BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Listen
Connect
Newsletter

Fishy Business

When you go to a science museum, like the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History, there’s an understanding that what you see is what you get. Displays are clearly labeled. If there’s an animal specimen on display, there’s probably a little plaque explaining where that animal came from, what it eats, and so on. Deception doesn’t enter into the equation.

An image from an early 20th century guide to the American Museum of Natural History, with the sort of specimens we're used to at reputable museums.

An image from an early 20th century guide to the American Museum of Natural History, with the sort of specimens we’re used to at reputable museums.

But for many museums, this dedication to the serious business of the truth can be problematic. How do you keep a crowd coming back if there isn’t any intrigue?

In the 1840’s, Philadelphia’s Peale Museum faced exactly this problem. The museum was struggling, and administrators turned to unconventional means in their quest to bring in crowds and cash, hosting concerts, magic shows, and even blackface minstrel shows. It was their mermaid, though, that caught our attention, and the attention of University of Michigan historian Jay Cook. Here’s how Cook described the creature:

“This is not the Little Mermaid by any means. This is something that looks like a kind of fossilized or petrified monkey corpse in a kind of scene of agony. It does not look like a happy creature.”

Please. You thought this was what mermaids looked like?

Please. You thought this was what mermaids looked like?

But the Peale didn’t try to fool its audience even as it presented this seemingly fantastical creature. Instead of trying to pass it off as a true mermaid, Peale’s exhibit was as transparent as it could be about its true origins. The “mermaid” (really the top half of a monkey cleverly sewn to the back half of a salmon) was accompanied by an explanation that it had been created by a Japanese craftsman – a way of striking a balance between the sensational and the factual. 

The Peale Museum’s mermaid wasn’t the only one swimming its way through the popular imagination. In 1842, P.T. Barnum, then just a young man in New York City trying to make his way in show business, hit on the idea of an act based around another creature collage: the “Feejee mermaid.”

A shocked Bostonian examine's Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid," 1856.

A shocked Bostonian examines Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid,” 1856.

Unlike the Peale Museum, though, Barnum didn’t come right out and let his audiences know that his mermaid (another monkey-fish Frankenstein’s monster) was a fake. Instead, he played up the uncertainty around the mermaid’s authenticity. Jay Cook again:

“He accuses himself of fraud. He hires rivals to accuse him of fraud, to exhibit rival mermaids who they admit are artificial curiosities and not authentic in any way. But then, they accuse him of doing the same thing. And so Barnum’s consumers don’t really ask the kinds of questions that Peale would ask. They don’t care much about what a mermaid eats, where it lives, its habitats, its life expectancy, how it mates. What Barnum’s customers are interested in is the question of, is this mermaid in fact an active impostor, or overt deception, or fraud?”

At first glance, it seems like an entirely counterintuitive way to do business. After all, what kind of businessman would intentionally undermine customers’ confidence in his own product?

But Barnum ended up launching his career off the success of this seemingly hare-brained venture. Barnum’s genius, and what allowed his act to succeed, was his grasp on what made the people of the era tick. Jay Cook explains:

One of Barnum's bigger successes, Jumbo.

One of Barnum’s bigger successes, Jumbo.

“What Barnum really understands, I think in this intuitive way, is that his customers are now operating in a world of strangers– the new, modern metropolis where they don’t know the people who try to sell them things or bring them into business ventures. This is a brave new world of the 1830s, 1840s. And many of the folks in his exhibition rooms are new migrants to New York City…working through these problems of perception, these problems of how you know what’s real and what’s fake.”

Barnum’s mermaid gave his customers an outlet for these uncertainties and fears, letting them discuss deeper issues of trust and deception in the safe context of a sideshow act. A true showman, Barnum knew just how to turn the doubt surrounding his Feejee mermaid into as much of a spectacle as the mermaid itself.

This is a segment from our show on the history of deception in America. You can listen to the whole episode here.