P.T. Barnum was the master showman. One of his stuffed creatures was the Feejee Mermaid. In a letter dated September 4, 1843, Barnum dubbed the “Fejee Mermaid the greatest curiosity in the world.” Although Barnum helped make the creature famous in America, he was not responsible for its celebrity status. Its rise began in London. Still today, the Feejee Mermaid’s ultimate fate remains a mystery.
The Feejee Mermaid was a fake. It was probably assembled around 1810 by Japanese fishermen, who sold these curiosities as new species. Quite a few men fell for it. One such man was Captain Samuel Barrett Eades. He was convinced that his oddity was authentic. He purchased the item for $5,000 Spanish dollars, or 1,200 pounds. He helmed the ship Pickering, in which he owned one eighth. Without notifying the true owner, Capt. Eades sold the ship and her contents for $6,000 in January of 1822 and proudly transported his new species home to England.
Captain Eades fancied himself an adventurer and decided London was the place to exhibit his mermaid. Upon arrival, the animal was confiscated for a short period of time. During this time, William Clift, assistant to renowned anatomist Sir Everard Home, was sent to the East India Baggage warehouse on September 21 to inspect the mermaid. Clift provided a detailed description of the Feejee Mermaid. He noted the specimen as fake and provided a detailed sketch with supporting details. The head was from a female orangutan; jaws and teeth were from a baboon, as was the hair. The eyes were fake. The nails were possibly from quills or horns. The torso was attached to a salmon and measured 2 feet 10 inches. One hand was held close the face while the other was farther away. It was agreed that the description and truth would be withheld from the public.
Captain Eades was able to retrieve “the remarkable stuffed mermaid” and placed it on display. Dr. Rees Price, zoologist, declared the specimen authentic. By the end of September 1822, the mermaid was on display at the Turf Coffeehouse on St. James Street, where the proprietor Mr. Watson rented out space to Eades. At its peak, the exhibit brought in 300-400 per day, each paying one shilling. However, things took a financial turn for Eades.
Stephen Ellery, owner of the Pickering, wanted his money back. Fearing that Eades would abscond to America, he went to the Chancery Court for relief. Court commenced on November 20, 1822. The Chancery declared the mermaid a ward of the Court, thus stopping Eades from leaving with it. However, Eades advertised that Sir Everard Homes declared the mermaid real which went against Clift’s analysis. Clift retaliated by publishing long articles declaring the mermaid a fake and Eades a shyster. The Turf Coffeehouse exhibit shuttered on January 9, 1823. Captain Eades took to the high seas to pay off his debt to Stephen Ellery, and he took the mermaid with him.
The Feejee Mermaid disappeared from the news from 1825-1842.
In 1841, Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810-1891) purchased Scudder’s Museum in New York City. He renamed the business Barnum’s American Museum. At the same time, Moses Kimball operated the Boston Museum. Captain Eades was dead by 1842. His son, Samuel Barrett Eades, Jr. inherited the mermaid and sold it for quick cash to Moses Kimball. Kimball came up with a plan.
The Feejee Mermaid would rotate between the Boston Museum and Barnum’s American Museum. P.T. Barnum leased the mermaid for $12.50 per week and paid his lawyer friend Levi Lyman to be its manager. Exhibits at both museums were lucrative. In 1843, the mermaid toured the Southern states. And in 1859, the Feejee mermaid returned to London for more exhibits. In June of that year, Barnum returned the mermaid to Kimball. That was the last time anyone can produce clear evidence that the Feejee Mermaid still existed.
One theory is the mermaid is tucked within the collection at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. However, author Jan Bondeson’s essay “The Feejee Mermaid” (1999) clearly states that this mermaid is another fake.
Another theory claims that the mermaid may have been saved when Barnum’s American Museum burned in 1865. However, Barnum wasn’t in possession of the mermaid then. Interestingly, Kimball’s Boston Museum burned sometime in the 1880s. Unfortunately, the Feejee Mermaid has never been seen since.
What does remain are some drawings from George Cruikshank. They’re owned by the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In addition to the Feejee Mermaid, other such creations exist and are exhibited throughout the world.