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P.T. Barnum's Feejee mermaid from 1842

The Fiji mermaid (also Feejee mermaid) was a common feature of sideshows, which was presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of traditional mermaid stories.

Contents

History

Mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries. These were often people afflicted with sirenomelia or a dugong. During the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, the remains of mermaids were a staple of cabinets of curiosities. However the exhibit which created the Fiji mermaid concept was popularized by circus great P.T. Barnum, but has since been copied many times in other attractions, including the collection of famed showman Robert Ripley. The original exhibit was shown around the United States, but was lost in the 1860s when Barnum's museum caught fire. The exhibit has since been acquired by Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and is currently housed in the museum's attic storage area.

The Fiji mermaid came into Barnum's possession via his Boston counterpart Moses Kimball, who brought it down to Barnum in late spring of 1842. On June 18, Barnum and Kimball entered into a written agreement to exploit this "curiosity supposed to be a mermaid." Kimball would remain the creature's sole owner and Barnum would lease it for $12.50 a week. Barnum christened his artifact "The Feejee Mermaid" and began to "puff" her to the skies. In Barnum's exhibit, the creature was allegedly caught in 1842 by a "Dr. J. Griffin." Griffin was actually Levi Lyman, one of Barnum's close associates.

Banff Merman, similar to a Fiji Mermaid, on display at the Indian Trading Post

Though many people believed Barnum's claim, the Fiji mermaid was actually the torso and head of a baby monkey sewn to the back half of a fish and covered in paper-mâché.

Later incarnations

In his Secrets of the Sideshows, Joe Nickell documents several modern-day claimants to the title of Barnum's "true" original mermaid, or as he describes them, "fakes of Barnum's fake". Exhibits at Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore, and Bobby Reynolds's traveling sideshow all lay claim to the title, but in Nickell's opinion, none is to be believed.[1] He also describes an update of the tradition that uses an elaborate system to project the image of a live woman into a fishbowl, giving the appearance that she is only an inch or two long. He relates the story of a performer who was smoking a cigarette in her hidden chamber; the man outside was confronted by an angry patron who demanded to know how this was possible if the "mermaid" was underwater.[2]

The Fiji mermaid was featured in The X-Files episode Humbug, where the episode circled around freakshows and had a guest performance by Jim Rose. The Fiji mermaid was also made by Wizkids into a game piece for their monster-related collectible miniature game Horrorclix, in their circus-themed expansion Freakshow. In Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, Rainn Wilson's character is murdered and his corpse is transformed into a Fiji mermaid via taxidermy.

Notes

  1. ^ Nickell, pp. 334-335.
  2. ^ Nickell, pp. 292-293.

References

  • Jan Bondeson. (1999). The Feejee mermaid and other essays in natural and unnatural history. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801436095.  
  • James W. Cook. (2001). The arts of deception : playing with fraud in the age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674004574.  
  • Joe Nickell (2005). Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813123585.  
  • A. H. Saxon. (1995). P.T.Barnum : legend and the man. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231056878.  

External links

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