Mermaids are the Monster of the Week! Monday, Matt Finley investigated the evolution of the bang-able mermaid. Enjoy!
Sideshow banner artist Paul Szauter
As the Earth shrunk in relation to man’s capacity to traverse it, mermaid encounters, once regarded as hallmarks of true seafaring expeditions, took second chair to empirical analyses of alleged mermaid sightings. The most popular explanation was (and is) that manatees and dugongs, when viewed underwater by a mob of exhausted, randy sailors could easily be mistaken for a human head and torso (albeit a meaty one) stuck atop a fish tail. This bad news for authors of realist nautical erotica proved profitable for sideshow proprietors and circus owners, who had been handed a 1,000-pound herbivorous solution to the problem of finding displayable mermaids (a popular alternative to marine mammals were humans afflicted with sironamelia).
These half-hearted merhoaxes proved more interesting as opportunities to gawk at animal remains or grotesque human deformity than as believable mermaid analogs. Then, in the 1840s, P.T. Barnum unveiled an attraction meant to debunk the debunkers. Rat
her than feature a petrified jumble of unrecognizable bio-matter and claim it as the remains of a folkloric, scaly, aquatic hottie, Barnum displayed a repulsive taxidermic perversion and billed it as “The Feejee Mermaid.”
Barnum’s grotesquerie was simply the top half of a taxidermied monkey grafted onto the preserved back end of a fish. In displaying an entire specimen that looked nothing like the mermaids of legend, Barnum’s humbug (which he was actually leasing from an associate) proved more believable than exhibits that offered varied components of traditional merfolk. Fiji mermaids of varying size and quality became a staple of the American carnival sideshow, along with other sawdust and stitch-work cryptids (most famously the jackalope, a jack rabbit with antlers sewn to its head).
The evolution of mermaid mythology and its intersection with sideshow japery elucidates an interesting dimension of the relationship between folklore as fiction and folklore in application – seeing is not believing. Barnum understood that people weren’t stupid and that, as in theater and cinema, a vital aspect of any illusion is the viewers’ complicit knowledge of, and participation in, that illusion. Freak show visitors didn’t want to see a fragmentary specimen of a real mermaid – they wanted to a see a complete spectacle representing a plausible mermaid. The game isn’t to make the legend real; the game is to make it realistic. And Barnum always won the game.
Friday: 20th century mermaids