How a man tricked himself into buying the world’s most expensive mermaid and lost his fortune in the process
As the new live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid hits theaters, let’s take a look back at the bizarre story of the world’s most expensive mermaid.
A far cry from the beautiful appearance of Ariel (played by Halle Bailey in the new film and voiced by Jodi Benson in the 1989 animation), the infamous Feejee mermaid looks more like a monster from a horror movie.
The “mummified mermaid” was created by sewing the torso and head of a young monkey onto the back half of a fish and was enough to convince American captain Samuel Barrett Eades of the existence of sea people.
It became quite the attraction at side events, including at PT Barnum’s American Museum in New York, but alas it cost Eades everything.
Mermaids like these were regularly made in Japan from wire, paper mache, dried fish skin, and fish or monkey jaws as devotional items depicting a Japanese spirit called Ningyo, meaning “man-fish.”
However, the restrictions on trade and contact between Europe and Japan at the time meant that European sailors who saw her for the first time were ignorant of the story.
And that is exactly what happened when Eades chanced upon the Feejee mermaid in 1822, although understandably the parts of this mermaid would have been more believable to him than the wire ones.
Eades, who was from Boston, USA, owned an eighth of the shares in the merchant ship The Pickering.
He saw the Feejee mermaid displayed in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) and thought it was the real deal.
He made the hasty decision to sell the Pickering and her cargo for 6,000 Spanish dollars so he could buy the mermaid from some Dutch sailors who had bought her from a Japanese fisherman.
He bought it for 5,000 Spanish dollars, which would be around 126,600 dollars (110,000 pounds) today.
Eades used the money he had left over from the sale of the ship to secure his voyage back to England, confident that he would make a fortune exhibiting his discovery.
En route to England he stopped in Cape Town, South Africa to display it, confident that not only would he make a fortune doing it, but he would prove once and for all to the scientific community that sea people existed.
After a report from someone who had seen the mermaid in Cape Town made its way into the British press, sea mania gripped the country and scientists and the public were keen to see for themselves.
There was a strong focus in the scientific community of the time on uncovering the truth about submarine humanoids, so the mermaid was the subject of much speculation.
It was on display in London for several months and crowds lined the streets to pay the 1 shilling entrance fee.
Eades appeared to be on the winning side, but his impulsive purchase hit him again.
Stephen Ellery, who owned the other seven-eighths of The Pickering, took legal action against him for selling the ship and cargo.
The mermaid was eventually condemned by scientists as a fake, and Eades was unable to escape with it until the litigation was settled.
The courts ruled in Ellery’s favour, and Eades was forced to spend the rest of his life at sea to pay off his debts.
The mermaid was still considered an oddity, despite claims that she was fake, and toured the UK and possibly Europe for several years.
It was later sold by Eades’ son to Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum in Massachusetts, USA, who brought it to the famous American showman PT Barnum.
Barnum, who was portrayed quite favorably in the musical film The Greatest Showman, made up a fake backstory for the mermaid, claiming that she was captured in Fiji, leading to her becoming known as the Feejee mermaid.
He used the media – and a bogus scientist – to generate huge public interest in it.
The mermaid moved back and forth between Barnum’s exhibitions and Kimball’s museum, but today only drawings of it survive.
The mermaid is believed to have been destroyed in one of the fires that destroyed Barnum’s collections in the 1860s and 1880s.
Professor Sarah Peverley, one of Guinness World Records’ Expert Advisors, said: “It’s hard to believe today that Eades was willing to risk everything for the mermaid, but back then the existence of merpeople was still up for debate. It really wasn’t that.” knew if mermaids existed or not. Eades believed that his mermaid would settle matters and make his fortune.
Sarah, a professor at the University of Liverpool and an expert on mermaids in culture, added: “Although other so-called mermaids have been exhibited across Europe, none were like his. That’s because it came from Japan, where it was made.” as a religious icon representing one of the yokai, or spirits, in Japanese culture.
“From the 17th century to the mid-19th century, Japan pursued a strict policy of isolation known as sakoku, which restricted trade and contact with foreign nations, so little was known about its culture in European circles. Objects like the mermaid were not understood by Japan, so when they fell into the hands of sailors like Eades, they exchanged hands for large sums of money and were taken out of context. There were no limits to the imagination.
“Eades’ Mermaid captures how spiritual, imaginative, curious, optimistic and utterly gullible people can be. It’s tragic that he lost everything, but PT Barnum made a fortune off her. Barnum was just better at handling the conflicting opinions.” Mermaid evoked in humans. He left the public to decide whether it was real or not, rather than telling them it was the answer science was looking for.
If you want to know more about Sarah’s thoughts on mermaids, check out these radio interviews here and here.
She is also currently writing a book on the cultural history of mermaids.
The world is just as mesmerized by mermaids today as it ever was.
To keep up with demand, a new documentary has just landed on Netflix.
MerPeople follows a group of people who, at various points in their careers, aspire to be professional mermaids.
Again, here at Guinness World Records we are definitely no exception to the rule and have many records related to mermaids.
In 2021, 110 professional mermaids came together to stage the largest underwater mermaid show, and we also tracked the longest swim distance using a monofin and most air rings blown underwater in one minute by a mermaid performer.
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