OFFBEAT: P.T. Barnum was the master of foolery for profit

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2014-04-01T00:00:00Z 2014-04-01T17:59:11Z OFFBEAT: P.T. Barnum was the master of foolery for profitBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

Happy April Fools' Day!

The entertainment, promotion and advertising of today owes a great deal to the great mind of master showman Phineas Taylor Barnum aka P.T. Barnum of circus fame.

When I teach college courses in public relations and mass media, Barnum's name is included in textbooks for his contributions to the field, debated by experts as both good and bad for his use of "puffery" and exaggerated claims.

A number of the textbooks I use include the example of one of his most profitable sideshow attractions, a display of what he claimed was "the only mermaid ever captured and preserved," a treasured find from among his expeditions, including explorations of the Caspian Sea.

While the towering canvas posters outside the exhibit depicted the beautiful sirens of the sea, as portrayed in fairy tales and storybooks, complete with ample bosoms, long-flowing hair and a come-hither pose, what was showcased inside for the viewing public (after they'd paid their hard-earned money) was something entirely the opposite.

And today, it remains one of the most famous, documented hoaxes to snare the minds and imaginations (and money!) of the general public.

What audiences actually filed past to see inside was a small, mummified creature in a glass case. While Barnum had paid a naturalist to document and attest to validity of the curiosity, the creation was actually the head, shoulders and upper torso of a shaved ape, sewn to the lower extremities of a carp with the animal's scalp featuring long human hair that had been affixed.

Since this exhibit made the rounds back in 1843, paying audiences were less educated and not as well-traveled, so it was easy to fool the masses during a time when laws didn't protect others from questionable business tactics.

In his autobiography, Barnum later described the mermaid as "an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen... its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony."

Dubbed "The Feejee Mermaid" or at times, "The Fiji Mermaid," since it was said to be captured near the Fiji Islands, the "mermaid" was actually purchased by Barnum from another showman, based near Boston, named Moses Kimball. Said to have been created around 1810 by a fisherman in Japan, it was bought by Dutch merchants who in 1822 then sold it to an American sea captain, named Samuel Barrett Eades for an astounding $6,000. Upon the captain's death, his son then sold it to Kimball for his collections.

Proving hoaxes have lived a long life, it toured with Barnum for 25 years, including a trip to London, before it came back to the U.S. in 1859 for a museum display, where it was believed to have been destroyed in a fire in 1865. However, today, Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Mass. reports the original Barnum mermaid is on display with their collection, explaining that any reported difference in appearance is a result from damage sustained from the heat during the museum fire.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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