Mr Barnum’s Curious Creature on Display

This grand, interesting and very cheap Exhibition, at Masonic Hall, embracing the most wonderful curiosity in the world, the MERMAID, and the ORNITHORYNCUS, OURANG OUTANG, &c., with FANCY GLASS BLOWING, by a most excellent Artist; together with a unique and astonishing entertainment on the stage, at 7 ½ o’clock P.M. consisting of Signor Veronia’s inimitable MECHANICAL FIGURES, representing human life; and VENTRILOQUISM AND MAGIC by Mr. Wyman, who has scarce an equal in the world in his line. Will continue at the above place until Tuesday evening only. Doors open from 9 o’clock A.M. till 9 P.M. Admission to the whole, only 50 cents; children under 12 half price.


So ran an ad for one of P.T. Barnum’s most successful attractions: The Feejee Mermaid. Reportedly found in the South Pacific by Dr. J Griffin of the British Lyceum of Natural History, the creature was the subject of much discussion in the New York press in 1842 as Barnum tried without success to persuade Griffin to allow his discovery to be exhibited.

Eventually, the doctor relented. Of course Griffin wasn’t a naturalist, and there was no such thing as the Lyceum of Natural History. It was all a publicity stunt, and the crowds visited in droves, landing Barnum thousands of ticket sales. He later exhibited the marvel at his American Museum in Manhattan.

The crowds were bound to be slightly disappointed; the “mermaid” wasn’t the busty female in the illustrations that Barnum had provided to all the newspapers but instead a shriveled creature looking as though it was issuing its last, soul-curdling death-scream.


The taxidermy critter was likely stitched together from a monkey and a fish; such novelties  were somewhat common in Japanese fishing villages. Its fate today is unknown, although Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology does possess a “mermaid” of similar style, clearly cobbled together from several animals.


And Other Bizarre Freaks of Nature.

P.T. Barnum’s attractions made him a very rich man. He boosted the reputation of live theater, which had previously been thought of as an immoral diversion. He promoted the careers of such singers as Jenny Lind, and he produced a play based on the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  His circuses and museums featured all manner of oddities, including the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker, Commodore Nutt (a minuscule midget), and the phony, unearthed Cardiff Giant. Barnum’s autobiography was a best-seller second only to the New Testament.


Known in his day as “the Shakespeare of advertising,” Barnum was a master of persuasion. He  never hesitated to fill his promotions with “humbug”–the beautiful lies his customers demanded.  Americans during the Civil War wanted distraction, and Barnum’s fanciful fakes were a way to take their minds off the blood-sodden fields of Bull Rull, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg.

Although he claimed to despise politics, Barnum did successfully run for the Connecticut legislature as a Republican. There he spoke out in support of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. He also successfully sponsored a bill banning all forms of contraception.

Like all liars, he took greatest pleasure in pointing out the falsehoods of others. His book Humbugs of the World took issue with many hoaxes, including popular spiritualists who claimed they could communicate with the dead.

A mainstay of Barnum’s theater productions were minstrel shows, in which white performers would don blackface makeup, sing supposedly “black” songs and crack racist jokes at the expense of African Americans. The portrayals of black people in these shows were crude and stereotypical, and often the characters would talk fondly of the days of slavery.


There is no historical evidence that Phineas T. Barnum ever spoke the words he is most famous for: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

With these words and a grand scorn the cosmopolitan turned on his heel, leaving his companion at a loss to determine where exactly the fictitious character had been dropped, and the real one, if any, resumed.  –Herman Melville, The Confidence Man