Bar­num’s great­est wheezes

The Fee­jee Mer­maid

BBC History Magazine - - Pt Barnum -

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

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