Barnum’s greatest wheezes
The Feejee Mermaid
In July 1842, the PT Barnum marketing machine went into overdrive, telling the world about a mermaid that he had acquired for display in his American Museum in New York. The mermaid had, he said, been caught near the Feejee Islands in the South Pacific, and its authenticity had been confirmed by Dr J Griffin of the British Lyceum of Natural History.
The people of New York were transfixed, and flocked to the museum in their droves. When they got there, they found something quite different to the beautiful ocean maiden that the Barnum advertising campaign had promised. What they set eyes on was a ghoulish amalgamation of a monkey’s withered head and torso and a fish tail, which had been stitched together by Japanese fishermen earlier in the century.
‘The Feejee Mermaid’ was, of course, a hoax masterminded by Barnum. And the esteemed Dr J Griffin? He was Levi Lyman, Barnum’s accomplice-in- deception. The press railed at Barnum’s audacity. But that didn’t stop the ring and clunk of the cash registers.
The mermaid that wasn’t: Barnum’s nautical curiosity was a monkey’s head stitched to a fish’s tail