Today let’s give a little love to New York original mermaid queen — the hideous Fiji (Fejee) Mermaid!
This sickening Frankenstein monster — comprising a monkey’s head sewn onto a fish torso — was displayed in PT Barnum’s American Museum off and on for almost twenty years. Believe it or not, Barnum actually leased it from an owner who had bought it off of sailors. It’s actual connection to the Fiji Islands remains tenuous at best.
“[M]any naturalists and scientific men who have examined it assert that it is absolutely the work of Nature. Others however insist that its existence is a natural impossibility. When doctors disagree, the PUBLIC must decide.”
Here’s how the mermaid was advertised in the newspapers:
This is what it actually looked like:
This was classic Barnum bait-and-switch. In fact, he relied on the artifact’s somewhat disappointing appearance to give it a bit of authenticity. See, why would I fake something that looked like this? was the implication.
The mermaid first arrived in New York in November 1842 after a smash debut in Boston,”where her ladyship [referring to the mermaid] has astonished thousands of visitors.” Thousands flocked to Barnum’s display at a space called Concert Hall (at 404 Broadway) to take in a glimpse of this bizarre creature. In its first week at the American Museum, Barnum raked in three times his average revenue.
From Barnum’s autobiography: “The public appeared to be satisfied, but as some persons always will take take things literally, and make no allowances for poetic license even in mermaids, an occasional visitor, after having seen the large transparency in front of the hall, representing a beautiful creature half woman and half fish, about eight feet in length, would be slightly surprised in finding that the reality was a specimen of dried monkey and fish that a boy a few years old could easily run away with under his arm.”
So popular was the exhibit that the old museum of Rubens Peale in today’s City Hall Park debuted its own mermaid, a parody monster called the Fud-Ge Mermaid:
By the 1850s, the Fejee Mermaid was one of a cast of oddities featured at Barnum’s museum. By this point, the grotesque object was probably a commons sight for regular museum goers. I imagine it, perhaps, with a light coating of dust, possibly a cobweb. Below: An advertisement from the Daily Tribune, 1855:
Whatever became of the mermaid? Some say she disappeared during a fire at the museum. I’m not sure she was still there when Confederate spies attempted to burn down the museum on November 25, 1864. But she lives on as an icon of fabulous hoax, “one of the most scientific fakes ever perpetrated upon the American public.” [source]
And she lives on in our hearts. How can you resist a face like that?
Top image courtesy the Lost Museum (CUNY), an excellent online resource about Barnum’s American Museum.
(This article originally ran on this blog in June 2014)