The Mermaid of London: A Weird Tail

The mermaid, like the unicorn before it, and dragons and harpies and hydras, have all been confined to a menagerie of phantasmagoria, by those who believe or not. These ‘mythological’ creatures, long standing as old tales from sea travellers, have stood the test of time, albeit now portrayed as fantastic but fictional monster stories. Yet there is truth to their foggy matter indeed.

American sea captain Samuel Barrett Eades took to London, in 1822, a fine specimen of a dried mermaid, which was exhibited (to much fuss) at the Turf coffeehouse at St James Street. The creature had been obtained by Eades from Dutch fishermen who had received the bizarre form from Japanese fishermen, who at the time had clearly not realised what kind of zoological wonder had sat before them.

After saving a crew from a sinking Dutch man-of-war at the East Indies, Eades was to be greatly rewarded, and with the money purchased the curiosity which he decided he would take on tour with him throughout New York and London. In his mind, Eades would be hailed as a supreme explorer of the mystery seas, but no reward was forthcoming. However, after selling a ship, named the Pickering, of which he owned one eighth of, for $6,000, Eades finally made his dream come true and purchased the mermaid despite not telling a Mr Ellery who owned the rest of the ship.

Eades climbed aboard a vessel bound for London from Boston. When the boat temporarily anchored at Cape Town, Eades was quick to exhibit his specimen to enhance his funds. Many people gathered around the peculiar sight, with some claiming that now they’d seen such a wonder, God could indeed take them from this Earth!

A Dr Philip, representative of the London Missionary Society of Cape Town, wrote of the exhibit in a letter to the London Philanthropic Gazette describing the beast, mentioning its baboon-like head with thin, black strands of hair. The chin, breasts, nose, fingers, eyes and nails resembling those of a human being and the body measuring some three-feet in length. Belief was strong in its authenticity, and when Eades arrived in London in 1822 he though the world would be his oyster.

Immediately the creature was confiscated from the captain – customs officers at the time were reluctant to release such a form, but after a short hiatus, Eades was on the road, looking for a theatre to display the mermaid and was rented a room at the Turf coffeehouse by a Mr Watson. An advertisement was drawn up for the exhibition, which read:

‘A MERMAID!!! – The wonder of the world, the admiration of all ages, the theme of the Philosopher, the Historian, the Poet…may be seen at number 59 St James Street, every day, Sundays excepted from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. Admittance one shilling.’

The public who flocked to see the sensation were not allowed to touch it, and was protected by way of a glass dome. The Mirror at the time reported that some four-hundred people would visit the exhibit daily! Soon after, the Eades mermaid was accepted as a novel species, and it had been examined by a Doctor Price, who exclaimed that the scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century had been correct in stating that mermaids did indeed exist.

However, the Eades bubble burst when Mr Ellery, owner of the Pickering ship, came to London, took Eades to court and showed him up for the cunning man he was. A William Clift, an expert anatomist, when analysing the mermaid, told how it had been manufactured, the cranium, hair and torso belonged to an orang-utan, the jaws and teeth were from a baboon, eyes and parts of skin were artificial, sawn human bones made up the limbs, the nails were constructed from horn, and the main fish section of the creature had indeed come from a large fish. So, the specimen was a lie. A fraud. A hoax.

Eades, convinced of its authenticity, especially after spending so much money on it, would have received quite a shock at Clift’s find, and chaos ensued. The December issue of Gentleman’s Magazine revealed the truth: London’s public had been conned. Eades continued to flog the dead horse for want of small profit, but over time the profits and the interest shrivelled, just like the cleverly constructed skin of the mermaid. On January 9, 1823, the coffeehouse closed down, and the mermaid was no longer the local headline act.

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