June 18, 1842 – Today was the day that legendary promoter P.T. Barnum bought the rights to display the Fiji Mermaid. This half-woman, half-fish oddity would become one of his most popular sideshow attractions of all time.
The New York Sun gleefully reported on the bizarre specimen:
We’ve seen it! What? Why that Mermaid! The mischief you have! Where? What is it? It’s twin sister to the deucedest looking thing imaginable—half fish, half flesh; and ‘taken by and large,’ the most odd of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced.
Of course there were some grumbling doubters in the crowd. Barnum’s publicity machine had blanketed New York City with posters of attractive, bare-breasted mermaids. The actual Fiji Mermaid was a shriveled up old mummy of the supposed creature. Its ghastly appearance probably made it even more convincing.
The Fiji Mermaid toured for years as a star attraction. Its last known address was at Moses Kimball’s museum of curiosities in Boston. Over the years there were hundreds of other Fiji Mermaids making the rounds on the carnival circuit, but it’s feared that Barnum’s original mermaid was destroyed in an 1880 fire.
But maybe not. Harvard’s Peabody Museum claims to have an actual Fiji Mermaid that was rescued from Kimball’s collection. Could this be the creature that started it all?