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PHOTOGRAPH OF A “MERMAID”: AN EXAMPLE OF A POPULAR FORM OF FAKES AND HOAXES

Fake "Mermaid" (1923)Image: Gold Museum Collection (2011.0072)

Fake “Mermaid” (1923)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (2011.0072)

This unusual photograph was donated as part of a larger collection of social history items relating to a local Ballarat family. The donor’s father had a keen interest in photography, collecting images as well as taking them himself. The donor believes that this particular image may have been brought back to Australia by a member of her father’s family who went overseas to serve in the First World War.

Close inspection of the bizarre object depicted in the centre has revealed that it is a fake “mermaid” (or “merman”). Although the handwritten caption on the back of the photograph states that it was “caught in China Sea, half human, half fish, now be exhibited in South Africa (Nov. 1923),” it looks remarkably similar to other famous fakes such as the “Banff Merman” that is currently exhibited in the Banff Indian Trading Post in Canada.

Fake "Mermaid" (1923) - detailImage: Gold Museum Collection (2011.0072)

Fake “Mermaid” (1923) – detail
Image: Gold Museum Collection (2011.0072)

These gruesome creatures were constructed by taxidermists who would sew the torso of a monkey onto the lower half of a fish. They were popular exhibits in circus sideshows during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in the USA.

The most celebrated example was the “Fiji (or “Feejee”) Mermaid”, purchased from sailors and displayed in New York by the master showman P.T. Barnum in 1842. Barnum cleverly constructed the hoax with his friend Levi Lyman, who posed as an English gentleman named “Dr. J. Griffin,” and brought the “Mermaid” to the USA from the “British Lyceum of Natural History.” The media ate up the story, and the public flocked to see it, even though it looked nothing like the mermaids of popular imagination.

P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" (1840s)Image: Wikipedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Feejee_mermaid.jpg

P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” (1840s)
Image: Wikipedia Commons

The original “Fiji Mermaid” is believed to have been destroyed in a fire in the 1880s, but examples of similar fakes can still be found in collecting institutions such as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

To learn more about the “Feejee Mermaid,” see:

Museum of Hoaxes, “Feejee Mermaid, 1842”; Wikipedia, “Feejee Mermaid”;The Human Marvels, “Feejee Mermaid”.

To learn more about the “Banff Merman,” see:

Tom Babin, ‘Up Close and Personal with the Banff Merman at the Banff Indian Trading Post, in Swerve; Calgary Herald, ‘Banff’s Oldest Celebrity Resident’; Roadside America, ‘Merman: Indian Trading Post’.

To see examples in other museums, search for “mermaid” or “merman” in the following collections:

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; Mead Art Museum. Roadside America, ‘Pals of the Merman’.

To learn more about “mermaids” in mythology see:

Gail-Nina Anderson, “Mermaids in Myth and Art,”  in Fortean Times, November 2009; Wikipedia, ‘Mermaid’.

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