and man”; and indeed as there are links which connect the animal and vegetable kingdoms, land animals with marine animals, and man with the brute creation…
There is no reason to doubt the existence of this animal; and from analogy there is the strongest reason to believe in its existence. The objection that an animal so constituted could not swim in water or breathe under water is only a weak effort to set bounds to the creative and wise and exhaustless economy of Omnipotence.
But a very strong argument with us, for the genuineness of this mermaid, consists in its departure, in size and appearance from the poetic or fabulous model. Instead of the Siren with flowing hair, dazzling beauty, and dangerous song… we have a little deformity, three feet in height—the very incarnation of ugliness—revolting to the sense, and putting the extinguisher forever on mermaid beauty as the theme of poesy and song…”
In The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855, Barnum described the mermaid as “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” He also confessed his plot to pass the mermaid off as real, and how he used an employee posing as a scientist and the credulity of the popular press to perpetrate the hoax.
“How to modify general incredulity in the existence of mermaids, so far as to awaken curiosity to see and examine the specimen, was now the all-important question. Some extraordinary means must be resorted to, and I saw no better method than to “start the ball a-rolling” at some distance from the centre of attraction.
… Mr. Lyman (who was my employee in the case of Joice Heth) was duly registered at one of the principal hotels in Philadelphia as Dr. Griffin of Pernambuco for London. His gentlemanly, dignified, yet social manners and liberality gained him a fine reputation for a few days, and when he paid his bill one afternoon, preparatory to leaving for New-York the next day, he expressed his thanks to the landlord for special attention and courtesy. ‘If you will step to my room,’ said Lyman, alias Griffin, ‘I will permit you to see something that will surprise you.’
Whereupon the landlord was shown the most extraordinary curiosity in the world — a mermaid. He was so highly gratified and interested that he earnestly begged permission to introduce certain friends of his, including several editors, to view the wonderful specimen.
… The result might easily be gathered from the editorial columns of the Philadelphia papers a day or two subsequently to that interview with the mermaid. Suffice it to say, that the plan worked admirably, and the Philadelphia press aided the press of New-York in awakening a wide-reaching and increasing curiosity to see the mermaid.”
The original specimen displayed in P.T Barnum’s traveling sideshows was thought to have been destroyed in one of several fires took took his collections. Since then, many claim to have the original Feegee Mermaid 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.
P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, as displayed at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, MA. Image from the Peabody Museum.
Video from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! London has a dedicated exhibit dedicated to the creature.
The myth of the Feegee Mermaid continues to endure in today’s pop culture. The Feegee Mermaid has made appearances in shows such as Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, where the feegee was an object on display at Darrow’s Oddity Museum in the episode “The Secret Serum.
Also, in the X-files’ Humbug episode, Scully and Mulder are sent to Florida to investigate a series of murders that have taken place over the past 26 years. Mulder, who always believes there’s a fantastical element at play, notes that the tracks at the murder scenes appear to be simian in nature and excitedly speculates that the killer could be the ‘Fiji Mermaid’, a mythical half-monkey half-fish creature.
Screen shot of the Feegee Mermaid in the X-files Humbug Episode, 20th Century Fox.
In 2012 Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Rainn Wilson’s character is murdered and his corpse is transformed into a Feegee Mermaid via taxidermy. Image from Lionsgate Entertainment.
The Feegee Mermaid has also inspired fantastical art work and recreated in everything from sculpture to tattoos.
Sculpture by Roxanne Jackson as featured in a recent Huffington Post article. Jackson is a Brooklyn-based contemporary artist exploring the murky territory where horror meets pop and myth meets kitsch. Her mixed media sculptures operate as contemporary dark omens, exposing the spots where superstition and the subconscious conspire to turn spaces of comfort into something quite other.
The Fiji Mermaid by Flying Tiger Tattoos.
The prank of the Feegee Mermaid continues as a tradition even today. Image from Ripleys and Sideshow World.
You are invited to the Werewolf Bongo Party in the Black Lagoon! Image from Sideshow World.
Image from Sideshow World.