- Feejee Mermaid
- Not Applicable ()
The most expensive fake mermaid (sold as a "real" mermaid) is the Feejee Mermaid, a forged creature designed to look like a mummified mermaid exhibited in the 1820s and 1840s in South Africa, Britain and America. In 1822, it cost 5,000 Spanish dollars (approximately $126,600/£110,000 today) when it was purchased by the American sea captain Samuel Barrett Eades. The mermaid attracted significant media attention on both sides of the Atlantic when it was exhibited and fuelled intense debates about the existence of submarine humanoids among members of the public and scientific communities.
Mummified mermaids, which were made in Japan from wire, papier-mâché, dried fish skin and piscine or simian jaws, were originally devotional objects representing a Japanese spirit known as a ningyo (literally “human-fish”). However, restricted trade and contact between Europe and Japan meant that when European sailors came into contact with such specimens they believed them to be real. This is what happened with the fake mermaid purchased by Captain Samuel Barrett Eades, that eventually came to be known across the world as the Feejee Mermaid.
In January 1822, Eades, a sea captain from Boston who owned a one-eighth share in trade ship The Pickering, saw a mummified mermaid on display in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) and, believing it to be real, purchased it from Dutch sailors, who had in turn reputedly bought it from a Japanese fisherman. To buy the mermaid, Eades made the rash decision to sell The Pickering and her cargo for approximately 6,000 Spanish dollars. He paid 5,000 Spanish dollars for the mummified creature and used the rest of the money to secure passage back to England, exhibiting the creature in Cape Town, South Africa, en route. He clearly believed the mermaid would make him a fortune and provide tangible proof of the existence of merfolk for the scientific community.
In April 1822, a report of the exhibition in Cape Town was sent to the British press from a missionary who saw Eades’s mermaid there. Mermaid-mania ensued, with scientists and the public eager to see the specimen. At this time, science was interested in unpacking the truth about whether submarine humanoids existed, so the mermaid was the focus of intense speculation and media coverage. She was exhibited for several months at the Turf Coffeehouse on St James’s Street in London, with admission set at 1 shilling and crowds stretching down the street and around corners to see her.
Despite the great fame the mermaid attracted, Eades’s impulsive purchase caught up with him when Stephen Ellery, who owned the other seven-eighths of The Pickering, started legal proceedings against him for selling the ship and cargo. The mermaid, which scientists eventually condemned as a fake, was declared a Ward of Chancery, so that Eades could not abscond with her 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 working to pay back his debt.
Persistently exhibited as a curiosity, the mermaid toured Britain, and possibly Europe, for several years, until it was purchased from Eades’s son by Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum in Massachusetts. Kimball took the mermaid to the American showman P. T. Barnum who made good use of the media and a fake scientist to generate public interest in seeing her. It was at this point that Barnum created a more exotic origin for the mermaid, claiming she had been caught in Fiji, hence the epithet Feejee Mermaid. She was exhibited in New York in 1842 and then alternated between being part of Barnum’s exhibitions and those at Kimball’s museum. Today only drawings of the mermaid survive. She is believed to have been destroyed in one of the fires that consumed Barnum’s collections in the 1860s or 1880s.