In Japanese folklore, eating the flesh of a ningyo, or mermaid, grants eternal life and youth. It was also said that Ningyo blood will cure any wound. Such beliefs were not usually found in the west, but in 1906 Mrs. Merritt, of Mulberry, Indiana, suffering from breast cancer, heard the siren-call of healing from a piece of mermaid skin.
[Note: These accounts contain some stereotypical language about gypsies.]
USED MERMAID SKIN TO RELIEVE CANCER
Rosa Stanley, a Gipsy Girl, Held for Larceny at Frankfort, Ind.
VICTIM IS CHARGING FRAUD
Mrs. Merritt Has a Cancer and Gypsy Offers Skin From Mermaid, Which She Says She Caught in the Red Sea
Muncie, Ind., Jan. 24. Rosa Stanley, one of the famous band of Stanley gypsies, who, with her dusky sister, has been going about the country alternately lavishing diamonds and law suits on men who found favor in their long-lashed Oriental eyes, is in the clutch of the village constable at Frankfort for trying to cure a cancer in the breast of Mrs. S.U. Merritt [sic] , of Mulberry, Ind., a small piece of “mermaid cuticle” is the state’s most important evidence in trying to convict Rosa of grand larceny.
The mermaid skin, so Rosa says, is genuine, taken from a real half-fish half-woman found in the Red sea. Rosa’s grandmother, according to her dream, assisted in the capture of the anatomical wonder, which was a most beautiful specimen of the genus mermaid, having long, silky green hair, pink eyes, scales of velvety softness, pearly teeth, a ravishingly wonderful smile and a voice that surpassed in seductiveness the strident tones of a saloon piano on a hot night in August.
Rosa’s grandmother told Rosa’s mother that the piece of skin was worth $10,000, and Rosa’s mother imparted the information to Rosa, who in turn tells the story with a far-away look that rivals the Sphinx’s stony gaze. Anyway, the skin looks like a piece of rawhide, but in it lies all sorts of merit, so says Rosa.
Called for $50.
Mrs. Merritt was coming home from Lafayette with her daughter, Mrs. Hall, when she met Rosa and the mermaid pelt. A discussion of the wonders of the occult followed and Rosa confided in liquid tones that she could cure the cancer from which Mrs. Merritt was suffering by the aid of the stars and the mermaid skin. The dusky gypsy talked so convincingly that Mrs. Merritt decided to try the efficacy of the charm and when they reached home Rosa began.
She put the mermaid skin in a glass of water and stood it under the head of Mrs. Merritt’s bed. Backing off she swung her arms around several times and began to go into a long pipe with Mars. She gabbled in gutturals and performed wonderful lingual feats with a flexible tongue. The result seemed to be satisfactory, as she backed off and informed Mrs. Merritt that the stars prescribed a preliminary retainer fee of $50 to insure the skidoo of the cancer. Mrs. Merritt unwound the shoestring around her wallet, stood and produced.
The next day Rosa glided in, looked at the mermaid skin and gave vent to a gleeful chuckle. Mrs. Merritt, hoping that she was at last to be rescued from the brink of the grave, sat up and took notice. “Ah, ha!” gurgled Rosa, in tones of “villain, thou are discovered.” “See, see, madam, ze kink. Une petite curl in ze mermaid skin.”
Mrs. Merritt looked. Sure enough there was a kink in the skin. Rosa waved her arms about in the wildest excitement and gurgled over and over again. “Ze kink, madam, ze kink.” She continued volubly, “When ze curl is there,” illustrated by a twist of the little finger, “ze charm nevaire fails in ze work. Ah!” Rosa started back with one hand pointed rigidly toward the mermaid skin and the other on her ear, just like Sarah Bernhardt about to perform a stage death.
Tipped Off to Police.
Extreme wonder arose in Mrs. Merritt’s mind. Rosa posed like the goddess of liberty for a moment and during that time the planets ticked on a lengthy message on finance, using the wireless code. Rosa stood up.
“Ze planets,” deprecated she, with splayed out fingers, “they have said to me zat one hundred dollars must be put in ze tasso wit ze skin.” The hundred went in and the mermaid hide jumped joyfully in the wavelets.
Mrs. Hall, who had been a silent figure thus far, took a hand in the game and tipped off the gag to the police, who took Rosa in. She maintained her point at the police station and stuck to the story of the mermaid pelt. Mrs. Hall said that Rosa went into a long pipe with her and gassed glibly of the efficacy of mermaid hides, stars, and prayers.
A charge of grand larceny was placed against her and she was bound over to the circuit court for trial. Rosa refused to give bond and sent for Attorney Taughinbaugh, who will defend her. She had ingratiated herself so far with the sheriff’s wife that she was allowed the use of the front parlor and was not put into a cell.
Rosa and Minnie [sic], who were working a double team cinch with the mysteries of the next world in Muncie, got into trouble with their business manager and the police pinched the bunch. The trouble was squared up later and the business manager is now with the aggregation.
Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 25 January 1907: p. 9
It was well-known that the Red Sea, prison of malign spirits laid by prayer-reading parsons, was also the home of mermaids.
Salamé, in a recent publication, has stated that in the Red Sea he saw a Mermaid out of the water mast-high. This “leaping a good height out of the sea,” as you have been told by John Dory, is one of the habits of the Sea-cow. For the rest, if, as I shall presently contend, the Mermaid is little better than an evil spirit, no place more likely to find one in than in the Red Sea! That of which the account is cited by John Dory, of the date of 1565, had, let it be observed, a navel. Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, 1823
Of course there are also sea cows, so often mistaken for mermaids, living in the Red Sea. And, to my surprise, there is actually a business at Hurghada called “Red Sea Mermaids” that furnishes tails so you can swim like a siren.
Mermaid skin was described differently by several observers or perhaps there are different species:
The skin of Hudson’s Mermaid was “verie white;” that of Whitbourne’s was “white and smooth as the back of a man;” and what strengthens my suspicion is, the young of this Porpoise is blue, which color it exchanges gradually and partially for white, as it advances in age, in the same manner that the young swan is at first brown, and afterwards white. Selections from the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies Vol. II, 1875: pp. 545-7
To these things agree the Triton, whose skin in May 1647 Monconnys saw at Torre, a town and harbour on the Red sea, whose words are to the following purpose; ‘these Tritons, says he, are large fishes as big as a camel and taken in the Red sea; their head is like that of an ox, with a tail like a fish; the rest of the body from the belly upwards is like a man or rather a woman (for, they are of both sexes) they have breasts, arms, and hands like a man, only that their fingers are webb’d like a goose-foot, or a bat’s wing, according to the relation of those who saw them, yet I afterwards saw a hand, but without the skin’. The same Monconnys saw in the same place the skin of a mermaid, which was ten foot long, and thicker than the hide of the largest buffle, and harder than wood, of which they make targets that are musket-ball proof, as also soles for shoes, which last three years. Acta Germanica; or, The Literary memoirs of Germany, &c. 1742, p. 121
Rosa and her sister Mabel seem to have been working this scam together, but it was actually Mabel who was arrested. According to other stories in the Indiana papers, Mrs. Merritt asked her son-in-law Wilson C. Hall for the $50 to give to the gypsy and told him to keep it quiet because she knew her daughter would not approve. It was he who called the police on the mermaid-skin merchants. The papers had a field day with Mabel’s heavy “French” accent [mystifying because the Stanley Gypsies were English.], her tales of gypsy life, and her assertion that only her arrest had stopped the mermaid-skin from curing Mrs. Merritt’s cancer.
The reference to diamonds is perhaps explained by these squibs:
Mabel and Rose Stanley, the dusky, but fetching Gypsy maidens who played the Muncie police and prosecuting attorney such a pretty game, and were given an auto ride by the prosecutor, are in the swim over at Frankfort now. After being rounded up in Anderson and turning their diamond loot over to their whimpering press agent Pritchett, the girls went to the Clinton county town, and Mabel is there yet. She is in jail. The Call-Leader [Elwood, IN] 7 January 1907: p. 8
THAT STANLEY DIAMOND
Was Up in the Courts Again at Muncie
The replevin suit against Chief of Police Van Benbow, of Muncie, and others to secure possession of a watch-charm and a diamond ring which belonged to the Stanley band of gypsies was dismissed in circuit court yesterday by the attorney for Rose Stanley.
The ring and watch charm figured in a scrap the gypsies got into with their business manager, Levi Pritchett, while in Muncie, and caused lawsuits to be fought in several of the courts there and in a justice of the peace court at Anderson. The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 16 February 1907: p. 1
Mabel Stanley held the court-room spell-bound:
In telling the jury how she prayed for Mrs. Merritt at midnight for three nights she was interrupted by the state’s attorney, who asked her to whom she prayed, and as she told of her belief in a Supreme Being and that she prayed to the Savior of all mankind, there was a murmur of admiration in the court room and a few present started to applaud her. She made a most favourable impression with all, telling her story in a straight-forward manner. The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 2 February 1907: p. 1
She also impressed the courtroom with her knowledge of the solar system and “proved herself to be one of the brightest women ever on trial in Frankfort.” She told the state’s attorney the name of the star under which he was born, and added that she could tell him much more, if he cared to pay her for the information.
Witnesses examining the piece of mermaid skin opined that it was “lace leather [thin, tanned leather used for machinery belts], but none would positively swear that it was not really the skin of a mermaid.” The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 2 February 1907: p. 1
After much colorful news coverage, about a month later Mabel Stanley was off the hook.
Gypsy Queen Goes Free
[She wasn’t actually the Queen, but the Queen’s niece.]
Frankfort, Mar. 2. Mrs. Mabel Stanley Hall, the gypsy woman who was arrested and tried on the charge of defrauding Mrs. H.A. Merritt [sic] of Mulberry out of $50 on the pretense that she could charm away a cancer by the use of a piece of mermaid’s skin, has been released from custody. The jury in her trial several weeks ago failed to agree and the prosecutor did not care to burden the county with the expense of another trial. Daily News-Democrat [Huntington, IN] 2 March 1907: p. 6
There is no word on what happened to the piece of mermaid skin and I have not searched for the further adventures of Rosa or Mabel.
Alas for Mrs. Merritt, we might say that while she heard the mermaids singing, the human voices of the law woke her and she drowned. She died in 1907 and is buried next to her husband and son in Fairhaven Cemetery, Mulberry, Indiana.
Chris Savia writes in to point out the actual cost of the mermaid skin:
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.