The Fiji Mermaid
The Fiji Mermaid was exhibited by P. T. Barnum in 1842. He had a museum of "curiosities" which included a midget called General Tom Thumb and the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. Of course, the mermaid was a fake. Barnum was a master showman who knew how to turn an interesting curiosity into an event. His success can be measured by the fact that over 150 years later we are still talking about it.
Supposedly, the thing was caught by an English scientist off the coast of Fiji, hence the name. In reality, Barnum had leased it from a man named Moses Kimball. Kimball had a museum in Boston similar to Barnum's in New York City. Kimball had bought the mermaid off of a seaman.
Barnum's publicity campaign used a phony expert and deceptive pictures of mermaids. The mermaids in the pictures were naked young girls with fish tails. This imagery fired up the public's imagination. I can only wonder how they felt when they got to the show and discovered that Barnum's mermaid was dead, dried-up and really ugly.
The "mermaid" was actually from Japan where there was a cottage industry of producing fake mermaids for sale to tourists. In those sad, pre-internet days news traveled slowly so few people were aware that mermaids were easily obtainable in Japan. Their ignorance combined with Barnum's showmanship turned it into a celebrity.
Today, we may ask how people could ever have believed it. I think that most people today would still be fooled. The mermaid was a fish's tail stitched to the body of an orangutan - a far cry from the beautiful creatures in these pages. Probably the thing's ugliness is what was so convincing. An attractive young girl with a phony tail would have fooled no one.
The Fiji Mermaid disappeared in the late 19th century, no one knows the exact year. It may have been because of a fire at Barnum's museum in 1865. About 20 year later there was another fire at Kimball's in Boston. In both instances the buildings, and all their contents, were completely destroyed.
It seems to me fitting that it has disappeared without a trace. She has returned to that mysterious place that all mermaids come from.
The term "Fiji Mermaid" has entered the language to describe any similar sort of fake mermaid.