On a shelf in my house, high and dry, sits a collection of vintage china mermaids designed as aquarium ornaments. Some are voluptuous; some are slender flapper-mermaids with head-phone hairdos. Some lounge on shells; others strike the pensive Little Mermaid pose we know from Copenhagen Harbor. They are a reminder, in miniature, of the fantasies woven about these sirens of the sea, and the thirst of the land-lubber to see them.
In Richard Altick’s incomparable The Shows of London he relates how a mermaid was exhibited at the Turf Coffeehouse, St. James’s Street, in 1822. It was the usual shrivelled specimen: the body of a monkey and a salmon cobbled together, which was said to have been caught alive by a Japanese fisherman. It was bought in Batavia by the captain of an American whaling ship for $5,000. When a dispute arose over its legal ownership, the case came before the Court of Chancery, leading to much mirth over a mermaid being a ward in Chancery (and an engraving by George Cruikshank with the punning title “A Mermaid in Chancery Holding in Tail.”) The Lord Chancellor gave judgment in favour of the ship’s owner, not the captain. The creature was taken to the United States and bought by Barnum, who dubbed it the Fee Jee Mermaid.
Taking advantage of the notoriety brought by the suit in Chancery, a rival merman appeared on exhibit. This had a less plausible pedigree and was analysed as “a fish tail, an ape body, and the head formed of the jaws of the wolf-fish, the skull of an ape, and the fur of a fox.” The Times suggested that the merman should be studied by anatomy students so that a “cheaper and more perfect” example could be made to demonstrate the superiority of British manufactory over cheap oriental goods. [The Shows of London, Richard D. Altick, Harvard University Press, 1978]
In 1880s New York, a distinguished exponent of the art of taxidermy was quietly promoting the superiority of American-made mermaids and sea serpents, complete with pedigree.
A MAKER OF MERMAIDS: His Description of the Art
Sea-Serpents of Any Length Made to Order.
[New York Sun.]
When Roome, the taxidermist, was living, his sign, “Mermaids Made and Repaired,” hung upon an old-fashioned house in Carmine street. Another sign in a window, flanked by a dissipated-looking pelican and a wide-mouthed alligator, informed the public that the dweller therin was a consulting naturalist, a scientific expert, and dealer in curiosities of all kinds. Mr. Roome was a little man with a glass eye, and a wonderful nose that seemed to be in mortal terror of the eye, and was doing its best to keep out of sight.
“It was jammed way over to starboard,” was the subsequent explanation. Animals of all kinds and qualities were inside. On a series of shelves were piled birds from all climes, sandwiched in with cat with hair on end, rattlesnakes coiled ready to strike, monkeys grasping at imaginary limbs, and numerous other creatures. A small book-case, containing several works on natural history; a work-table, on which was laid out in much state a defunct monkey, and several chairs completed the furniture. The proprietor was over-flowing with wit and humor. He was an old sailor, had lost an eye in the East, several fingers in Mobile Bay, and nearly parted with his head in Cuba. Finally, after wandering all over the world, he opened a curiosity shop, and, being himself a part and parcel of his stock, he succeeded well. To a reporter who called one day he said:
“Yes, this is a queer sort of business. You might think, now, that a man would get gloomy working over these bodies, but it never seems to me as if they are dead. I soon have them alive again, leastwise as regards looks. Some of them old monkeys I wouldn’t part with for love or money; they’re just like old friends.”
“Who buys such things?”
“Well, I have my regular customers. Ladies have a good deal done in the way of stuffing canaries and pet dogs and cats and they come in here sometimes weepin’ so you’d think it was a child. But it pays, as I make it a rule to charge accordin’ to the grief, not to take advantage of ‘em. When the grief is great they always bring photographs, and want me to give the dog the wery look he had when alive, so you see a taxidermist has to be a sort of sculptor. If I hits it exactly they wery often insists on makin’ me a present. Another class of customers is a few gentlemen who collect birds, and they don’t want anything except it’s new and rare. I have a good trade in birds’ nests. A good many boys go in for that; but the best of the business, that is, the most money, comes in from the show business. All they want Is something startling, and they always pay for it; but trade ain’t what it was twenty years ago. Here’s an old order I had from a man in California, a sea serpent, to be one hundred feet long, four feet in diameter at largest part, and to be in section sand have an authentic history. That was for a big side show man, and, as the man’s dead, I suppose he won’t object to my giving it away. He didn’t put no limit on me, so, as it was my first order, I thought I’d make my own reputation and his fortune at the same time, and I came pretty near doing it. At that time there was a big shark fishery on the Tybee River, so I sent down a piece of shark skin about a foot square, and offered a cent apiece for all I could get of the same size, as, as they threw the skins away, I soon got all I wanted. I made the frame out of t wood, and covered it with canvas, and then softened the sharkskins and put them on overlapping each other like scales; the jaws were modelled like an alligator’s, only ten times as big, and in them I put whales’ teeth. The inside of the mouth was lined with fish-skin and painted red; and when it was done you couldn’t find a place that wasn’t natural. The man gave me $100 more than I asked, and shipped it West. I made the jaws so they would life and be used to show it with a young girl standing in its mouth. He fooled everybody and made lots of money. I once made a whale. It was on the balloon principle. Every night they filled it with gas, and after the show drew it off;; but one night when the shouter was explaining it the people commenced to smell gas, and someone yelled: ‘There she blows,’ and sure enough the great mass was settling, and in five minutes it was flat on the floor. A rival circus man in the town had hired someone to cut it. I made gorillas fifteen feet high for a South Carolina showman. It took six black bear skins to make each one, and they had alligator teeth, and real man-skin faces, taken from bodies by a young student friend of mine. He put me up to the doge. When the gorillas were exhibited a scientific professor said one night before a crowd that he didn’t believe they were gorillas and that the faces showed that they were nothing but leather. The showman offered to bet him $100 they were, and asked him if he could tell the difference between common leather and the skin of an animal next to man. He said he could, and the showman offered to let three doctors examine it. They went to work with microscopes, and found that the pores were almost exactly like those of a man, and that settled it in the minds of the people. Of course the showmen knew what they were, and I got a good many orders on them at $100 apiece; but there ain’t any demand for them now. You can’t fool the people with old things.”
“I see you have a sign outside relating to mermaids?”
“Yes: I sell one once in a while, and have two or three orders for South America now,” he said, as he pulled aside a curtain and showed in glass cases some mummified sirens. “Twenty years ago I sold one like this,” fondling one in his hands, “For $1,000, and they were cheap at that. It takes almost a lifetime to make one and have it so as to stand close examination, and then the pedigree costs extra [illegible]. People then were more particular to have lies well braced up. Now here’s one,” taking up a specimen about six feet long. “That was made in 18[illegible], and has a pedigree signed by the captain and crew of the bark R.M. Lawson. That will give you an idea how much trouble and expense people went to. I made this myself, on an order, for $1000, but it was never taken, because the man died before it was done. He wanted it perfect, so that people and scientific professors and that kind could look it all over as much as they wanted to. One of the stipulations was that it should have a pedigree, showing the sworn statements of the finders, also their names and addresses, so that they could refer to them.
“Was this all complied with?”
“Every bit: and I’ll tell you how it was. I got the oldest female monkey I could get, and a fish called the grouper that would skin well. The old monkey was killed and divided below the waist, and repaired and stuffed regularly, and the fish done the same way below the head. Then the two parts were joined together. This is the hardest part, except the face, which has to be stiffened to give a look of anguish like. The scales, which you see are very small, have to be put on by the thousand, one at a time, and graded onto the skin of the monkey, so that the joining will look natural. This done, it is treated with acids to make it look old, or natural, as the case may be, and then the making part is done.”
‘But how about the pedigree?”
“Well, I hunted around, and at last found a friend who was master of a ship bound for China, and he and I fixed it up that he should take the mermaid to China and pretend to find it. So I took it aboard and the ship sailed, and after a while arrived at Yokohama, and here the mate was fixed. One day all hands were given liberty and you may be sure they were all jolly drunk when they came down to the boat. The Captain took the tiller, and the mate was in the bow, and when they were offshore the mate gave a yell and told them to stop pulling. Then he grabbed the boat-hook and struck very savage at something in the water, and finally he reached down and to all intents and purposes lifted out of the water the mermaid. ‘Is it dead?” yelled the captain. ‘Yes,’ said the mate. ‘I killed it the first hit,’ and stepping over the seats he took it to the captain, just letting the men see that it was a regular mermaid, and every one of ‘em signed a paper sayin’ that they saw it swimmin’ around the boat, and saw the mate kill it and haul it aboard, and also that if any one doubted it they could send to their address ashore, which was so-and-so. The mermaid was taken aboard, and with the paper packed away and brought back to New York and handed over to me, and would have been delivered, but the man died. That’s the way the business was done in those days. Now I make them, and let the party that takes them make up his own yarn. In fact, I got married about ten years ago, and my wife, being a strict church-goer, came near breaking up the business.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November, 1880: p. 10