Entrepreneur and showman P.T. Barnum operated the American Museum (1841–1865) in New York City. The institution contained all kinds of dioramas, waxworks, and exhibitions. It also featured live lectures. Barnum coined the term “humbug” to describe entertaining displays that would at once try to deceive or trick viewers into believing that what they saw was true, while also invite the possibilities of doubt.

Barnum deliberately aimed to blur the natural and the man-made, the scientific and the fantastic.

The three-foot long Feejee Mermaid was one of the most popular items at the museum. As he did for many of his most popular items, Barnum invented an elaborate backstory. He generated fictional correspondence about how the mermaid had been caught near the Feejee Islands in the South Pacific and that it had been on display at the (imaginary) London Lyceum of Natural History. As an additional ploy to generate interest, Barnum’s accomplice posed as Dr. J. Griffin to deliver lectures on the subject, and advertisements of the mermaid that Barnum circulated depicted a sea maiden.

The mermaid was actually leased from Barnum’s friend, the Boston Museum owner Moses Kimball, who had acquired it via Boston sea captain Samuel Barrett Edes, who had purchased it from a Japanese craftsman. The grotesque creature was a baby monkey sewn together with the body of a fish.

References for more on P.T. Barnum, see Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975). P.T. Barnum, Barnum’s Own Story: The Autobiography of P.T. Barnum (New York: Dover Publications, 2017). Image credits: American Museum banner created by Mark Coleman, The National Fairground Archive. The Feejee Mermaid, in Jessie Szalay, “The Feejee Mermaid: Early Barnum Hoax,” Live Science, September 8, 2016, originally published in The New York Herald, 1842.

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