Barnum’s FeeJee Mermaid


The Feejee Mermaid was one of the first exhibits lined up for Barnum’s American Museum (est. 1841). Clearly the top half of a dead monkey sewn on the bottom half of a dead fish, the actual provenance of this glorious object has been teased out by modern scholars. Purchased from some Japanese sailors in 1922 by one Samuel Edes, it had previously been exhibited in London, then willed to Edes’ son, who sold it to Barnum’s Boston friend and competitor Moses Kimballin 1842. Kimball continued to own it, merely leasing it to Barnum to exhibit in exchange for regular payments. It was Barnum whose genius for publicity allowed him to coin money with the ghastly thing.


I ask you — does the illustration below look like the illustration above? It was Barnum who named it the “Feejee Mermaid”, this at a time when the South Seas might as well have been the moon (Melville’s Typee four years later would be a best-seller, for it was a travelougue in an era when exotic places on earth struck the public with the wonder we associate with science fiction).

Barnum made money hand over fist with the Feejee mermaid, always careful to craft a public position that he couldn’t swear to its absolute authenticity but the very best authorities could not prove it was a fake. The original object was said to have been destroyed in one of Barnum’s many fires, but that hasn’t prevented scads of contemporary entrepreneurs from trotting out their own “one and only, true original Feejee Mermaid(s)” and selling tickets. Why, some of my very best friends own and exhibit the one and only, true original Feejee Mermaid — and who could blame them? The world is a dungeon of a drudgery and the people need amusements to lighten their desolate hearts!


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