It has a scaly tail with long, jagged spikes, and ribs that protrude from its midsection.
Its head is akin to the skull of a monkey’s, with piranha-like teeth that stick out of its jaw. And the arms? They’re hairy twigs, bent like barbecued chicken wings, with small, clawed paws at the ends.
It’s a creature, said Diana Loren, curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, that only a mother could love. And even that may be a stretch.
“It’s a unique item, for sure,” she said.
The “FeeJee Mermaid” (sometimes it’s spelled “Fiji Mermaid”), an amalgam of papier-mâché, fish and possibly monkey parts, and wood, is one of many artifacts that will be displayed temporarily, without a glass case, next month in celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, Loren will bring out the mermaid, which dates back to the 1800s, during a presentation of some of the museum curators’ favorite and “rarely seen” treasures. The mermaid “sculpture” is part of a free day of activities at the Peabody Museum.
Loren said for 40 minutes she will detail the mythical creature’s history, while museum spectators gawk at the mermaid’s strange, shriveled form up close. After the presentation, the creature will go back to the archives.
“I’ll be discussing its construction, some of the conservation work that has been done to determine how it was made, and the mermaid craze from the 19th century,” said Loren. “Usually, people hear you say the word ‘mermaid’ and they have this idea in their mind ... They think of Hans Christian Andersen, and ‘The Little Mermaid.’ But it’s not Ariel. It has a very different look about it.”
It’s said that the revolting faux specimen was first purchased by a sailor visiting Japan, in 1822, for $6,000. It later made its way to London, according to a Boston Globe article published in 1880, before landing in the hands of Moses Kimball, proprietor at that time of the Boston Museum.
Kimball told the Globe in an interview that from the start, he knew the mermaid was a “fraud,” a beast stitched together by “the Chinese,” who “are able to make anything in the shape of man, woman, fish, or devil.”
Looking to capitalize and make a profit on his purchase, Kimball brought the mermaid “in a tin can” to P.T. Barnum, of circus fame, who later showcased it in New York and other parts of the country to curious fanfare.
Loren said the museum has documentation suggesting that the mermaid going on display next month is the one that was owned by Kimball and paraded around by Barnum.
The FeeJee Mermaid, with its “shriveled, ape-like head” and “half-human, half-hog teeth,” as a Globe reporter once described it, came into the museum’s possession in 1897, Loren said. The museum also owns another one.
Since it was procured by the museum more than 100 years ago, the object has become a favorite among Harvard undergraduates, and is often loaned to other institutions interested in highlighting the oddities of the 19th century.
“It’s a fake, but it’s this really interesting little piece, and students like it because it speaks to the earlier age of museum history,” said Loren. “And it was referred to in an episode of the ‘X-Files.’”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.