I have always been a Hugh Jackman fan, first for his musical performance, and, then, because he portrayed my favorite X-man, James “Logan” Howlett, on a string of Marvel Universe films. Therefore, I dearly loved the film, “The Greatest Showman.” [My grandkids know all the words to the music in this film, and they each have his/her favorite.]
What fascinated me about the film and the character of P. T. Barnum was how easily and expertly he fooled potential customers. Some will argue such is because their was not widespread media, as we have today. Yet, we all likely know at least one person who has fallen for some sort of scam or misinformation, despite how widespread our media outlets may be. We live with the “World” Wide Web, and we are just as easily fooled these days as were people in New York in the 1840s.
Take the “Feejee Mermaid,” for example. According to the Peabody Museum, “While scholars struggled to establish scientific authority and the value of knowledge based on systematic evidence and logic, showman P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) made a fortune stoking curiosity about the speculative and the singular. Barnum’s fame and fortune began in 1842 when he opened his “American Museum” in New York City and exhibited the “Feejee Mermaid,” ostensibly from the non-existent “London Lyceum of Natural History.”
“In reality, Barnum leased the “mermaid” from his friend Moses Kimball, owner of the Boston Museum, who purchased it from the son of a Boston sea captain. When Kimball’s collections were transferred to the Peabody Museum after a fire in 1899, they included the ‘mermaid’ seen here. It is now known that Japanese craftsmen fabricated mermaids by joining the bodies of monkeys and fish, although the head and torso of this example are made from papier-mâché.”
Barnum’s hoax became reality when, in 1842, Barnum manipulated the New York Herald and two other newspapers to publish exclusive articles about these elusive mermaids. How did he accomplish this task? First, using numerous pseudonyms, he wrote to various newspapers in the New York area and told them of an amazing discovery in Fiji, obviously, a place too far removed for anyone to check the authenticity of the stories. Then, he convinced one of his employees to pose as a naturalist named “Dr. Griffin,” who then presented appropriate “credit” to the “reality” of this display. After that, Barnum had pamphlets printed and distributed to hotels, business, small shops, and mercantiles to spread the word of the Feejee Mermaid. It worked. Soon after Barnum’s original display, sideshows all over the world started “finding” similar mermaids. Research has suggested that the original was made as early as 1822 by Japanese sailors. That almost 200-year-old oddity was supposedly lost in a fire, but a few places still claim to have the original “true” mermaid.
Nearly 100 years later, Robert Ripley displayed the mermaid as a debunked hoax in his New York City Odditorium. The brain-child of P.T. Barnum, the Fiji mermaid, was nothing more than the torso of a monkey sewn to the back half of a large fish.
Unlike images of mermaids in folklore and popular culture, such mermaids were unattractive, often described as hideous. In his autobiography, Barnum described the mermaid as “an ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.”
Barnum on the FeJee Mermaid, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855
Harvard’s FeeJee Mermaid (on YouTube)