The Existence of the Mermaid is Now Certain c. 1794 September 24, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
We haven’t done mermaids for a long time. Yet who can forget the submarine and the mermaids or the Queen of Cuba or the mermaid that ate boiled fish or for that matter Christopher Columbus and the mermaid and the mermaid killed in Exeter. Oh happy days… Anyway, from memories of the past to a new mermaid story. This comes from a weird little book dating to 1796 and from an extremely sincere Briton.
The existence of the Mermaid is now certain; as one was exhibited a long while in Oxford Street, which I saw two years ago nearly, together with a young one taken in her arms. The length of the mother may have been four feet, and that of the child nine or ten inches. From the loins upward appeared to have been covered with flesh; and thence downward, with scales. They were dried, having been caught five years before on the coasts of Italy or of Sicily. The hands were webbed; and the fingers terminated sharp, like a monkey’s. The owner says, he refused One Hundred Guineas for them, from the British Museum. Why not Mermen and Mermaids as well as Ourang-Outangs? Why not Sea men and maids (imperfect animals though they are) as well as Sea lions, calves and horses?
Beach has looked for other references to this mermaid in late eighteenth-century Oxford Street, but he has failed. The only thing that google throws up is a modern hotel called the Mermaid Suite just off Oxford Street that is not exactly the same thing… We probably should probably feel sorry for the sincere writer though rather than begin to write a new chapter in the history of zoology. The length of the creature suggests that some sort of primate was borrowed and sewn into a fish tail: note the give away lines that the fingers ‘terminated sharp, like a monkey’s’. As to the owner refusing one hundred guineas from the British Museum that sounds like street patter: ‘roll up, roll up, real mermaid with bairn, British Museum offered a hundred guineas and I told them where to go, roll up, roll up.’ That line at the end about if ourang-outangs why not mermaids is repeated again and again in the nineteenth century in various guises. The typical one is if meteorites why not sea serpents. Why not indeed? Only that the sea serpents never turned up. Curious that no one else seems to have commented on the Oxford Street mermaid in our many late eighteenth-century sources. Perhaps it was just there a couple of weeks and our author was a provincial visitor? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
1 Oct 2013: Kenton and Invisible write in with a possible reference to this mermaid from 1812 in the General Chronicle and Literary Magazine 4: **** The Count meanwhile has this comment: Interesting mermaid post today – I’d never heard of that particular specimen before! A 4-foot-long mummified mermaid holding its baby in its arms is a more ambitious exhibit of that type than anything of that kind I’m aware of, certainly from before the last couple of decades! One thing does occur to me. Although mermaid mummies really took off in 1842 thanks to P. T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” (sic), it wasn’t anywhere near being a new idea. Many rich collectors with a taste for the odd seem to have included objects described as “mermaids” in their cabinets of curiosities, though most of these are now lost. These were not of course on display to the general public, but Elias Ashmole’s collection ended up forming the starting point of the Ashmolean Museum in 1675. Intriguingly, Ashmole’s contributions included an alleged mermaid’s hand, so at least part of such a creature was on display in Oxford to anyone who could afford the sixpence admission fee! Other highly dubious or downright mythical items were also on show, including a cockatrice or two, part of a fabled “vegetable lamb” (sheep were supposed to grow out of the ground in Tartary – apparently there’s some bush in those parts which is quite wooly-looking and typically has about 4 stalks), and part of the True Cross. So maybe some huckster got the idea from there – I suppose a typical showman would travel more than most people of the time. Do you happen to have a means of accessing the Ashmolean’s records? Maybe they still have an older mermaid than this in there somewhere, or at any rate, some of one. Though since it was only Barnum’s genius for showmanship that made his hideous and disappointingly tiny “mermaid” an international sensation, it seems very likely that many previous specimens had appeared as carnival side-shows without attracting any serious attention. It’s odd that the Oxford Street mermaid of 1794 was so much larger than subsequent specimens – Barnum’s was about the size of the infant described here, and almost all subsequent examples were close copies of the famous one. I suppose a 4-foot-long mermaid would be much harder to build than a tiny one, what with the internal armature, and all those little stitches we aren’t supposed to notice, and may well have been considerably less durable. Is it possible that the mother fell to bits, but the tough little baby survived, and eventually came into the hands of a certain Mr. Barnum…? **** Thanks Kenton, Count and Invisible!