When we think of mermaids, we might expect magical, long haired sirens, possibly accompanied by Jamaican crab. But ‘real’ mermaids, the ones that can be found behind glass at museums and galleries in the UK, have claws, sharp teeth, and hollow eyes.
For lovers of eccentric history, folklore, hoaxes and taxidermy, the stories behind fake mermaids are fascinating.
Tales of merpeople are found often in British folklore, where they can foretell disaster or serve as unlucky omens, occasionally predicting unruly weather.
They have played a role in the country’s cultural psyche for hundreds of years, featuring in a variety of tales from Cornish legends to Scottish ballads. The mermaids of Irish lore are known as ‘merrow’, whereas Scotland is home to the fresh-water ‘ceasg’, and the friendlier ‘ben-varrey’ inhabit the Isle of Man.
The earliest surviving depiction of a mermaid in England can be found in Durham Castle, which was built by Saxon stonemasons around 1078. A similar siren is famously carved into a 600 year old chair at the Church of Saint Senara in Zennor.
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’.
Although today we are skeptical of claims that ‘real’ mermaids have been discovered around the globe, there are still several ‘mermaids’ who live in museums around the UK. One such pseudosiren paradoxoides is housed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London.
I spoke to Paolo Viscardi, assistant keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland. Viscardi previously worked at the Horniman as deputy keeper of natural history, where he researched the museum’s mermaid specimen.
Originally housed in the Wellcome Institute, the Horniman Mermaid was rehomed in 1982 under the title of ‘Japanese Monkey-fish’. This critter replaced the museum’s previous taxidermic mermaid, which had been listed in the original museum collections in 1886 but had been lost, destroyed or stolen in the later 19th or early 20th century.
Viscardi’s research on the Horniman Mermaid involved attempting to establish what the specimen was created from. X-rays and CT scans enabled the museum team to create a 3D model of the inside of the merman, and the teeth and tail were sampled for DNA. Although no useful DNA could be recovered, certain characteristics of the creature matched the carp and wrasse families. Traditionally, fake mermaids are thought be created from monkey remains sewn to fish bodies, but Viscardi felt that that was not the case with the Horniman Mermaid.
Viscardi, whose specialism is identifying zoological objects, was fascinated by the Horniman Mermaid. His work on this specimen led to his research into the origins of other manufactured mermaids.
‘They are complex objects as they aren’t simply hoaxes – that’s just the role that Western society has given them’, said Viscardi.
‘Originally they were, and in some places still are, used in Japanese shrines as depictions of water spirits called Ningyo. There are reports from the 1820s from the director of the Dutch trading colony in Nagasaki bay about depictions of Ningyo being sold by a fisherman – but he was explicitly selling them as depictions of a Ningyo he caught, not as the real thing’.
The best known mermaid ‘hoax’ is the Fiji or ‘Feejee’ mermaid, which belonged to P.T.Barnum, the American showman and circus owner. This taxidermied 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 as a real mermaid before disappearing at the end of the nineteenth century.
Viscardi explained: ‘The hoax element emerged with the specimen purchased by Samuel Barrett Eades in Jakarta (then Batavia) from Dutch sailors in 1822, which was probably one of the depictions made by a Japanese fisherman. However, he was sold it on the understanding that it was real, and he was massively overcharged for it. The specimen was debunked by William Clift of the Royal College of Surgeons in November 1822 when it arrived in London and eventually went on to become the Feejee mermaid of P.T. Barnum fame, which embedded the idea of the hoax, due to the rather unethical approaches to marketing used by Barnum.’
Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum in London is home to a “Feejee” mermaid. This ‘darling’, as the museum likes to call this little critter, was one of the mermaids exhibited by P.T. Barnum. She was stitched together by a Japanese fisherman from an ape and a large fish. The museum’s plaque asks visitors whether they think it is a different creation to the original, lost, ‘Fiji’ mermaid, or perhaps the real deal.
This isn’t the only museum claiming to have a feejee mermaid, however.
‘There are probably a few hundred feejee mermaid specimens in circulation globally, with some being old Japanese versions from before the 1850s. Most of these are either in Japan or the Netherlands, with one in the British Museum,’ suggests Viscardi.
‘Some of these are later Japanese ‘crawling’ version that are most common and were probably made to meet demand generated by Barnum’s success. A lot of places try and claim that they have Barnum’s original – I’ve even seen newspaper clippings that claim the original Feejee Mermaid was found in someone’s loft in Southend. I’ve looked into all of the specimens involved in these claims and not one of them match the various illustrations of the original.
‘The story gets more complicated when American showmen started making their own copies and Japan ended Sakoku and began trading more with the rest of the world, instead of just the Dutch. Much of that complexity is due to there being poor record keeping and in some cases deliberately misleading statements’.
The best evidence suggests that Barnum’s original Feejee Mermaid was actually destroyed in a fire in the 1880s.
However, the UK is home to many similar ‘mermaids’, who are housed at a variety of museums all over the country.
Brighton’s The Booth Museum is home to a hoax merman who was brought back to Britain by a traveller to South-East Asia at the end of the 19th century. This particular merman, which looks to have had 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.
The Science Museum in London is also home to a fake merman, which was based on a Javanese goddess. 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.
Hull Maritime Museum is home to a bizarre creature, which measures nearly two feet in height. This ‘mummified corpse’ of a mermaid has eerie white eyes that stare out at visitors, a mouth which hangs agape, and its petrified body is covered in grey-brown skin. Originally, it was believed that the Hull Mermaid dated from the 17th or 18th century, but after it was x-rayed in the 1930s, it was discovered to be the body of a fish wired together with the head of a monkey. The Cryptozoologist wrote about the Hull Mermaid in this great article for Atlas Obscura, which can be read at http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-hull-mermaid.
The British Museum is home to another mermaid, said to be caught more than 200 years ago. This mermaid was actually made in Japan during the Edo Period, and is composed of the upper part of a monkey’s body and a fish tail.
Buxton Museum and Art Gallery in Derbyshire lays claim to its own Buxton Mermaid, which is possibly Japanese in origin. When this specimen was tested, it was discovered that she was made from wood, cloth, wire, carved bone, and fish scales. She also had snails for eyes, protein glue for skin and human hair on her head. This beauty is currently overseas, as she is on loan to the Maritime Museum of Denmark for its Sex and The Sea exhibition.
Chris Woodyard is the author of the Haunted Ohio series of books, and tracks historical forteana through the newspapers and popular journals of the past. He refers to himself as a ‘newspaper resurrectionist’ as his focus is digging up long-lost news.
In his research, he has come across several examples of objects manufactured by craftspeople to resemble bizarre creatures from folklore.
Woodyard said: “There is a genre of news story in which a reporter would go out to talk to someone with an unusual job. I kept running across stories from tattoo artists, undertakers, and “freak” makers. In looking for Fortean oddities, I would also find stories about two-headed babies, the “Devil kid” and the “rat baby”, but it was the makers of mermaids and sea serpents that I found particularly appealing; they took such pride in their trade secrets and their quality!’
‘There was a market opposition between ‘oriental’ makers and English or American makers, but I don’t think it was really taken seriously by the readers. Oriental goods had something of a reputation for being shoddy – and obviously we, the inventive citizens of this great country or of this vast Empire, ought to be able to come up with something better! Looking at examples of the actual creatures, they seem to be all of a hideous ‘muchness’ – the Japanese makers knew a good thing and didn’t see any reason to vary the pattern of their mermaid exports.’
I asked Woodyard why he thought fake mermaids have such an enduring popularity in cultural lore.
‘At the time, you could open your local paper and find an amazing variety of stories from the other side of the world. So when you read of a group of Englishmen fishing near the Alaskan coast who had caught a merman, it somehow did not seem so improbable that a feejee mermaid could be in an exhibition,’ Woodyard explained.
‘I think these types of mermaid hoaxes have an enduring popularity because many of us might like to test our skills of observation on a monkey/fish hybrid, to see if we could spot the seams. And, of course, there are always those who want to believe, to think that there is something rare and magical out in the vast oceans.’