Sunday, 9 December 2018

Hunting the Feejee Mermaid: from Charleston to London

I took a trip across London not long ago to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens. The Horniman contains much of interest in its natural history, ethnography, and botanical collections. I must admit, however, that the star attraction for me was a famous hoax: the Feejee Mermaid. 

I had first stumbled onto the Feejee Mermaid while researching an article on the influence of two pseudo-sciences, mesmerism and phrenology, in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina. The Mermaid had been exhibited there in 1842 by the great American showman of the day, P. T. Barnum. He claimed it had been caught by fishermen in Fiji. A contemporary drawing of it reveals that this was not much like the beautiful, siren-like mermaids of legend. 



The Mermaid proved a big hit despite its grotesque appearance. It also sparked a major controversy among Charleston's intellectuals, with some, Rev. John Bachman, a highly competent naturalist, denouncing it as a crude fake. Others, notably Richard Yeadon, editor of the Charleston Courier, pronouncing it as genuine. 

Disagreement in Charleston over the mermaid's bona fides became quite heated, with both sides accusing the other of violating the Southern code of honor. Bachman and Yeadon traded insults and came close to the dueling field, an outcome only prevented by the intervention of mutual friends. 

I summarized the Charleston mermaid dispute in the article I mentioned above, because the animosities carried over into the debate over mesmerism a few months later. 

But back to the Horniman Museum. I arrived to discover that the ballyhooed Mermaid was not there! In the place where it was supposed to be, there was a placard with a picture of the mangy critter and the words "the following object has been temporarily removed from display." I learned from one of the guides that it was on loan to a museum in the USA. The object that was not there looks like this:



That the main thing I came to see was away on tour was not the only surprise I was in for. The object that was not in the Horniman is called the Feejee "Merman," not the Feejee "Mermaid." Due to its absence, of course, I was unable to verify its sex or gender. I subsequently learned that there was not one mermaid or merman but at least several, perhaps many. 

Learning from Barnum, other circuses and promoters secured (or constructed) their own mermaids or mermen for their sideshows. Some of them were made in Japan, including Barnum's and the one in the Horniman. The Barnum mermaid was exhibited elsewhere, including Cape Town and England for twenty years before a collaborator of Barnum, Moses Kimball, acquired it. Most naturalists denounced it as a fake, but the promoters who exhibited it and others were more interested in the revenue it produced. 

Some accounts say that Barnum's mermaid was destroyed in a fire; others say it survived. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University claims that the object below is the Barnum mermaid, but other "mermaid experts" disagree. They argue it was one of many that were exhibited during the nineteenth century. 



My visit to the Horniman was a failure in that I did not see the Mermaid or Merman. But I learned that the history of the "Feejee Mermaid" was much more complicated and interesting than I had thought. 

Further Reading: 

The Feejee Mermaid; Early Barnum Hoax: Live Science

Kenneth S. Greenberg, "The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South," The American Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 57-74.

Peter McCandless, 'Mesmerism and Phrenology in Antebellum Charleston: Enough of the Marvellous,' The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 58, No. 2 May, 1992, pp. 199-230.


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