Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Mysterious Mermaids of Buckland & Barnum

Frank Buckland

                    In August 1858, Professor Richard Owen wrote to Frank Buckland asking him to examine a specimen of a mermaid and to report his findings back to him. Buckland was delighted at this request from such an eminent scientist and duly made his way to the back parlour of the White Hart in Spitalfields, London where he found, displayed in a glass case on a deal board, the figure of a merman (rather than a mermaid). The cooperative landlady removed the glass case and Buckland began his examination – the creature was about three or four feet in length, and was composed of the head, arms and trunk of a monkey sewn onto what Buckland suspected was a common hake (“Such a thing as a merman or mermaid of course never really existed,” wrote the perspicacious naturalist). 

The head, with its parchment-like ears, snub nose and ghastly grin - the teeth of the hake had been transferred to the monkey’s jaw, together with one human incisor and a gap for another - particularly impressed him. The head had once been covered in hair, but souvenir hunters had plucked this wig almost bare, and the eyes were circles of leather with the pupils added in black paint. The overall impression, wrote Buckland, was  “…of a disagreeable old man, who was trying not to laugh.” The thing was cleverly done and neatly sewn, and it was likely that it had been made to be seen mounted upright. The current owners had bought it at the sale of old furniture belonging to an old Mr Ellis, who had bought and sold goods for the East India Company, “…but whether he bought and sold tea, silk, or mermaids, I could not ascertain.”  

Mermaid from Buckland - Curiosities of Nature Vol 2 1860

On further investigation, Buckland learned that the merman had been ‘London-made’ by a local taxidermist, and was one of a pair, so he set off to track down the merman’s ‘wife’. In a curiosity shop to the west of Hungerford market, he found a glass dome containing the mermaid – half the size of the merman and nowhere near as well made – she had doll’s glass eyes, no teeth and a bullet-shaped head. The owner thought that she had come from America, and had once been exhibited at the Egyptian Hall. The rumour was that two Italian brothers had bought her for $40,000 and one brother had tried to prevent the other from putting the mermaid on public display, which resulted in a protracted legal dispute. In 1866, Buckland received news of another mermaid that belonged to Captain Cuming R.N., who had brought it back with him from Yokohama. There was a flourishing cottage industry in Japan producing mermaids for the tourist trade, and the Japanese made mermaids for the Buddhist cult of the Ningyo Shinko, wherein mummified mermaids were venerated. Describing this mermaid, Buckland wrote, 
The head is that of a small monkey, with prominent teeth; a little thin wool on the head and upper parts; long, attenuated arms and claws, below which the ribs show very distinctly; beyond these latter the skin of a fish is so neatly joined that it is hardly possible to detect where the joint is made in fact, where the fish begins and the monkey leaves off.” 

Barnum's advertisement for his exhibit

Buckland went on to write about Phineas T Barnum’s Feegee Mermaid, maybe the most famous of all the mermaids. In 1842, Mr Moses Kimball brought the mermaid to Barnum, and the two entered into an agreement whereby Kimball retained ownership but Barnum paid $12.50 a week for the lease. Barnum had ten thousand advertising leaflets printed and distributed in New York, and had a painting done of three beautiful mermaidens, disporting themselves in the waves whilst onlookers observed them from a nearby boat. Buckland notes that Barnum’s display earned him the magnificent sum of eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars in the first four weeks. 

Barnum's Feegee Mermaid

Buckland wonders what Barnum might have done with his ‘Nondescript’ – a specimen he bought from a Mr Wareham of Leicester Square, and which he describes thus: - “The Nondescript is about as big as a baby three months old, and. as a crusty bachelor friend of mine once said, " really very much like one."” The Nondescript was a variant of the mermaid – made from animal parts, wood and papier-mâché – most probably made in Japan, and was promoted as a sea-devil which had been caught in the nets of a fisherman. 

The Nondescript from Buckland - Curiosities of Nature Vol 2 1860

It was roughly human-like, with demonic hands and feet, scrawny arms and legs, and formidable claws. Its head was about as big as an apple, with eyes like a codfish, fierce fangs, and topped off with a shock of woolly hair “…a policeman would be justified in taking him up on suspicion alone.” Buckland adds with a tongue in his cheek that he was ‘rather offended’ when friends and visitors came to see his private collection and their attention was diverted by the sight of his Nondescript, rather than his other exhibits which were, in his opinion, more interesting or more valuable.

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