The Art of Creating Chimeras: The Fabulous Fiji Mermaid
False mermaids have existed for hundreds of years and have been the ruin of many sailors.
Sirens are creatures that should be handled carefully, and we are warned of that from their etymology: the word siren comes from the name of the rope with which the Scythians captured their enemies.
In myths and legends, sirens were the ruin of many a sailor. The Greeks said that sirens had such seductive voices that they drove men mad and made them abandon their ships. For that reason Odysseus called for the sailors to be lashed to the mast before being allowed to hear their song. In the world outside of myths, people believed in sirens for a long time. While science did not deem them impossible, there was always someone who mistook the profile of a sea lion or the song of a whale for the maidens of the sea. And, as life imitates fiction, this belief in sirens was also fateful to mariners.
There is, for example, Samuel Barrett Eades. The scientist and writer Jan Bondeson tells the story of this character from the 19th century in his book The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Barrett Eades was co-proprietor of a merchant ship called Pickering. On one of his voyages, a merchant showed him a dissected mermaid that he had fished somewhere off the coast of Japan. Barrett Eades thought that the mermaid would make him a millionaire and he sold his ship in order to buy it. The creature was small, about the size of a monkey, and it was impossible to distinguish the join between the torso, with that hairy head that appeared to be twisted in pain, and the fishtail. More than one naturalist judged it to be real and it was exhibited in London and New York with huge commercial success. Even after the anatomist William Clift declared that it was a fake, Barrett Eades still managed to make some money exhibiting it in circuses. But little by little the mermaid’s fame waned and the seaman lost a lawsuit against the ship’s co-proprietor, who was furious because he had sold it without giving him his corresponding share. The judge ordered Barrett Eades to work for him on his ship until he paid off the debt. The only inheritance the sailor left his daughter was the mermaid, and which fell into the hands of Moses Kimball.
Kimball was a fraud of the first degree who had deceived everybody, claiming a woman who was 80 years old was actually 160. He made her appear in public and assured the audience that she had been the nanny of George Washington. Kimball hired a man and disguised him as a scientist so that he would declare the mermaid to be real. He then began to exhibit it in his museum, the Scudder’s Museum, and became a millionaire.
Lying is an art. Inventing mermaids is not easy. And there is a long tradition of false mermaids, such as the one that Edmund Burke claimed to have seen, or the one described by Samuel Fallours in 1718 or the one that Linneo almost went to see in Denmark. The majority of them came from the Orient and were made with the bones and hair of monkeys and the tail of a salmon or other fish. Of all of them, the Fiji mermaid is the most famous.
Today, taxidermy is considered an art in itself. In some parts of the world competitions are held in which taxidermists compete to see who can sculpt better and who can make a corpse look more lifelike. In many places there are stores selling dissected animals and mythical creatures: jackalopes, chimeras and mermaids. Now they are sold not as something phony but as a fiction, as an acknowledged trick.
The Fiji mermaid was a phony that was so well constructed that there were many that later tried to imitate it. Jan Bondeson says that the mermaid in the Peabody Museum in Harvard, and which it is claimed is the Fiji mermaid, is false. It is very different to the one we see in the drawings that still exist of the original. It is a phony version of the phony one, the lie as a lie.
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