The American Appetite for Deception

The "Feejee Mermaid," reputed to be a "specimen of a veritable mermaid" from the South Pacific, was one of the more outlandish wonders exhibited by P.T. Barnum.  In a painting outside the museum where it was on display, the mermaid was depicted as "a beautiful creature, half-woman, half-fish, about eight feet in length."  Inside, the "mermaid" was nothing more than the head and torso of a monkey sewn to the body of a fish "that a boy a few years old easily could run away with under his arm." Outrage would have been a reasonable response to a ruse so outrageous, but in fact, the exhibit was a resounding success, both popularly and financially.  "The public appeared to be satisfied," Barnum later reflected, though he acknowledged not everyone was amused.  "Some persons always will take things literally, and make no allowance for poetical license, even in mermaids."  A Dutchman who, expecting to find the stupendous, beautiful lady-fish depicted outside, came...(Read Full Article)