Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The FeeJee Mermaid

A hundred and fifty years ago, Barnum's American Museum was hottest ticket in New York. Owned by a flamboyant man by the name of P.T. Barnum, it housed an astounding collection of curiosities, including a bearded lady, the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, and a twenty-five inch tall man who called himself General Tom Thumb. But perhaps the museum's most infamous and controversial attraction was the FeeJee Mermaid.

In 1842, a mysterious British doctor named J. Griffin arrived in New York with what he claimed was an amazing zoological discovery--a mermaid captured in the South Pacific. The crowds who flocked to see the creature, expecting a lovely corpse, were shocked to discover a hideous animal with a monkey-like torso and a fish's tail.

Despite the creature's unsightly appearance, the FeeJee Mermaid was an instant sensation, and attendance at Barnum's museum tripled during the month it was exhibited. Unfortunately for those who laid down their hard-earned cash to see the mermaid, it was all a just a clever hoax. There was no such person as Dr. J. Griffin, and the mermaid was merely an unusual piece of taxidermy.

Several months before “Dr. J. Griffin” arrived in New York, P.T. Barnum had leased the creature from another showman. By that time it had already traveled the globe. Many now believe it originated in Japan, where fishermen were known to craft fake mermaids by attaching the upper half of a monkey to the bottom half of a fish. A sailor originally purchased the mermaid and planned to exhibit it in London. Unfortunately, it was debunked by experts before he could make his fortune.

Barnum, of course, was smarter. He was well aware that the mermaid was a fake, but thanks to his ingenious publicity campaign, he made a mint long before the truth came out.

No one knows what happened to the Feejee Mermaid. It disappeared sometime after 1859 and may have been destroyed when Barnum's American Museum burned down in the 1860's. However, Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has an excellent example of a FeeJee Mermaid in storage, and some have even suggested that it may be the original. (See the photo below.)

Explore a wonderful virtual recreation of Barnum's American Museum here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome!!!!!! kinda creepy... looks a LOT like my spanish teacher! :)

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Dakota Blue said...

This reminds me... I have to start carrying a chainsaw around. Ya know. Just in case one of these beasties show up.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Micci said...

I saw a Feejee Mermaid in Seattle, in this weird store called the "Ye Olde Curiostiy Shop". I think I took a picture of it, or maybe I didn't... I'll have to check.

It was really black, and way bigger than I would imagine a Feejee Mermaid to be. Also, they had it hanging from the ceiling, so when I was looking at it, I thought it was going to fall on my head.

4:23 AM  

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