The Fiji mermaid (also Feejee mermaid) was an object comprising the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. It was a common feature of sideshows, where it was presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of a mermaid. The original had fish scales with animal hair superimposed on its body with pendulous breasts on its chest. The mouth was wide open with its teeth bared. The right hand was against the right cheek, and the left tucked under its lower left jaw.
This mermaid was supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific. Several replicas and variations have also been made and exhibited under similar names and pretexts. The original object was exhibited by P.T. Barnum in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842 and then disappeared. It was assumed that it had been destroyed in one of Barnum’s many fires that destroyed his collections.
Mermaids in legends and folklore
The legend of the mermaid has persisted for thousands of years. Travelers of the sea still keep their eyes open in hopes of catching this mythical creature. Actual mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries. They were often dugongs. During the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, the remains of mermaids were a staple of cabinets of curiosities.
P. T. Barnum and the origins of the Fiji Mermaid
Fishermen in Japan and the East Indies had long constructed “hybrids” by stitching the upper bodies of apes onto the bodies of fish. They were sometimes used for religious purposes.
The American sea captain Samuel Barrett Edes bought Barnum’s “mermaid” from Japanese sailors in 1822. He purchased it for $6000. Not having sufficient funds, Edes “borrowed” the capital from the ship’s expense account. Via Edes, it was displayed in London in 1822. The Fiji Mermaid was advertised in a publication by J. Limbird in the Mirror.
After Captain Edes’ death, his son took possession of the mermaid and sold it to Moses Kimball, of the Boston Museum, in 1842. Kimball brought the Fiji Mermaid to New York City that summer to show it to the famed showman and purveyor of curiosities P. T. Barnum. Before agreeing to exhibit the Fiji Mermaid, Barnum had a naturalist examine it. The naturalist, noting the teeth and fins of the “creature”, could not conceive how it would have been manufactured but, not believing in mermaids, would not attest to the artifact’s authenticity.
Despite the naturalist’s doubts, Barnum believed that the relic would draw the public to the museum. Kimball would remain the creature’s sole owner while Barnum leased it for $12.50 a week.
Having leased the mermaid, Barnum generated publicity by sending pseudonymous letters to New York newspapers from Alabama, South Carolina, and Washington D.C. The letters commented on the weather and alluded that there was a mermaid in the possession of “Dr. J. Griffin”, which he had allegedly caught while in South America. Griffin was actually Levi Lyman, one of P.T. Barnum’s associates. To keep the plan working, Griffin checked into a Philadelphia hotel. After staying a few days and gaining a positive reputation with the public, Griffin showed the landlord of the hotel the mermaid as a thanks for his hospitality. The landlord was so intrigued, he begged that some of his friends, many of whom were editors, be shown the mermaid. This made the public interested in the Fiji Mermaid.
The Fiji mermaid now seized the public’s curiosity. Griffin traveled to New York and at first only displayed it to a small audience and then displayed it as the Fiji Mermaid in Concert Hall for a week. It was actually only displayed for five days because Barnum had supposedly “convinced” Griffin to bring the mermaid to the American Museum of Natural History. While in the museum, Barnum had 10,000 illustrated pamphlets created that described mermaids and his specimen in particular.
While exhibited by P.T. Barnum, the Fiji mermaid started creating controversy, especially in the South. After its debut, it dropped from sight. In the 1860s, Barnum’s museum caught fire multiple times. During one of those fires, the original exhibit was supposedly lost. However, the Fiji mermaid concept was so popularized by Barnum, it has since been copied many times in other attractions.
There is controversy today on whether the Fiji mermaid actually disappeared in the fire or not. Many claim to have the original exhibit, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, has the most proof that their exhibit is the actual original. It does not look completely the same, but it does have the same flat nose and bared teeth. The thought that the fires could have altered the appearance of the mermaid are reason for it not looking completely like it did in Barnum’s possession.
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’ traveling sideshow all lay claim to the title, but in Nickell’s opinion, none is to be believed. 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.
A guide to constructing a Fiji mermaid appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fortean Times magazine, in an article written by special effects expert and stop-motion animator Alan Friswell. Rather than building the figure with fish and monkey parts, Friswell used papier mache and modelling putty, sealed with wallpaper paste, and with doll’s hair glued to the scalp.