Barnum's 'Feejee' no Disney mermaid Monstrous wonder on display at Peale

March 01, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Although it helped make him a fortune, Phineas Taylor Barnum admitted that he wasn't too proud of the spectacle: this tiny monkey severed at the waist and stitched to the mummified tail of a fish.

But even the world's greatest showman couldn't have expected that little girls in Baltimore would burst into tears over Barnum's "Feejee mermaid" 101 years after his death.

"We've had a lot of children come here expecting to see the Little Mermaid or the cute mermaid on the tuna can -- and they look at this and cry their eyes out," said a publicist for the Peale Museum, which is exhibiting the monstrous wonder at its Holliday Street museum.

The fish fatale may be a triumph of taxidermy and an homage to humbuggery, but it's far from the cherubic mermaid of Disney fame. And it's far from home, on loan from Boston as part of a Peale exhibit tracing the evolution of American museums from backwoods freak shows to the magnificence of the Smithsonian Institution.

At 2 p.m. today, Barnum's great-great-great-granddaughter is expected to be among the curious when circus expert Arthur Saxon gives a talk at the Peale about the man who invented show business.

"If you have to have a famous relative, Barnum is a terrific relative to have," said Mary Upton, director of admissions for the American University law school.

"The mermaid is one of the . . . big things I think of when I think of him. It was one of his early [stunts], and it's always one of the things mentioned about him," she said.

"It's unfortunate that everyone remembers him for something he never said: 'There's a sucker born every minute.' He didn't bamboozle people out of any kind of shysterism or to be mean. People enjoyed having one pulled over on them."

Japanese craftsmen turned out many such "mermaids" in the 19th century and there is considerable debate whether the "Feejee" on display at the Peale is the one huckstered by Barnum to great profit.

When that mermaid was installed in Barnum's American Museum in New York in 1842, the showman's receipts tripled.

"He knew how to manipulate public opinion and his greatest expertise was in the field of public relations, which is old hat today but back in Barnum's day was quite new," said Dr. Saxon, a retired college professor and author of "Barnum: The Man and the Legend."

"Some of the schemes he got up would appear laughable today," he said. "And some of them would hold up well. He knew what people would be induced to see and he knew how to whip up their enthusiasm, and they would all flock to see it.

"He proclaimed himself the Prince of Humbug and he delighted in that -- the 19th century was the great age of the practical joke."

But the computer age is a more cynical era, and the Peale has not been as blessed as Barnum in herding paying customers through the door.

So successful was the great showman in drawing crowds that he sought ways of getting people out the door.

"My favorite is the one where he put up a sign charging people 25 cents to see the 'egress,' " Ms. Upton said. "Thinking it was some kind of exotic animal, they paid and found themselves out on the street."

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