The Feejee Mermaid on display in the Victorian era.
The Australian platypus probably contributed to the proliferation of rogue taxidermy and out-in-out hoaxes that occurred during the Victorian era. When skins and specimens were sent back to Europe, scientists thought the animals were constructed from parts cut from ducks and beavers and who knew what else. The platypus, a real animal, was discounted as a fake.
A Victorian-era illustration of the Platypus – body too fat, tail too small, and with frilly feet and a square bill. Still cute.
That the example of the Feejee Mermaids (there were more than one) was obviously following. The original was construction from the taxidermy remains of an infant monkey sewn to a fish. It looked nothing like the lovely mermaidens used on the advertising. In fact, it was a grotesquerie of the highest order, displayed under glass for the edification of the masses.The original mermaid was exhibited by P.T Barnum in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842.
The Original Feejee Mermaid
Modern example of a feejee mermaid.
The infamous Hydrarchos – the alleged skeleton of a sea serpent – was brought to New York City in 1845 by the amateur German-American fossil hunter Albert Koch. It had previously been on exhibit in Europe. The Hydrarchos skeleton was constructed mainly from the remains of several specimens of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus with the exception of its paddles, which were made from collections of invertebrate shells. During the early 19th century, Basilosaurus cetoides fossils were so common they were regularly used as furniture in the American south, and so were easily to obtain for his Hydrarchos.
Hydrachos exhibited in Berlin in 1842.
This wasn’t the first time Koch had tried to hoax the public; he had previously used wooden blocks and extra vertebrae to construct a mastodon. He managed to sell the grotesquery to the British Museum in 1842. They took out the extra bits, put the tusks back properly, and recovered the original mastodon for their collection.
The Missourium or Koch’s Mastodon. Note the tusks have been twisted around to make for a bizarre skull.
At least Koch had used actual bones to create his masterpieces. New Yorker George Hull hired men to carve out a 3.2 metre block of gypsum in Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired a German stonecutter, Edward Burghardt, to carve it into the likeness of a naked giant. Various stains and acids were used to make the giant appear to be old and weathered, and the giant’s surface was poked with steel knitting needles to mimic pores. In November 1868, Hull transported the giant by rail to the farm of William Newell, his cousin. Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and in October 1869 they found the giant sculpture.
The excavation of the Cardiff Giant
People flocked to see the giant, happy to pay the admission to see the ‘petrified’ man. (I can’t find any reference to the exhibitors hiding his rather prominent man bits from the ladies.) Palaeontologists declared it a fraud, but that didn’t stop the crowds. Hull sold it to a syndicate. P T Barnum went as far as creating a copy, when the syndicate wouldn’t sell him the original. This all came out on December 10, 1870, Hull confessed to the press that the giant was a hoax. He claimed he did it to prove a point about the gullibility of people who believed in giants.
I am finding this topic fascinating. But I will get back to the X club members.