The Strange Story of the Fiji Mermaid and Evolution

Jerry Bergman

(Investigator 166, 2016 January)



Introduction

The Fiji (also spelled Feejee and Fejee) mermaid was a putative evolutionary link popularized by circus great P.T. Barnum and others in the 1800s (Saxon, 1995, 97). It is a good example of how non-scientists have reinforced Darwinism in the public’s mind by a forgery. A superb money-maker, it was one of many events that “made Barnum the most famous trickster of the nineteenth century” (Cook, 2001, p. 120). Barnum’s almost three feet long Fiji mermaid had a contorted face resembling a human with sagging breasts and a salmon fishlike body.

One of the first Fiji mermaid exhibits was by Samuel Barrett Eades, who bought it from a Japanese fisherman and exhibited it in London where it was “London’s greatest scientific sensation” (Bondeson, 1999, p. 41). The mermaid’s supporters claimed that the Fiji mermaid was caught in Japanese waters, then dried and skillfully prepared by a taxidermist (Bondeson, 1999, p. 38). One expert anatomist, William Clift, examined the specimen carefully, and concluded it was a forgery. Several other naturalists also evaluated the mermaid, and “the majority of them supported Dr. Rees Price” who concluded that the mermaid was real (Bondeson, 1999, p. 41).


The Mermaid Obtained by Barnum

The Fiji mermaid’s location was unknown from 1825 to 1842. It evidently resurfaced in 1842 and then became the Fiji mermaid that came into Barnum’s possession via Boston Museum curator Moses Kimball. Kimball claimed he had purchased it from the son of a local sailor who stated that he bought it from another sailor for 6,000 dollars (Cook, 2001, p. 81). That sailor claimed that he bought it from yet another sailor whose father bought it in Calcutta in 1817, from a man who said he bought it from Japanese sailors (Barnum, 1927, p. 200). The questionable trail of its source ended there.

On June 18, Barnum and Kimball entered into a written agreement to exploit this “curiosity [that was] supposed to be a mermaid.” The agreement allowed Kimball to remain the creature’s owner and Barnum could lease it for $12.50 a week (Kundardt, et al., 1995, p. 41). Barnum claimed that “the reporters and editors who examined this animal were honestly persuaded that it was what it purported to be—a veritable mermaid” (1927, p. 203). Presumably to convince readers of the exhibit’s authenticity, Barnum wrote a review of the history of the mermaid, concluding the mermaid could not have been assembled by a taxidermists because the monkey and fish parts blended together so well that a assembly point could not be detected.

Furthermore, the fish spine “proceeded in a straight and apparently unbroken line to the base of the skull—the hair of the animal was found growing several inches down on the shoulders of the fish, and the application of a microscope absolutely revealed what seemed to be minute fish scales lying in myriads amidst the hair” (Barnum, 1927, p. 203).

In addition the teeth and formation of the fingers and hands differed materially from those of any monkey or orangutan ever discovered, while the location of the fins was different from those of any species of the fish tribe known to naturalists. The animal was an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen, about three feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony (Barnum, 1927, p. 203).
 
Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” was widely advertised, aided by the story that Barnum’s exhibit was caught in the faraway exotic land of the Fiji Islands by a “Dr. J. Griffin,” who actually was one of Barnum’s close associates, Levi Lyman. On the exhibit’s first day, thousands of people attended, including “prominent naturalists” (Kundardt, 1995, p. 41). Sellout crowds followed at other exhibits where it was displayed.


Success Breeds Copies

The exhibit was so successful that fake copies soon followed, including one by famed showman Robert Ripley (Bondeson, 1999, p. 55). Some claim that the original exhibit Barnum displayed around the United States was lost in 1865, when Barnum’s famous Boston museum burned to the ground. Bondeson concludes it was destroyed in the early 1880s in the Boston Museum fire (1999, p. 56).


The Fiji Mermaid as a Missing Link

Belief in some form of evolution pre-dated Darwin. Even before Charles Darwin announced to the public his evolutionary theory, a form of evolutionary theory called the “Great Chain of Being” existed. Dr. “Griffin,” aka Levy Lyman contended in support of this theory that “the mermaid was the missing link between humans and fishes,” and that “the flying fish connected the birds and fishes” (Bondeson, 1999, pp. 51-52). Lyman “pulled people’s legs by the thousand, and … delivered his harangues about mermaids, sea dogs, and the Great Chain of Being,” (Bondeson, 1999, p. 53). For his finding another Fiji mermaid, a explorer named Dr. Eades expected to be honored “as one of the greatest explorers who had found the missing link between man and fish” (Laslo, 2013, p. 5).

As early as 1846, Barnum was looking for “the Grand Connecting Link between two great families, the Human and Brute Creation,” meaning animals, to display in his museum. He did not need to wait for the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 because the public interest in the evolutionary origins of man had been aroused by the 1844 publication of Robert Chamber’s Vestiges of Creation (Betts, 1959, pp. 353-354).  
 
The importance of the Feejee Mermaid was: “Unlike the Piltdown Man hoax, the Feejee Mermaid didn't come bundled with any persuasive evolutionary claims. But it did mimic the type of scientific specimens that were often mobilized on behalf of evolutionary arguments” (Sappol, 2010, p. 2). Therefore it was one of a long line of hoaxes exploited to prove evolution.

Other evolutionary intermediates that connected various other animals were proliferating at this time, providing several potential “missing links” that supported evolution (Gilliams, 1922). For example, the proprietor of the London Museum collected many Natural History specimens including

THE ORNITHORHINCHUS, from New Holland, being the connecting link between the Seal and the Duck. THE FLYING FISH, two distinct species, one from the Gulf Stream, and the other from the West Indies. This animal evidently connects the Bird with the Fish. THE PADDLE-TAIL SNAKE from South America. THE SIREN, or MUD IGUANA, an intermediate animal between the Reptile and the Fish. THE PROTEUS SANGUIHUS, a subterraneous animal from a grotto in Australia—with other animals forming connecting links in the great chain of Animated Nature (Barnum, 1927, p. 207).

These examples provided fertile ground to claim that these putative intermediates both proved and established specific routes of evolution prior to Darwin’s 1859 Origin of the Species.


Why the Excitement?

Hornberger explains that part of the excitement of later Fiji exhibits was due to the fact that this period of history was just on the crux of Darwin and his controversial theories of evolution. For that reason, naturalists jumped on the chance to examine the sapien-fish. And while doubt mixed heartily with the findings of these new scientists, the public was still prepared and excited to pay their coin for a chance to gawk at what they wanted to believe was a miracle of nature [and proof of evolution] (Hornberger, 2005, pp. 141-142).

Although the main goal of the hoax was to make money, many persons, both professionals and others, did not accept the mermaid claim. Consequently, some displays switched to making the evolutionary claim, which seemed more plausible during the early debate about the theory, and may have allowed the hoax to continue for a few more years.


The Hoax Exposed

Though many people believed Barnum’s claim, Barnum admitted in his tell all autobiography that, although the Fiji mermaid was manufactured, it was an important artifact because it was the work “of some ingenious Japanese, Chinaman, or other eastern genius” (Barnum, 1927, p. 203). The negative publicity that resulted after clergyman naturalist Rev. John Bachman formed a committee of scientists, which unanimously declared the Feejee mermaid a fake, was one of the factors that ended the last American Feejee tours (1999, p. 54).  

 It is now documented that the Fiji mermaid was a fraud. It consisted of the torso and head of a baby orangutan or monkey very skillfully sewn to the back half of a large salmon fish and stuffed with artificial filler covered in paper-mâché (Hornberger, 2005, pp. 142-143). The two were joined together so well that detecting where they were joined was very difficult, and thus the fake fooled many people for decades (Cook, 2001, p. 81). Bondeson noted, in view of the lack of knowledge in natural history in the early 1800s, it is no surprise that a mermaid like this one could be accepted by medical men and zoologists. If scholars like Dr. Philip and Dr. Rees Price were unable to see through the imposition, it is easy to imagine the mermaid’s effect on simple, uneducated individuals: thousands of people must have left the exhibition convinced that it was real (1999, p. 63).
 
As noted, the motivation of the hoax was primarily money, but exploiting the Darwinism fad and the mermaid myths were important factors in selling the Fiji fraud to the public—and even to some scientists (Saxon, 1995, p. 95). Over a dozen of these mermaids have been identified by Bondeson. One of the copies is now in the attic storage room of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Claims that Feejee mermaid copies still exist surfaced as late as 1994 when one was auctioned in 1994 in Iowa City.

 As far as could be determined, all of the copies had their origin in Japan or the East Indies, and all were a combination of ape and fish assembled by skilled craftsmen (1999, p. 61). Evidently, constructing fake mermaids, dragons and other monstrosities for money or religious ceremonies was a long tradition in Japan (Nickell, 2005). And, as Laslo wrote, the whole mermaid myth “just won’t go away, no matter how many times they’re debunked as myths and hoaxes” by competent authorities (2013, p. 2). The same could be said for the comprehensive molecules-to man-evolution myth. The history of the Fejee Mermade illustrates the readiness of highly educated persons and people in general to accept any theory but God created life as revealed in Genesis.


References

Barnum, Phineas.T.  1927.  Struggles and Triumphs: Or, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  Edited by George S. Bryan.

Betts, John Richards.  1959.  “P. T. Barnum and the Popularization of Natural History.”  Journal of the History of Ideas, 20(3):353-368.

Bondeson, Jan. 1997. A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. New York: W.W. Norton.

____________. 1999. The Feejee Mermaid and other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Cook, James W. 2001. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Gilliams, E. Leslie. 1922. “Side-Show Freaks as Seen by Science.” Illustrated World, October 38(3):213-215, 306.

Hornberger, Francine. 2005. Carney Folk: The World’s Weirdest Sideshow Acts. New York: Citadel Press.

Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. 1995. P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Laslo, Greg. 2013. The Mythical Mermaid. The Missing Link Between Man and Fish?
http://www.dtmag.com/Stories/Weird%20Stuff/08-07-feature.htm.


Nickell, Joe. 2005. Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington, KY.: University Press of Kentucky.

Sappol, Michael. 2010. The Feejee Mermaid.
http://vcande.blogspot.com/2010/04/49-what-were-relationships-between.html.


Saxon, A. H. 1995. P. T. Barnum: Legend and the Man. New York: Columbia University Press.


http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/