Sapien-Fish: The “Feejee Mermaid”

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Some were seriously interested in enigmas of science. Some were whimsically interested in the stuff of ancient legends. Others simply ponied up the admission fee to ogle a popular curiosity of the day, something they could tell their friends about, and eventually their grandchildren.

The “Feejee Mermaid” attracted large exhibition audiences in England and the United States during the first half of the 1800s. To many, it appeared to be an authentic anomaly of science.

Naturalists concluded it was a gruesome but effective hoax.

A Sea Captain Finds a “Mermaid”

The term “mermaid” is English, combining “maid” with “mere” (a body of water). The original concept of mermaids, however, is at least 3,000 years old, dating to ancient Assyria. Legends of mermaids since that era have been affiliated with many cultures around the world. Typically, they were envisioned as beautiful women with flowing hair, above the waist, scaly fish below.

Oriental fishers in sailing days were skillful at creating a singular form of religious symbol. They sewed together the upper portion of a deceased monkey or other small primate and the tail portion of a fish. They were so adroit that the seam was hard to perceive. Although lacking any semblance of beauty, this, historians suspect, was the origin of the famous “Feejee Mermaid.”

In the 1820s, Samuel Eades, a merchant ship captain, bought such an artifact from Dutch West Indies traders. Eades no doubt disregarded their yarn that it was a genuine nautical creature that had been netted in Japanese waters. What he saw in it was a fortune to be made.

Eades did not have enough money to pay the merchants’ asking price. But he was so sure he could recover any investment that he literally sold his ship—a ship that did not belong to him. He then booked passage with his relic to England aboard another vessel. There, he advertised the shrunken monkey-fish as a discovery that would rattle the cages of the scientific world.

The legitimate owner of the ship he’d sold thwarted Eades’ scheme. Scientists scrutinized the article and pronounced it a brilliant example of coalesced taxidermy. Nonetheless, it went on display and was a lucrative sensation for several months.

P.T. Barnum Gives New Life to the “Feejee Mermaid”

Capt. Eades, although legally indentured to work for the shipping company the rest of his life to pay his debt, retained the grisly figure. After he died, his son sold it to an American museum curator named Moses Kimball. Kimball happened to be a friend of P.T. Barnum . . . and Part Two of the “mermaid’s” story becomes almost self-explanatory.

Barnum in 1842 connived for a crony to pose as a British naturalist who’d come to New York, bringing with him a bona fide mermaid taken from the ocean near the Fiji (Feejee) Islands. Barnum, a master of promotion, advertised it heavily and had it displayed in New York, first at Concert Hall, then at his American Museum. He later made it a touring exhibit.

For 20 years or more, the “Feejee Mermaid” was a good profit source for Barnum, although most people reluctantly conceded it was a fake.

Details of its fate are murky. Many historians believe it was destroyed in a museum fire.