The Mermaid of 1822

Mermaid, Courtesy of British Museum

The Mermaid, Courtesy of British Museum

“I have to-day seen a Mermaid, now exhibiting in this town. I have always treated the existence of this creature as fabulous, but my scepticism [sic] is now removed.” Those were the words written by a Reverend Philip, a representative of the London Mission Society, in April 1822. The mermaid Philip referred to was found after a storm by a fisherman or fishermen who was sold it to a Bostonian sea captain. The captain, named Samuel Barret Eades, was transporting the mermaid to England for exhibition when his ship stopped for a fortnight at Cape Town, and it was there that Philip saw the mermaid for the first time.

Philip described the strange creature, stating:

“The head is almost the size of … a baboon. It is thickly covered with black hair, hanging down, and not inclined to frizzle. On the upper lip and on the chin there are a few fine hairs, resembling those upon the head. The … cheek bones are prominent. The forehead is low, but except in this particular the features are much better proportioned and bear a more decided resemblance to the human countenance than those of any of the baboon tribes.” 

It was also claimed to have a head that “bears no proportion to the rest of the body.” Philip’s also noted that the mermaid had an “expression of terror,” and speculated that she died in “great agony.”

The mermaid possessed everything a human had — ears, nose, lips, chin, breasts, nipples, and fingers and fignernails — but she was only three feet in length and thought to have shrunk because she was preserved. The mermaid also had teeth, described as “eight incisores [sic], four canine, and eight molares [sic] … all the other resemble those of a human subject.” She also reputedly resembled a large salmon, was covered with scales, and had two fins “directly under the breast,” with the lower portion displaying “six fins, one dorsal, two ventrical [sic], two pectoral, and the tail,” which was claimed to be exactly the type of tail depicted in representations of mermaids.

The Mermaid, Public Domain

The Mermaid, Public Domain

When Eades and the mermaid reached London, the mermaid was placed in a glass case and the verdict on its authenticity varied. A Dr. Rees pronounced, it “sacrilegious to doubt its authenticity … [and declared it to be] half ape and half fish,” but Rees also believed in Joanna Southcote — a self-described religious prophetess, who claimed she was pregnant at 64 and would deliver the new Messiah, although the date fixed for the birth did not result in a child and Southcote died shortly thereafter. A Mr. Murray who lectured on chemistry, reached a different conclusion. Murray maintained it was a manufactured fake. He stated:

“The first thing that struck me was the utter incongruity of the piece … That the fabric is neatly put together … [and I perceived] two or three of the stitches by which it was sewed together.”

Whether the mermaid was real, a manufactured fake, or composed of a variety of animals — “the cheeks of the blue-faced ape, the canine teeth [of a dog], the simian upper body, and the tail of the fish” — she was a London sensation. Throngs of people paid a shilling a piece to see her, and it was estimated between 300 and 400 people a day visited the mermaid when she was displayed at Tom Watson’s Turf Coffeehouse on St. James Street.

The profits were enough that a suit was filed against Eades in the court of chancery for selling his partner’s share of a boat without permission and buying the mermaid. Unfortunately, for Eades, the bubble burst when the mermaid was seized by custom officials. They declared it to be Japanese and also pronounced that it was no mermaid. Instead they found it to be “the dried skin of the head and shoulders of a monkey, attached by a glutinous matter to the dried skin of a fish of the salmon kind.”

References:

  • “A Mermaid,” in Morning Post, 20 July 1822
  • Fairburn, John, Wonder of the World!, Vol. 2, 1822
  • “Literary Notices,” in Leeds Intelligencer, 23 December 1822
  • Law Intelligence, in Morning Chronicle, 21 November 1822
  • Scott, John, etal., The London Magazine, Vol. 6, 1822
  • Timbs, John, Curiosities of London, 1868
    Timbs, John, Popular Errors, 1841
  • “The Mermaid,” in Hereford Journal, 4 December 1822
  • “The Mermaid,” in Lancaster Gazette, 9 November 1822
  • “The Mermaid,” in Leeds Mercury, 23 November 1822
  • The Saturday Magazine, June 1836
  • The United Service Magazine, Vol. 147, 1878
  • “Wednesday & Thursday’s Posts,” Stamford Mercury, 25 October 1822

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