November 09, 2016

Captain Dodge and the Mermaid

Many years ago, when I was just a small boy, my parents took me and my brother to visit Harvard's museums. I remember seeing the vast collection of taxidermied animals, the glass flowers, and the dinosaur skeletons, which were pretty cool to me back then. (They're still pretty cool now!)

The exhibit I remember best, though, was something called the Fiji Mermaid. This was a small, mummified corpse of a hideous mermaid. Of course, the placard next to the glass case explained that it was not really a mermaid, but was actually a 19th century hoax someone created by sewing a monkey's torso onto a fish's tail. Hoax or not, it was seared into my memory, and the name Fiji Mermaid has stuck in my head ever since. It's one of those things you can't unsee once you see it.

Harvard's Fiji Mermaid. Now you can't unsee this thing either...

I think the Fiji Mermaid is probably the most famous mermaid to visit Boston's shores - it was once owned by P.T. Barnum - but it is not the only one. In the 1820s, decades before the Fiji Mermaid appeared, the whole city was talking about another mermaid who came to visit.

The story starts in 1822 with a man named Captain Dodge, who sailed into Boston Harbor bearing an incredible tale. Dodge said he had met a mermaid, captured her, and left her behind on an island. Dodge seemed quite fond of the mermaid and said he was hoping to go back and teach her human language and culture. He was like a nautical Henry Higgins, I guess.

The Bostonians he met were quite skeptical. It was only the 1820s but even then people in Boston prided themselves on their education and ability to sniff out a fraud. Dodge only had a drawing of his mermaid as proof, and people were unwilling to believe Dodge's story until they saw the see the real thing. Vowing to prove himself no liar, Dodge sailed off, promising to return with the mermaid.

Months passed. Captain Dodge's ship reappeared in Boston Harbor, carrying cargo from around the world but not the one thing everyone was most eager to see: the mermaid. Where was she, the crowds at India Wharf asked? Captain Dodge explained that sadly he found only her corpse when he returned to the island where he had left her. Apparently dragging a mermaid out of the ocean and leaving her stranded on an island was really bad idea. She couldn't survive outside of a marine environment.

Shouldn't someone should have charged Dodge with murder, or at least manslaughter? No one did. Instead people just ghoulishly demanded to see the corpse. I'm suppose most Bostonians were just skeptical of the whole story and didn't really think there was a mermaid to kill anyway. However, some local naturalists approached Dodge and politely asked him to bring the dead sea maiden to Boston for anatomical study. This, they argued, would help prove he was telling the truth. Dodge equivocated and sailed off without promising anything to anyone.

In 1824 Dodge once again sailed into Boston Harbor -  this time with the body of the mermaid on board his ship. Her corpse was enclosed within a glass case. Dodge made arrangements with the New-England Museum to exhibit the mermaid in their building on Court Street. Admission cost twenty-five cents. The mermaid was not allowed to be examined outside of her glass case. Those local naturalists were out of luck.

The New-England Museum (now gone), from Wikipedia

So what exactly did Dodge have inside the case? Was it an actual mermaid? Here is a description from an 1824 issue of The New York Mirror And Ladies Literary Gazette:

The question asked, is, Is it really and truly, bona fide, a Mermaid? We answer, go and see. Examine for yourself. If the skin of a large cod-fish stuffed, with the skeleton of a child’s body put on in the place of the cod’s head, the jaws and teeth of a cat inserted into that which represents the head of the child, and the whole, except for the scaly part enveloped in a bladder, or some other skinny substance, and smoked well with burning camphor, can make a Mermaid, then as sure as a fish is a fish… there is a Mermaid now to be seen in the room adjoining the New-England Museum…

So no, it was not an actual mermaid. Much like the Fiji Mermaid, it was created from the parts of various other animals. Let's hope it wasn't actually made from the body of a child.

Dodge had been sailing in the Pacific before he came to Boston with his mermaid, which helps explain where he got it. According to Wikipedia, fishermen in Japan and other Pacific nations often created these "mermaids" out of animal parts for religious reasons. They're kind of like the Pacific island version of jackalopes, I suppose. Dodge had purchased it during his voyage and then brought it back to New England to show. Did he think it was really a mermaid, or did he know if was fake? That's hard to say, but I suspect he knew it was a hoax. Otherwise, he would have let the naturalists examine it.

Dodge's mermaid corpse was one of the first to appear in the United States, but others soon followed, including the more famous Fiji Mermaid, which was promoted by none other than the great circus impresario P.T. Barnum. There is some debate over whether Harvard's mermaid is actually the same one that Barnum owned, but if not it's still a good example of these mummified mermaids. I think Loren Coleman's Cryptozoology Museum in Portland Maine has one as well. There are quite a few of these taxidermy oddities out in the world,and the term "Fiji Mermaid" is often used to describe any of them. 

As far as I know, no one has ever found an authentic mermaid (or merman) corpse. Skeptics might say that's because they don't exist, but perhaps mermaids are really manifestations of the ocean's spirit, beautiful but dangerous, and cannnot ever be captured. As for Dodge's mermaid, she long ago disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

My sources for this week were Edward Rowe Snow's 1957 book Legends of the New England Coast, and also this great fairy tale blog which led me to the quote from The New York Mirror.


Sue Bursztynski said...

P.T "There's a sucker born every moment" Barnum? Why am I not surprised? ;-) Pity those scientists didn't just laugh Dodge out of town in the first place.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! Thanks for the comment. I don't know exactly who the scientists were, but I know a group of Boston naturalists at one point misidentified a common black snake as a sea serpent. I wonder if they were the same people?