While scholars struggled to establish scientific authority and the value of knowledge based on systematic evidence and logic, showman P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) made a fortune stoking curiosity about the speculative and the singular. Barnum’s fame and fortune began in 1842 when he opened his “American Museum” in New York City and exhibited the “Feejee Mermaid,” ostensibly from the non-existent “London Lyceum of Natural History.”
In reality, Barnum leased the “mermaid” from his friend Moses Kimball, owner of the Boston Museum, who purchased it from the son of a Boston sea captain. When Kimball’s collections were transferred to the Peabody Museum after a fire in 1899, they included the “mermaid” seen here. It is now known that Japanese craftsmen fabricated mermaids by joining the bodies of monkeys and fish, although the head and torso of this example are made from papier-mâché.
See more in the exhibition All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum & the Invention of American Anthropology.