The Fiji Mermaid: The P.T. Barnum Hoax That Lives On

October 6, 2023 (Last updated on: October 6, 2023)
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P.T. Barnum’s ingenious hoax is a testament to the allure of the unexplained and humanity’s undying thirst for the extraordinary.

Journey with us as we unravel the layers of this legendary ruse and beckon you to discover the truth that lies beneath.

A Glimpse into the Fiji Mermaid

The Tale of Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid

The tale of the Fiji Mermaid begins with the illustrious showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum. A master of the “hoax hoaxer” game, Barnum knew how to captivate audiences and, more importantly, how to make money.

In July 1842, he set his eyes on a peculiar exhibit, a black looking diminutive specimen with arms thrown back in great agony: the Feejee Mermaid. Unlike the beautiful mermaids depicted in storybooks, this creature was an ugly, dried-up fusion of a juvenile monkey’s upper body with the back half of a fish.

What Exactly Was the Feejee Mermaid?

The Feejee Mermaid, also frequently termed the “Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid”, was never intended to deceive as a genuine mermaid from the South Pacific. Instead, it was a cleverly constructed deception, probably made by a Japanese fisherman.

The front part of a monkey was sown onto the tail of a fish, creating a grotesque image that appeared far from the typical, elegant depictions of mermaids. The mermaid was said to have pendulous breasts, with its tail turned to one side.

A Timeline of the Cruel Hoax

Barnum’s American Museum & Its Deception

Barnum’s American Museum, located in New York, was no stranger to hoaxes and fakes. But when the Feejee Mermaid was displayed there, it took the city by storm. Barnum, always the savvy marketer, began a hype even before the exhibit was unveiled. He used a classic “hoax call” strategy, planting stories in newspapers about a British scientist named Dr. J. Griffin, who was displaying the mermaid at a concert hall in London.

The Role of Samuel Barrett Eades and Levi Lyman

The Feejee Mermaid had its share of travels and controversies before reaching Barnum. Samuel Barrett Eades, once its owner, bought the mermaid believing it to be genuine. When he realized he was the victim of a hoax, he tried, unsuccessfully, to sue for fraud. Meanwhile, Levi Lyman, another character in this story, toured with the mermaid around the world before it was eventually purchased by Moses Kimball of Kimball’s Museum in Boston.

The Hoax Call: How the World Reacted

When the mermaid was unveiled at Barnum’s museum, audiences flocked to see the wonder. The deception was all a hoax, and many knew it, but the allure of such a peculiar sight was too much to resist. Barnum’s ability to trick, fake, and deceive was at its height. Newspapers debated its authenticity, and even skeptics couldn’t help but visit the museum to witness the spectacle for themselves.

Digging Deeper: The Hoax Behind the Hoaxer

From Japan to the South Pacific: The Original Mermaid’s Journey

The origin of the Feejee Mermaid is shrouded in mystery. Some stories claim it was caught by a Japanese fisherman, while others suggest it originated from an Indian trading post. Regardless of its beginnings, the mermaid made its way to the South Pacific, where it was purportedly discovered and later bought by Eades. This journey, from the Far East to the shores of the West, only added layers to the myth and mystique of the Feejee Mermaid.

Alanson Taylor and Moses Kimball: The Joke Between Museum Owners

The tale took another twist when Alanson Taylor, a relative of Barnum, supposedly discovered the mermaid in the South Pacific. This claim, however, was a clever ruse devised by Barnum himself to further the mermaid’s story.

In truth, the mermaid was already in the hands of Moses Kimball, who had purchased it from Lyman. The two museum owners, Barnum and Kimball, struck a deal: Barnum leased the mermaid and displayed it as his own, crafting the narrative of its discovery by Taylor. It was a practical joke they both enjoyed, with the public being none the wiser.

Unearthing the Legend: More Than Just One Fiji Mermaid

The Spread of Fiji Mermaids Across the Globe

While the Feejee Mermaid showcased by Barnum remains the most notorious, there were other “Fiji mermaids” that made appearances in various parts of the world. From sideshow attractions to private collections, these so-called mermaids, many crafted using the same macabre recipe of a juvenile monkey and fish, cropped up, capitalizing on the sensationalism sparked by Barnum’s exhibit.

The Original Mermaid vs. Imitations

Amidst the frenzy, it became challenging to distinguish the original mermaid from the numerous imitations. The uniqueness of the original was its intricate detailing and the particular posture of “great agony” it exhibited. The imitators, while using a similar recipe, often lacked the craft and detailing that made Barnum’s mermaid so enticingly grotesque.

Scientific Hoax: The Feejee Mermaid in Scientific Circles

John Bachman & The Feejee’s Legitimacy

Enter John Bachman, a respected naturalist. When news of the Feejee Mermaid reached Bachman, he was skeptical. Yet, his intrigue got the better of him, and he visited Barnum’s American Museum to see the creature. Despite the obvious signs of it being a hoax, Bachman admitted the possibility of such creatures existing in unknown regions of the world, lending unintentional credibility to Barnum’s deception.

The Banff Merman & The Impact of Global Warming

The Feejee Mermaid wasn’t the only hoax of its kind. The Banff Merman, found in Canada, was another such oddity. Much like the Feejee Mermaid, it was made from parts of different animals. While the Feejee Mermaid’s story is well-known, the Banff Merman remains an obscure oddity.

Interestingly, hoaxes like these make one ponder about the mysteries of the deep sea, especially in the age of global warming when new marine species are being discovered.

Science and Skepticism: When Live Science Steps In

Recent analyses by platforms like Live Science have delved into the anatomy and craft of the Feejee Mermaid. These studies further reinforce the notion that while the creature was a blatant hoax, the craftsmanship behind it was intricate and required deep knowledge of taxidermy.

The faux endorsement by Dr. J. Griffin played a pivotal role in adding credibility to the mermaid’s existence. As stories circulated, many began to believe that Griffin agreed on the authenticity of the mermaid, which further fueled the fire of public curiosity. It’s a testament to how fabricated endorsements can greatly influence public opinion.

The Legacy of the Fiji Mermaid Hoax

Other Forms of Deception: From the Piltdown Man to Modern Day Conspiracies

The Fiji Mermaid is but one chapter in the extensive book of hoaxes that have captivated and deceived the public. The Piltdown Man, for instance, was believed to be the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans until it was revealed as a fraud.

Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes, once commented on the human fascination with the unknown, stating that our desire to believe often clouds our judgment. From the feejee mermaid to tales of aliens and modern-day conspiracies, the allure of the unknown persists.

Mermaids, Hoaxes, and History: The Allure of the Unknown

Throughout history, mermaids have been depicted in various cultures as enchanting sirens of the sea. The Feejee Mermaid, however, stands out as an oddity. It serves as a testament to the lengths people will go to deceive and be deceived. Barnum’s hoax is a reflection of society’s desire for wonder, even if it means suspending disbelief. The Feejee Mermaid remains a symbol of human curiosity, gullibility, and the ever-present allure of the mysterious.

From Center Stage to Sideshow: The Evolution of the Feejee Mermaid

The Feejee Mermaid, after its initial sensational debut, eventually transitioned from being the star attraction to a mere sideshow piece. As newer, more intriguing exhibits began to captivate audiences, the mermaid found its place among other oddities. Yet, even as a sideshow, its story and the allure it held ensured it never completely faded into obscurity.

In Conclusion: A Hoax That Transcends Time

The Fiji Mermaid, a testament to Barnum’s genius and the public’s insatiable curiosity, lives on in modern culture. Its story, filled with intrigue, deception, and a touch of humor, is a reminder of humanity’s eternal fascination with the unexplained.

While the mermaid itself may have been a cruel practical joke, its legacy serves as a mirror, reflecting our innate desire to believe in wonders and the extraordinary. In the end, isn’t the allure of the story what truly matters?