When P.T. Barnum took control of Scudder’s American Museum in 1841, the American public was brimming with social confidence. Ordinary people were empowered like they had never been. Individual learning was prized and the American Museum in New York City catered to this demand by offering an eclectic collection of natural history, illusion, and entertainment. The success of the American Museum was due to Barnum’s knack for interpreting popular taste and his ability to stir curiosity in the minds of the American public through innovative marketing. Barnum did actually contribute quite a bit to natural history, but he is most remembered for his “humbgs” or hoaxes.
The Feejee Mermaid is the perfect example of this. Barnum acquired the “mermaid” through a friend. Even Barnum didn’t believe the “mermaid” was authentic. The Feejee Mermaid was most likely the work of a Japanese artisan. It was half monkey, half fish, and covered in animal hair and fish scales. Barnum saw the commercial possibilities of this grotesque object if advertised properly. His advertisements emphasize the exotic nature of the mermaid. The public was captivated and Barnum used the mermaid to drum up business for the museum. Eventually the mermaid went on tour through the Southern states. Most likely, the public knew the mermaid was a fake. But, they came to view the mermaid to evaluate its authenticity for themselves. It was an exercise in learning.
Advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid from the Charleston Courier, January 1843
Some people believe the Peabody Museum now holds the original Feejee Mermaid. This “humbug” has been replicated over the years. I even saw a Feejee Mermaid in Ripley’s Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.
Interacting with the grotesque and unknown is engaging for any student. The Feejee Mermaid offers a doorway to learning about P.T. Barnum, hoaxes, nineteenth century American life, museums, and advertising.
Here are a few ideas for using this object in the classroom
- With younger elementary grades, encourage students to list observations focusing on only what they can see. Then invite them to make interpretations/inferences on what the object is or ask questions.
- Analyze primary source material related to the Feejee Mermaid: advertisements, images, and Barnum’s own words on the mermaid which can be found in his book P.T Barnum’s Own Story: The Autobiography of P.T. Barnum. There is also plenty of source material from Barnum’s associates regarding the Feejee Mermaid.
- Discuss the history of museums and cabinets of curiosities. Research Charles Wilson Peale and the American Museum in New York City.
- Create advertisements for the Feejee Mermaid.
- Research hoaxes and frauds. Then have students create their own object-based hoax or fraud using the information they have learned.
- Allow students to create their own exhibit of unusual objects similar to the Feejee Mermaid using photographs or 3-D replicas complete with label copy and interactive components.
- Analyze the connection between 19th century fiction and the Feejee Mermaid hoax or the connections between “humbugs” and American tall tales.
- Create a timeline of Barnum’s most famous hoaxes or exhibits.
- Check out some of the great children’s literature on P.T. Barnum or read up on him yourself.