Segment from Bridge for Sale

The Ugliest Little Mermaid

Historian James “Jay” Cook tells the story of Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid, and how a little deception went a long way.

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BRIAN BALOGH: When you go to a science museum, like the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History, there’s this understanding that what you see is what you get.

Displays are clearly labeled. If there’s an animal on display, there’s probably a little plaque explaining where that animal came from, what it eats, et cetera. Deception does not enter into the equation.

ED AYERS: 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? Historian Jay Cook told me that this was exactly the problem a place in Philadelphia called The Peale Museum faced in the 1840s.

JAMES COOK: And they’re trying any number of things. They have dance concerts. They have magic shows. They even do a little bit of blackface minstrel shows as part of the mix because these are popular trends– new forms of show business that they’re using to dabble in as a way to make money.

But by the early 1840s, in the final years of the museum’s existence, they decide that they will try their hand at presenting a mermaid. And a mermaid, at this point, is one of these wondrous creatures of myth and legend. And 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.

And it’s about three or four feet long. It doesn’t look particularly believable to modern eyes. But it does look seamless. It’s not easy to detect the fusion of monkey body and salmon tail.

There had been mermaid sightings by whaling ships over the years. There had been stories in magazines and newspapers about the possibility of a mermaid’s existence. But Peale’s exhibitions are supposed to be as transparent and legible and knowable and categorically certain as they can possibly be.

So what Peale does is to put a mermaid on display and say this was created by clever Japanese craftsman.

ED AYERS: So they’re not even trying to fool you? They’re saying, look at this wonderful thing that is nothing like what it pretends to be.

JAMES COOK: That’s right, the fooling in the sense of straightforward deception or blatant fraud just doesn’t make any sense within the Peale’s conception of what an exhibition is, what natural history is, what the project of enlightenment is.

ED AYERS: But they did make sense to somebody else in America in the 1840s if I’m not mistaken.

There’s another mermaid swimming around Northeastern United States?

JAMES COOK: There is. And that mermaid belongs to Phineas T. Barnum, P.T Barnum. And Barnum develops this act early in 1842.

He’s a young man just trying to break into show business in New York City. So this is Barnum a good three or four decades before he gets into the business of traveling three-ring circuses. And it’s really a fake mermaid, the so-called Fiji Mermaid, that launches Barnum’s career as a successful showman in American cultural history.

ED AYERS: So I’m taking it that Barnum does not tell the world, hey, look at this wonderful example of Asian artistry? He is saying, hey, you think this might be a mermaid.

JAMES COOK: Right. And I think the thing that’s so interesting about Barnum is that his entire mode of promotion, marketing, showmanship is about creating uncertainty, creating controversy about whether the object is, in fact, what it is represented to be. And so he does things that we– and certainly Peale– would understand as completely counterintuitive.

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?

ED AYERS: I have to admit that I’m puzzling now about what mermaids do eat. Because it seems faintly cannibalistic if they’re eating fish. But anyway, let’s not focus on that.

So as you said, this seems counterintuitive that Barnum is actually accusing himself, although not in his own voice, of being fraudulent. Is any of this sort of inoculating himself against real charges of being fraudulent? Is this just like reverse double psychology? What’s his logic about why this would work? And apparently, it does.

JAMES COOK: It does. 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 who had come from the rural hinterlands in New England and upstate New York. And they’re working through these problems of perception, these problems of how you know what’s real and what’s fake. How you know who’s honest and who’s a criminal.

And this is the era where the confidence man first emerges as a social type, a kind of named criminal category in American journalism in the 1840s. And what’s so clever about Barnum is that he positions himself in relation to this as showman and invites his customers to weigh in on his own activities. And so he’s allowing them to kind of talk through these questions and debate them. And then, once the process is over, to conclude that they got their money’s worth in this entertaining exhibition where no one was hurt and no one was seriously cheated.

ED AYERS: Jay, thanks so much for joining us and laying out that fascinating story.

JAMES COOK: It’s my pleasure. It’s great to be with you.

ED AYERS: Jay Cook is a historian at the University of Michigan, and the author of the book, The Art of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum.