A very little history of mermaid hoaxes

For lovers of eccentric history, folklore, hoaxes and taxidermy, the heritage of fake mermaids is fascinating.

As mythological creatures, mermaids have been cast as wicked women, beautiful temptresses, romantic heroines, and occasionally real-life marine curiosities.

Mermaid ‘relics’ date back to the 17th century, when naturalist and traveller John Tradescant the elder featured a ‘mermaid’s hand’ in his wunderkammer (or Cabinet of Curiosities), which he called the Tradescant’s Ark.

The best known mermaid hoax is the Fiji mermaid, which belonged to P.T.Barnum, the American showman and circus owner. This taxidermal creation is actually the head and body of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish, but it was exhibited in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842 before disappearing (possibly in a fire).

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More recently, Fiji ‘mermaids’ began to appear on the internet following the wake of the 2004 tsunami, supposedly having washed up amid the destruction.

In my recent travels, I’ve come across a few examples of mermaid hoaxes – and I’ll add to these as I find more!

– The Booth Museum’s ‘Merman’ – The Booth Museum, Brighton

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This hoax was brought back from a traveller to South-East Asia at the end of the 19th century. This particular merman, which looks to have its top half carved from wood with the addition of some monkey parts and a scaly tail for the rest of its’ body, had been sold by a trader as a ‘genuine’ merman.

– Fake Merman based on a Javanese goddess – The Science Museum, London

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This merman is dated to 1800-1900, and is from the Netherlands.Created as a fake goddess statue and bought as a fake merman, this particular creation has a slightly more convoluted history as a forged object. It was originally created as a European fake of a statue of Javanese goddess Lara Kidul, who was associated with skin diseases and was supposed to protect sailors from drowning. However, it was bought as a fake merman made in Asia to be sold to a gullible European sailor by the agents of Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and an avid collector of the eccentric.

– The “Feejee” Mermaid – Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, London

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This ‘darling’, as the museum likes to call this little critter, was exhibited by P.T. Barnum in the 1940s. She was stitched together by a Japanese fisherman from an ape and a large fish. A different creation to the original, lost, ‘Fiji’ mermaid? Or perhaps the real deal?

2 Comments

  1. Daz

    A wee snippet for you re Brighton “mermaids”. There’s an intriguing passage in Dennis Wheatley’s novel “They Found Atlantis”, in which one of the characters mentions what’s evidently a Fiji mermaid that he says was on display in a West Street fish-shop up to about 1929. The book is of course fiction, but this particular bit does sound as though it might be reported fact. I can’t find any more on the web about it, but local archives might have some info buried somewhere.

    John Clarke, Waikanae, NZ

    Like

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