May 19, 2023 I Brent Swancer

The Strange Odyssey of PT Barnum's FeeJee Mermaid

Throughout the history of cryptozoology and strange creatures there have been those cases in which remains of these beasts have supposedly been found and put on display. In some cases these are lost to time, impossible to verify, and yet others have gone on to become almost legendary, despite the fact of being almost certainly faked. One of the most famous and bizarre cases of this was a great American showman who came into the possession of a supposed mermaid. 

In 1842, a purported mermaid was brought to the showman PT Barnum- of The Barnum and Bailey Circus fame- by a Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. Apparently, the specimen had been bought from a sailor whose father had purchased it in 1817 from those who claimed it had been accidentally captured by a Japanese fisherman in his net. Although Barnum was well aware that this mermaid was most likely a particularly well made fake, he nevertheless saw the acquisition as an opportunity to fire up the public imagination, and intended it as a way to awaken curiosity about the wonders of the natural world while of course making some money in the process. Through an ingenious advertising campaign which included much hype and posters promising a beautiful half woman, half fish, the attraction became a sensation. Ever the showman, Barnum even concocted an elaborate story of how the mermaid had been captured in the exotic, faraway Fiji Islands, hence the name it was given; “The Fiji Mermaid," also known as the “FeeJee Mermaid.”

PT Barnum

The posters of pretty mermaids with fair skin and flowing hair that Barnum used to great effect in his publicity campaign were far from accurate, as the actual specimen on display was a grotesque abomination that had little in common with human beings, with one observer once describing it as “an incarnation of ugliness.” PT Barnum describes in his own words his FeeJee mermaid in his autobiography:

The spine of the fish proceeded in a straight line to the base of the skull- the hair of the animal growing several inches down on the shoulders of the fish, and the application of a microscope absolutely revealed what seemed to be minute fish scales lying in myriads amidst the hair. The teeth and formation of the fingers and hands differed materially from those of any monkey or orang-out-ang ever discovered, while the location of the fins was different from those of any species of the fish tribe known to naturalists. The animal was an ugly, dried-up, black looking, and diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. It’s mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.

The gruesome appearance of the mermaid and the shocking difference between the actual exhibit and what had been spectacularly falsely advertised did little to staunch the flocks of people with morbid curiosity coming to get a look at it. Barnum’s FeeJee mermaid made him an absolute ton of money. This was only partly due to Barnum’s marketing savvy. The mermaid itself tended to instill a certain morbid fascination as it was extremely realistic looking and incredibly convincing to those who saw it at the time, despite its undeniable ugliness. This remarkable realism was such that people continued to come and gawk at it even after it was debunked as a fake and widely considered to be a hoax. Barnum’s mermaid in particular became so famous, that indeed it is this very exhibition that coined the term “FeeJee mermaid,” by which all gaffes of this type are generally known today.

The German ethnologist Ph. F. von Siebold claimed to have traced the origin of PT Barnum’s infamous FeeJee mermaid specimen in his book, Manners and Customs of the Japanese in the Nineteenth Century. Von Seibold had come to the conclusion that the specimen was identical to one shown around Europe in 1822-23, at venues such as the Tuft Coffee house on St. James’ Street in London, where three to four hundred people a day had been coming to see it. This specimen was reportedly also caught in a Japanese fisherman’s net, and then brought to London by an American sea captain by the name of Samuel Barrett Eades. The mermaid had made these venues a small fortune. Von Seibold was convinced that this specimen was crafted in 1810 by some ingenious Japanese fisherman, and that it, or an exact copy of it, was the very same one that had eventually wound up in America with Barnum after being sold to a Dutch company and changing hands several times. Barnum tended to agree with von Seibold’s assertions. He had been well aware since the beginning that his FeeJee mermaid was most probably faked, and even wrote that he suspected it was of possible Japanese design. While expounding on its workmanship, Barnum wrote:

Assuming, what is no doubt true, that the mermaid was manufactured, it was a most remarkable specimen of ingenuity and untiring patience. For my part I really had scarcely cared at the time to form an opinion of the origin of this creature, but it was my impression that it was the work of some ingenious Japanese, Chinaman, or other eastern genius.

The FeeJee Mermaid

That Barnum’s FeeJee mermaid should be of Japanese design makes a lot of sense and would not be all that surprising at all. At the time Japan had its own long tradition of mermaids. These creatures are known to the Japanese as ningyo (人魚), literally “human fish,” as well as gyojin (魚人), meaning “fish human,” and hangyo-jin, (半魚人)or “half-fish human.” Stories of fish-like humanoid beings had been reported from the waters around Japan for centuries. And they were often claimed to have been captured and preserved. In 18th and 19th century Japan, sideshow carnivals known as misemono were all the rage among the populace. These events were like festivals of sorts that featured a wide range of attractions such as acrobatics, dance, fortune telling, and arts and crafts. One very popular type of attraction were exhibitions of strange natural phenomena and exotic animals collected from the far corners of the Earth. These were typically booths comprised of a “cabinet of curiosities” type exhibitions showcasing bizarre animals, plants, and other exotic wonders of nature from all over the world. These booths can be seen as being in many ways similar to the circus sideshows of the U.S. and Europe, attracting curious onlookers with their displays of the mysterious, strange, and sometimes downright freakish. The misemono were known for drawing huge crowds of people who would gawk at the bizarre menageries.

One of the biggest draws of the misemono sideshows was when mermaids were displayed. These typically dead and preserved specimens drew in huge crowds of people clamoring to get a glimpse of a real mermaid, and many of the exhibitors became wealthy from such shows. Whether any of these specimens were in fact real mermaids or not is not known for sure, but they certainly were quite real to those that saw them. Most common people of the time already considered mermaids to be very real, and seeing one in front of their eyes only reaffirmed this notion. It is perhaps not surprising that trickery should occur with the misemono side-shows, and there were often altered animals such as dogs or monkeys painted or fitted with prosthetics to make them appear to be something more mixed in with the genuine specimens of exotic species. The mermaids were no different. 

Typically, these fake mermaids were cobbled together from the upper torso of monkeys and the lower bodies of fish, as well as all manner of animal parts such as fur, skin, and membranes, joined in such a way as to avoid detection by the naked eye. These fakes turned out to turn quite a profit, and the increasing presence of more Westerners in Japan willing to pay exorbitant prices for these specimens only increased the booming trade in fake mermaids. With regards to trying to discern any grain of truth behind these first mermaid exhibits, it is unfortunate that the one thing Japan became known for concerning mermaids was their exquisite and unrivalled ability to manufacture them, and the Japanese, long known for mermaid exhibitions in their own country, soon became renowned overseas for being master craftsmen of fake mermaids. 

Many of the craftsmen of these faked mermaids were exceedingly clever and creative in their designs, with the artists utilizing all manner of various animal parts and other materials with great ingenuity, often taking great artistic license with their creations, using highly guarded secret techniques that were thus passed down from master to mentor. One specimen shown at Picadilly in London was found to be made up of a fish tail, ape body, the jaws of a wolf fish, the skull of an ape, and the fur of a fox. Some even had wings attached that were apparently fashioned from those of bats. Again, the quality of construction was typically so ingenious as to require very careful examination and a keen eye to discover even the vaguest signs of human tampering. One Japanese specimen shown at the Oriental Warehouse of Farmer and Rogers in Paris was described by one observer as follows:

The lower half of her body is made up of the skin and scales of a fish of the carp family, neatly fastened to a wooden body. The upper part of the mermaid is in the attitude of a sphinx, leaning upon its elbows and forearm. The arms are long and scraggy, and the fingers attenuated and skeleton-like. The nails are formed of little bits of ivory or bone. The head is about the size of a small orange, and the face has a laughing expression of good nature and roguish simplicity. I cannot say much for the expression of her ladyship’s mouth, which is a regular gape, like the clown’s mouth at a pantomime: behind her lips we see a double row of teeth, one rank being in advance of the other, like a regiment of volunteers drawn up in a line. the hind teeth are conical, but the front ones project like diminutive tusks. I am nearly certain as I can be that these are the teeth of a young cat-fish- a hideous fish that one sometimes sees hanging up in the fishmonger’s shops in London. Her ears are very pig-like, and certainly not elegant, and her nose decidedly snub. The coiffeur is submarine, and undoubtedly not Parisian: it would, in fact, be none the worse for a touch of brush and comb. At the back of her head we see a series of nobs, which run down the back till they join with a bristling row of 24 spines- evidently the spines of the dorsal fin of the carp like fish. The ribs are exceedingly prominent.

Another typical description of a Japanese-made mermaid is written of in the book Curiosities of Natural History by Francis Trevelyan Buckland, in this letter from 1866 from a correspondent of Land and Water, which describes it as follows:

Captain Cuming, R.N., of Braidwood Terrace, Plymouth, has returned from Yokohama, bringing with him a great variety of curiosities. Amongst them is a mermaid. The head is that of a small monkey, with prominent teeth; a little thin wool on the head and upper parts; long attenuated arms and claws, below which the ribs show very distinctly; beyond these latter the skin of a fish is so neatly joined that it is hardly possible to detect where the fish begins and and the monkey leaves off. The fish has large scales, spines on the back, a square tail, and appears to be a species of chub. It is quite perfect except the head, which only seems to have been removed to make the joint. Total length about sixteen inches; color of monkey, dull slate; the fish, its natural colour; and the whole in excellent preservation.

An issue of the Saturday Magazine of June 4th, 1836 describes another such specimen that was displayed in a glass case in London that had:

the skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, which was attached to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind with the head cut off, and the whole was stuffed and highly varnished, the better to deceive the eye.

It may sound as if anyone who could be convinced by a such a monstrosity as anything other than a monkey sewn to a fish must be extremely gullible, but that would be underestimating the skill and ingenuity some Japanese displayed in the making of these creations. At the time, many Japanese fake mermaids were most often incredibly convincing to the majority of those who saw them, and even some experts were confounded. An issue of The American Journal of Science and Arts from 1863 describes the incredible craftsmanship of these fake Japanese mermaids, which could fool even trained scientists, as follows:

We should judge that the Japanese must have considerable knowledge of the lower animals to be able to produce factitious congeries, so nearly agreeing with nature and so well calculated as to deceive even practiced naturalists.

Fake Japanese Mermaid

The praise and admiration, as well as the high profile of their work became somewhat a source of pride for the Japanese who crafted these mermaids. As the worldwide curiosity in Japanese mermaids took off, these craftsmen sought to create increasingly more believable specimens. Some of the Japanese who made or owned the mermaids wished the creations to be accepted as real, and were sensitive to the critical eye aimed at their work by some skeptical Westerners. John George Wood recalled an incident with one such disgruntled owner in his book Trespassers- Marine and Aquatic Trespassers.

Yet utterly absurd as they are, there are many persons who firmly believe in them. I once had a narrow escape from a personal assault at the hands of the owner of a Japanese mermaid. I saw it in his shop- a fishmonger’s; stepped in to look at it, and made some remarks upon the ingenuity with which wire had been made to imitate ribs and other bones. I thought that I was paying a compliment, but very soon found that the sooner I was out of the shop, the better it would be.

Japanese mermaids were indeed serious business for those who made them, and the trade in faked mermaids became increasingly a struggle for constant one upsmanship, with fishermen and craftsmen seeking to create ever more realistic mermaids that could further deceive those who looked upon them, as well as more and more detailed and elaborate backstories behind the creatures. It is apparent that they were at least somewhat successful in light of the enduring fascination these mermaids held for so many, with fake mermaids produced in Japan rampant and drawing the amazement of many. Even when they were largely exposed as being faked, Japanese mermaids such as Barnum’s continued to draw in spectators, and money, for those who exhibited them. It is apparent that even as people knew what they were seeing was fake, there was still some part of them that secretly wondered “what if,” when observing these mermaids.

In addition to the growing popularity of Japanese manufactured mermaids at the time, the general appearance and exquisite craftsmanship sounds very much like Barnum’s mermaid, as does the small size. Indeed, Most Japanese-made mermaids were far from human size, with most being under three feet long. Barnum himself was convinced that his FeeJee mermaid, as well as many of the other supposed mermaid bodies on display at such venues worldwide, were of Japanese manufacture. The FeeJee mermaid exhibited by Barnum was supposedly lost in a fire in the 1860s, but in 1996, a curious FeeJee mermaid specimen was found by accident in a locked storage facility at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York. This mermaid is of particular interest as it seems to have been purchased in the 1950s at an auction of the Stanford White Collection and donated to the university. This is significant, because it is believed that White acquired the mermaid from PT Barnum’s estate in 1891, which has led some to speculate that it could in fact be the very FeeJee mermaid made famous by Barnum and which was believed to have been destroyed. In fact, there has been some debate as to whether Barnum’s FeeJee mermaid was ever even destroyed at all, and speculation that it is still floating around out there somewhere. On several occassions, collectors have claimed that they are in possession of Barnum’s original FeeJee mermaid, however none of these have ever been confirmed.

It is all a pretty wild ride through a very strange corner of history. Just what did Barnum have on his hands there? Where did it come from and where did it go? Is it still floating around out there somewhere? No matter what the reality may be, it is certainly a strange look back into a weird corner of the past. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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