most expensive mermaid split image

As the new live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid hits cinemas, we’re taking a look back at the bizarre story of the world’s most expensive mermaid.

Far from the beautiful appearance of Ariel (played by Halle Bailey in the new film and voiced by Jodi Benson in the 1989 animation), the infamous Feejee Mermaid looks more like a monster from a horror movie.

The ‘mummified mermaid’ was believed to have been created by sewing the torso and head of a juvenile monkey onto the back half of a fish, and was enough to convince American sea captain Samuel Barrett Eades of the existence of mer-people.

It went on to become quite the attraction at sideshows, including P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York, but unfortunately for Eades, it cost him everything.

A drawing of the Feejee Mermaid

Mermaids just like this one were regularly made in Japan from wire, papier-mâché, dried fish skin and piscine or simian jaws as devotional objects representing a Japanese spirit known as ningyo, which means “human-fish”.

But restrictions in trade and contact between Europe and Japan at the time meant that European sailors seeing them for the first time knew nothing about the history.

And this is exactly what happened when Eades stumbled upon the Feejee Mermaid in 1822.

Eades, who hailed from Boston, USA, owned one-eighth of the shares in trade ship The Pickering.

A papier-mâché mermaid

He saw the Feejee Mermaid on display in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) and thought it was the real deal.

He made the rash decision to sell The Pickering and her cargo for 6,000 Spanish dollars so he could buy the mermaid from some Dutch sailors, who had bought it from a Japanese fisherman.

He bought it for 5,000 Spanish dollars, which would be around $126,600 (£110,000) today.

Eades used the money he had left over from the sale of the ship to secure passage back to England, and was convinced he’d make a fortune by exhibiting his discovery.

He stopped off in Cape Town, South Africa on the way to England to exhibit it and was certain he’d not only make a fortune, but also prove to the scientific community once and for all that merfolk existed.

After a report from someone who’d seen the mermaid in Cape Town made its way to the British press, mer-mania swept the nation, with scientists and members of the public eager to see it for themselves.

There was a lot of focus in the scientific community at the time on unpacking the truth on submarine humanoids, so the mermaid was the subject of much speculation.

It was displayed for several months in London, with crowds lining the streets to pay the 1 shilling admission fee.

Disney's The Little Mermaid

Eades seemed to be on to a winner, but his impulsive purchase came back to bite him.

Stephen Ellery, who owned the other seven-eighths of The Pickering took legal action against him for selling the ship and cargo.

The mermaid was eventually condemned as fake by scientists and Eades was unable to abscond with it before the legal case was settled.

The courts found in favour of Ellery and Eades was forced to spend the rest of his life at sea to work off his debt.

The mermaid was still considered a curiosity despite declarations it was fake, and it toured Britain, and possibly Europe, for several years.

It was later sold by Eades’s son to Moses Kimball from the Boston Museum in Massachusetts, USA, who took it to the famous American showman P.T. Barnum.

Barnum, who was rather favourably depicted in musical film The Greatest Showman, created a fake backstory for the mermaid, claiming it was caught in Fiji, which led to it being known as the Feejee Mermaid.

He made good use of the media – and a fake scientist – to generate much public interest in it.

The largest underwater mermaid show

The mermaid went back and forward between Barnum’s exhibitions and Kimball’s museum, but today only drawings of it have survived.

It’s believed the mermaid may have been destroyed in one of the fires that consumed Barnum’s collections in the 1860s and 1880s.

Professor Sarah Peverley, one of Guinness World Records’ expert consultants, said: "Nowadays it’s hard to believe that Eades was willing to risk everything on the mermaid, but back then the existence of merpeople was still up for debate. It genuinely wasn’t known whether mermaids were real or not. Eades thought that his mermaid would settle the issue and make his fortune."

Sarah, a professor at the University of Liverpool and an expert in mermaids in culture, added: "While other so-called mermaids had been exhibited across Europe before, none were like his. This is because it came from Japan, where it was made as a religious icon representing one of the yokai or spirits in Japanese culture. 

"From the seventeenth century to the mid nineteenth century, Japan had a strict isolationist policy, known as Sakoku, which limited trade and contact with foreign nations, so little was known about its culture in European circles. Objects like the mermaid were not understood by outsiders, so when they fell into the hands of sailors like Eades, they exchanged hands for large sums of money and were taken out of context. Imaginations ran wild.

"Eades’s mermaid captures just how spiritual, imaginative, curious, optimistic, and utterly gullible humans can be. It’s tragic that he lost everything, but P. T Barnum made a fortune from her. Barnum was just better at dealing with the conflicted opinions the mermaid evoked in people. He left it for the public to decide if she was real or not, rather than telling them she was the answer science was seeking."

If you want to hear more of Sarah’s thoughts on mermaids, check out these radio interviews here and here.

She’s also currently writing a book on the cultural history of mermaids.

The obsession continues

The world is just as fascinated by mermaids today as it ever was.

merpeople on netflix

A new docuseries has just landed on Netflix to keep up with the demand.

MerPeople follows a group of people hoping to make it as professional mermaids at different points in their careers.

We’re definitely no exception to the rule here at Guinness World Records either, and we’ve got lots of mermaid-related records.

In 2021, 110 professional mermaids came together to stage the largest underwater mermaid show, and we’ve also tracked the farthest swim with a monofin and the most air rings blown underwater in one minute, which was achieved by a mermaid performer.

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