The Strange Story of
the Fiji Mermaid and Evolution
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
“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
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
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).
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).
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
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
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).
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
Why the Excitement?
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).
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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