Fiji mermaid

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P.T. Barnum's Feejee mermaid from 1842

The Fiji mermaid (also Feejee mermaid) was an object comprising the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. It was a common feature of sideshows, where it was presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of a mermaid. The original object was exhibited by P. T. Barnum from 1842 until the 1860s when it was destroyed in a fire. The original had fish scales with animal hair superimposed on its body with pendulous breasts on its chest. The mouth was wide open with its teeth bared. The right hand was against the right cheek, and the left tucked under its lower left jaw.[1] Several replicas and variations have also been made and exhibited under similar names and pretexts.[2]


Mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries. These were often dugongs or people afflicted with sirenomelia. During the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, the remains of mermaids were a staple of cabinets of curiosities.

The Fiji Mermaid's beginning[edit]

People's knowledge of the Fiji Mermaid started when Samuel Barrett Edes bought it from Japanese sailors in 1822, which he purchased for $6000.[3][4] In Edes' possession, it was displayed in London in 1822. The Fiji Mermaid was advertised in a publication by J. Limbird in the Mirror.[3] After that, Edes willed the mermaid to his son, who sold it to Moses Kimball in 1842. Kimball brought the Fiji Mermaid to New York that summer to show P. T. Barnum.[3] Before agreeing to exhibit the Fiji Mermaid, Barnum had his naturalist examine it. His naturalist could not conceive how it would have been manufactured because of the teeth and fins, but he said it had to be fake because he did not believe mermaids were real.[3][5] However, despite his naturalist's beliefs, Barnum hired it for his exhibit. Kimball would remain the creature's sole owner and Barnum would lease it for $12.50 a week. Barnum christened his artifact "The Feejee Mermaid".

P. T. Barnum[edit]

Once Barnum hired the Fiji Mermaid, he knew he had to get people's attention to actually come examine the specimen. He had letters sent to New York newspapers from Alabama, South Carolina, and Washington D.C. No one knew that the letters were created by Barnum himself until years later.[5] These letters commented on the weather and alluded that there was a mermaid in the possession of "Dr. J. Griffin", which he had allegedly caught while in South America. Griffin was actually Levi Lyman, one of Barnum's close associates.[6] To keep the plan working, Griffin checked into a Philadelphia hotel. After staying a few days and gaining a positive reputation with the public, Griffin showed the landlord of the hotel the mermaid as a thanks for his hospitality. The landlord was so intrigued, he begged that some of his friends, many of whom were editors, be shown the mermaid.[5]

This last act made the plan successful. The Feejee Mermaid had the public's curiosity. Griffin went to New York and at first only displayed it to a limited audience, but then "relented" to display the Feejee Mermaid in Concert Hall for a week.[7] During that week, it was actually only displayed for five days because Barnum "convinced" Griffin to bring the mermaid to the The American Museum of Natural History. While in the museum, Barnum had 10,000 illustrated pamphlets created that described mermaids, with "The Feejee Mermaid" in particular.[8]

After Barnum[edit]

While exhibited by P. T. Barnum, the Fiji mermaid started creating controversy, especially in the South.[9] After its debut, it dropped from sight.[10] In the 1860s, Barnum's museum caught fire multiple times. During one of those fires, the original exhibit was supposedly lost. However, the Fiji mermaid concept was so popularized by Barnum, it has since been copied many times in other attractions. There is controversy today on whether it actually disappeared or not. Many claim to have the original exhibit, but Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, has the most proof that their exhibit is the actual original. It does not look completely the same, but it does have the same flat nose and bared teeth.[11] The thought that the fires could have altered the appearance of the mermaid are reason for it not looking completely like it did in Barnum's possession.

Later incarnations[edit]

The Banff Merman, similar to a Fiji mermaid, on display at the Indian Trading Post

In his Secrets of the Sideshows, Joe Nickell documents several modern-day claimants to the title of Barnum's "true" original mermaid, or as he describes them, "fakes of Barnum's fake". Exhibits at Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore, and Bobby Reynolds's traveling sideshow all lay claim to the title, but in Nickell's opinion, none is to be believed.[12] He also describes an update of the tradition that uses an elaborate system to project the image of a live woman into a fishbowl, giving the appearance that she is only an inch or two long. He relates the story of a performer who was smoking a cigarette in her hidden chamber; the man outside was confronted by an angry patron who demanded to know how this was possible if the "mermaid" was underwater.[13]

A guide to constructing a Fiji mermaid appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fortean Times magazine, in an article written by special effects expert and stop-motion animator Alan Friswell. Rather than building the figure with fish and monkey parts, Friswell used papier mache and modelling putty, sealed with wallpaper paste, and with doll's hair glued to the scalp.

In popular culture[edit]

In Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, Rainn Wilson's character is murdered and his corpse is transformed into a Fiji mermaid via taxidermy.

In the '90s TV series The X-Files, the episode "Humbug" depicts the possibility of a series of sideshow murders having been committed by a Fiji mermaid.

In the 2010 animated series Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the Fiji Mermaid makes an appearance as one of the objects in display at Darrow's Oddity Museum, in the episode "The Secret Serum".

In the 2012 animated series Gravity Falls, the Fiji Mermaid makes an appearance as one of the objects in display at the Mystery Shack, appearing first in the episode "Tourist Trapped".


  1. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P.T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 151. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  2. ^ Nickell, Joe (2005). Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 333–335. 
  3. ^ a b c d Barnum, P. T. (1871). Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum. New York: American News Company. pp. 129–130. 
  4. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 149–151. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  5. ^ a b c "The Feejee Mermaid Archive". The Lost Museum. American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  6. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 150. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  7. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 150. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  8. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 150–151. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  9. ^ Greensberg, Kenneth S (Feb 1990). "The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South". The American Historical Review 95 (1): 57–74. doi:10.2307/2162954. 
  10. ^ Levi, Steven C (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 151. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  11. ^ Levi, Steven C. (April 1977). "P. T. Barnum and the FeeJee Mermaid". Western Folklore 36 (2): 152–153. doi:10.2307/1498966. 
  12. ^ Nickell, pp. 334–335.
  13. ^ Nickell, pp. 292–293.
  • Jan Bondeson. (1999). The Feejee mermaid and other essays in natural and unnatural history. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3609-5. 
  • James W. Cook. (2001). The arts of deception : playing with fraud in the age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00457-4. 
  • Joe Nickell (2005). Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2358-5. 
  • A. H. Saxon. (1995). P.T.Barnum : legend and the man. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-05687-8. 

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