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4. Feejee Mermaid 1842

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The Feejee Mermaid was presented as a mummified body of something, supposedly a creature that was half mammal and half fish (like a grotesque version of normal mermaid stories). The original exhibit was popularized by circus great P.T. Barnum, but has since been copied many times in other attractions, including the collection of famed showman Robert Ripley. The original exhibit was shown around the United States, but was lost in the 1860s when Barnum’s museum caught fire. The exhibit has since been acquired by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and is currently housed in the museum’s attic storage area.

The Fiji mermaid came into Barnum’s possession via his Boston counterpart Moses Kimball, who brought it down to Barnum in late spring of 1842. On June 18, Barnum and Kimball entered into a written agreement to exploit this “curiosity supposed to be a mermaid.” Kimball would remain the creature’s sole owner and Barnum would lease it for $12.50 a week. Barnum christened his artefact “The Feejee Mermaid”.

In reality, the mermaid was a gaff, the work of an Indonesian craftsman using either papier-mâché and materials from exotic fish, or the tail of a fish and a torso of a baby orangutan, stitched together with the head of a monkey.

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