The Mermaid of 1822: A London Sensation

The mermaid of 1822 was first reported when Reverend Philip, a representative of the London Mission Society, mentioned it in a letter stating:

“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.”[1]

Philip’s letter dated 26 April 1822 was sent to the London Mission Society and fell into the hands of G. Hodson, an assistant secretary. He then forwarded the letter on to the editor of Bell’s Weekly Messenger. The mermaid Philip referred to was one found after a storm that was sold to a Bostonian sea captain named Samuel Barret Eades. He then transported the mermaid to England for exhibition. During that trip his ship stopped for a fortnight at Cape Town, which is where Philip saw the reputed mermaid for the first time.

Mermaid of 1822, Courtesy of British Museum

“The Mermaid” by George Cruikshank. Courtesy of British Museum.

Philip claimed that the mermaid of 1822 had a head that “bears no proportion to the rest of the body.”[2] He further described the strange creature in detail, stating:

“I have always treated the existence of this creature as fabulous, but my scepticism is now removed. The head is almost the size of that of a baboon. It is thinly covered with black hair, hanging down, and not inclined to frizzle. On the upper lip and on the chin there are a few hairs, resembling those upon the head. The ossa malarum, or cheek bones, are prominent. The forehead is low, but except in this particular feature are much better proportioned, and bear a more decided resemblance to the human countenance than those of any of the baboon tribes. The head is turned back, and the countenance has an expression of terror, which gives it an appearance of a caricature of the human face; but I am disposed to think that both these circumstances are accidental, and have arisen from the manner in which the creature met its death. It bears the appearance of having died in great agony. The ears, nose, lips, chin, breasts, and nipples, fingers and nails, resembles those of a human figure. The spinuous processes of the vertebrae are very prominent. The length of the animal is three feet; but not having been at all well preserved it has shrunk very considerably, and must have been both longer and thicker when it was alive than it is now. Its resemblance to the human species ceases immediately under the mammae. On the line of separation, and directly under the breast, are two fins. From the point where the human figure ceases, which is about twelve inches below the vertex of the head, it resembles a large fish of the salmon species. It is covered with scales all over. On the lower part of the animal the scales resemble those of a fish; but on the part of the animal which resembles the human form, they are much less, and scarcely perceptible, except on a near inspection. On the lower part of the body it has six fins, one dorsal, two ventrical, two pectoral, and the tail. The figure of the tail is exactly that which is given in the unusual representations of the mermaid.”[3]

The Mermaid, Public Domain

The mermaid. Public domain.

There were reasons to believe that Philip’s report of a mermaid was true. For instance, an affidavit by John MacIssac on 29 October 1811 and supported by testimonies of respectable ministers, Dr. George Robertson, Mr. Normal Macleod, and James Maxwell, backed the idea of mermaids existing. According to the deposition by 23-year-old MacIssac:

“[T]hat about 3 or 4 o’clock of the afternoon of Sunday the 13th instant, having taken a walk towards the sea-side, he came to the edge of a precipice above the shore, from which he saw the appearance of something white upon a black rock at some distance from him. That, upon looking at this object with attention, he was impressed with great surprise and astonishment at its uncommon appearance; that it lay flat upon the rock, seemingly upon its belly, with its head towards the sea; that the upper half of it was white, and of the shape of a human body, and the other half, towards the tail, of a brindled or reddish grey colour, apparently covered with scales, but the extremity of the tail itself was of a greenish red shining colour. Depones, that the head of this animal was covered with long hair; and, as the wind blew off the land, it sometimes raised the hair over this creature’s head, and every time the gust of wind would do this, the animal would lean towards one side, and, taking up the opposite hand, would stroke the hair backwards, and then, leaning upon the other side, would adjust the hair of the opposite side of its head in the same manner … the tail continued in tremulous motion, and when drawn together again, it remained motionless, and appeared to the deponent to be about twelve or fourteen inches broad, lying flat upon the rock. … the hair, which was long, and light brown in color, attracted his particular notice; that the animal, upon the whole, was between four and five feet long, as near as he could judge; that it had a head, hair, arms, and body, down to the middle, like a human being, only that the arms were short in proportion to the body, which appeared to be about the thickness of that of a young lad, and tapering gradually to the point of the tail; that at the time it was stroking its head … the fingers were kept close together, so that he cannot say whether, they were webbed or not; that he continued concealed looking at the animal for near two hours, the part of the rock upon which it lay being dry all the time; that after the sea had so far retired, as to leave the rock dry, to the height of five feet above the surface of the water, the animal, leaning first upon one hand or arm, and then upon the other, drew its body forward to the edge of the rock, and then tumbled clumsily into the sea; that the deponent got immediately upon his feet form the place of his concealment, and in about a minute thereafter, he observed the animal appearing above water, very near to the said rock, and then, for the first time, he saw its face, every feature of which he could distinctly mark, and which had all the appearance of the face of human being, with very hollow eyes … Depones, that this animal continued above water, as foresaid for a few minutes, and then disappeared, and was seen no more by the deponent. … Depones, that he has been informed by some boys, in the neighbouring farm of Ballinatunie, saw a crate of the above appearance in the sea, close to shore, on the afternoon of the same Sunday.”[4]

Mermaid of 1822. Author’s collection.

There was a similar affidavit and similar description given several years later in 1814 by two fishermen of Port Gordon, near Raffan. Thomas Johnstone and William Gordan claimed to have been returning home in the afternoon after a day of fishing when they observed a quarter of mile offshore, something with its back to them:

“[H]alf its body [was] above the water, a creature of tawny colour, appearing like a man sitting with his body somewhat bent. Surprised at this, they approached towards him till they came within a few yards, when the noise made by the boat occasioned the creature to turn about, which gave the men a better opportunity of observing him. His countenance was swarthy; his hair short and curled, of a colour between a green and a grey; he had small eyes, a flat nose, his mouth was large, and his arms of an extraordinary length. Above the waist he was shaped like a man, but, as the water was clear, my informants could perceive that, from the waist downwards, his body tapered considerably … like a large fish without scales … The men, however, had not long time to observe him, for after looking steadfastly at them for about a quarter of a minute, he suddenly dived, but rose again at some distance from the boat, accompanied by another, whom the men supposed to be a female, as they could perceive she had breasts, and her hair was not curled.”[5]

As to Eades’ mermaid of 1822, when she reached London, she was placed in a glass case. Controversy as to her authenticity soon ensued. This was noted by the Leeds Intelligencer who reported:

“A great deal of discussion has arisen among men of science, as to the genuineness of the extraordinary animal recent brought to this country from the coast of Japan, and now exhibiting publicly in London. Several naturalists have examined it and have pronounced it to be spurious; other again contend that it is without doubt what it is represented. A more disgusting and unseemly looking object (a wood engraving of it has been published in a late number of the Literary Gazette), was perhaps never beheld. It is ugly even to hideousness.”[6]

There were other responses both positive and negative as to the mermaid’s validity. One positive one came from Dr. Rees who pronounced, it “sacrilegious to doubt its authenticity … [and declared it to be] half ape and half fish,”[7] but Rees also believed in Joanna Southcott or Southcote, a self-described religious prophetess, who claimed she was pregnant at 64 and would deliver the new Messiah. The date fixed for his birth unfortunately did not result in a child and Southcott died shortly thereafter.

Joanna Southcott. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In contrast to Rees’ position, a Mr. Murray, who lectured on chemistry, believed the mermaid of 1822 to be a “manufactured fake.” He stated as much saying:

“The first thing that struck me was the utter incongruity of the piece. The fish part should have been at least quadruple the size it is for such a superstructure. It is therefore the discordia rerum non bene junctarum. The history of the brute is not very credible. It was found cast on share after a storm by some Malay fishermen, and was purchased by a its present possessor for one thousand two hundred pounds at Batavia. That the fabric is neatly put together must be freely admitted; but I am confident I can trace the curve lines of its junction in a great part of its circumference, and this with the naked eye, for a lens is of little use (though also employed), seeing the hideous form is encased in glass; nay more, I egregiously deceive myself if I did not perceive two or three of the stitches by which it was sewed together. The continuation of the vertebra joints under the membrane of the simia is sufficiently ingenious, and may startle prima facie; but the cutis seems to have been merely thrown back for the introduction beneath it of the vertebrae of the fish part.”[7]

Another negative review of the mermaid of 1822 came from the Literary Gazette:

“We have again carefully inspected this creature, as minutely as its glass casing permits. Our opinion is fixed that it is a composition; a most ingenious one, we grant, but still nothing beyond the admirably put together members of various animals. — The extraordinary skills of Chinese and Japanese in executing such deceptions is notorious, and we have no doubt but that the Mermaid is a manufacture from the shore of the Indian Sea, where it has been pretended it was caught. We are not of those, who, because they happen not to have had direct proof the existence of any extraordinary natural phenomenon, push scepticism to the extreme, and deny its possibility. The depths of the sea, in all probability, from various chemical and philosophical causes, contain animals unknown to its surface waters, or, if ever, rarely seen by human eye. But when a creature is presented to us, having no other organization but that which is suitable to a medium always open to our observation, it in the first instance excites suspicion, that only one individual of the species should be discovered and obtained. When knowledge was more limited, the stories of Mermaids seen in distant,, quarters might be created by the many, and not entirely disbelieved by the few; but now, when European and especially British, commerce fills every corner of the earth with men of observation and science, the unique becomes the incredible and we received with far greater doubt the apparition of such anomalies as the present. … It is a jest, and all things show it, We thought so once, and now we know it.”[8]

Although Eades may have believed his mermaid of 1822 to be the real thing, it caused such a stir and such controversy that gambling men began to embrace a great deal of betting on whether she was real or not. According to the London Magazine:

“[A]s many persons back the strength of their opinion for and against the Mermaid, the sporting men will have a fine opportunity of making a good book, as some are laying 5 and 6 to 4 on the Mermaid being a natural production, while others are laying the same odds, and even 2 to 1 against it. A sporting gentleman, who is supposed to have some concern in this Mermaid, has taken many bets and some long odds to a large amount, that it really is what is represented — a Mermaid.”[10]

No matter whether the mermaid of 1822 was real or a manufactured fake composed of a variety of animals that consisted of “the cheeks of the blue-faced ape, the canine teeth [of a dog], the simian upper body, and the tail of the fish,”[9] she was a sensation. Throngs of people paid a shilling a piece to see her and her viewing was popular as any of Madame Tussaud‘s controversial wax figures. In fact, it was estimated between 300 and 400 people a day visited the mermaid while she was on display at Tom Watson’s Turf Coffeehouse on St. James’s Street.

Mermaid of 1822

Two views of “The mermaid! Now exhibiting at the Turf Coffee House, St James’s Street” by Isaac Robert Cruikshank. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Although there was great interest in the mermaid of 1822, one English gentleman was upset about it. He was Stephen Ellery. It seems that Eades had wrongfully taken Ellery’s ship and sold it with authorization to buy the reputed mermaid. Ellery learned of Eades’ London exhibition and visited hoping to recoup his losses. When he saw Eades he demanded the money for his ship but Eades refused to reimburse or even share the profits made from his mermaid. Moreover, Eades threatened Ellery that he would disappear with his mermaid, which would thereby make it impossible for Ellery to get a dime.

Unhappy over Eades’ threats, Ellery decided to outsmart him. At the time It was common for “gentlemen” to abduct wealthy heiresses and marry them without parental permission, such as in the case of Clementina Clerke. To stop this dishonest practice, appeals could be made to the lord chancellor’s court because he had the authority to make an eloped young lady his ward and prevent her marriage without his authority. Ellery therefore outsmarted Eades by filing a claim in the court of the lord chancellor, who upon hearing Ellery’s case with some mirth, decided to restrain Eades from “removing or disposing” of the mermaid with his permission.

More misfortune hit Eades and the bubble burst when the mermaid of 1822 was seized by custom officials. They declared it to be of Japanese origin and 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.”[11] That declaration was followed by more criticism from the Gentleman’s Magazine that provided a list of affidavits and a scholarly debate about its lack of genuineness. Thus by January 1832, the mermaid exhibition was closed, although by that time the performer it was been exhibited with, Toby, the Learned Pig, had become the latest hit.

The Learned Pig Toby. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Fairburn, John, Wonder of the World!, Vol. 2, 1822, p. 24.
  • [2] “Wednesday & Thursday’s Posts,” in Stamford Mercury, p. 2.
  • [3] “A Mermaid,” in Morning Post, 20 July 1822, p. 4.
  • [4] “Literary Notices,” in Leeds Intelligencer, 23 December 1822, p. 4.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “The Mermaid,” in Lancaster Gazette, 9 November 1822, p. 4.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Scott, John, etal., The London Magazine, Vol. 6, 1822, p. 569.
  • [11] Timbs, John, Popular Errors, 1841, p. 338.

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