Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Feejee Mermaid: Early Barnum Hoax

The Feejee Mermaid (sometimes spelled Fiji Mermaid and FeJee Mermaid) was a hoax promoted by P.T. Barnum during the 1840s. It was the most famous of several fake mermaids exhibited during the 19thcentury. The Feejee Mermaid was exhibited in New York, Boston and London. Its whereabouts after 1859 are uncertain.

The Feejee Mermaid and other hoax mermaids had the upper bodies of apes sewn to fish tails, according to "The FeeJee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History" (Cornell, 1999), by Jan Bondeson. The Feejee Mermaid was probably made from an orangutan and a salmon.

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."

The Feejee Mermaid was instrumental in Barnum's success as a master showman. Not only was it hugely popular, it is emblematic of Barnum's ingenious plots to generate interest in his curiosities. "Barnum concocted quite an elaborate scheme to expand the curiosity into 'mermaid fever,'" said Adrienne Saint-Pierre, curator of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

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