The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

By Jan Bondeson


Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1999, 315 pp., hardcover, $29.95.


Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Barnum-type false marvels meet true science in this collection of essays on history, natural and otherwise. As the author, Jan Bondeson, puts it, this volume is a "parliament of wonders." Bondeson, who also wrote A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, here makes the most of biological novelties.

Performing animals have been chronicled since antiquity. Even Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World gives the dancing horse Marocco a mention. Marocco seemed to have unusual abilities, including counting, fetching, and special movements -- but was, of course, prompted by its trainer, William Banks. The training methods involved were not harsh for their day. Rewards for wanted behaviors were loaves of bread, and punishments for willfulness were withholdings of food. Only Banks, a Briton, worked with the horse.

Samuel Bisset, born 1721, had a troupe of many creatures, of which the Wonderful Pig became the star. Toby the Learned Pig's powers included spelling out names using cardboard letters, bowing, and distinguishing between single and married spectators. When Bisset died, the porcine prophet was taken over by one Mr. Nicholson. Circa 1787, Robert Burns agreed to attend a party commemorating the first collection of his poems only if the Learned Pig was also there.

The Feejee Mermaid is the subject of an informative chapter. London's Turf coffeehouse exhibited the dried mermaid in 1822. It had found its way to the English city by way of Samuel Barrett Eades, an American sea captain. He had purchased it from a Dutchman who claimed to have gotten it from the Japanese fisherfolk who had originally caught it. In January of that year he managed to buy it by selling, for $6,000, the ship under his stewardship: the Pickering. Eades's letter about it must have surprised the ship's owner. In September, when Eades came to London, the mermaid was confiscated as contraband by customs officers.

The "magic beans"-like purchase paid off when the mermaid became a sensation in London, including among some "experts." Dr. Reese Price announced that it was genuine. Eades later found out from other scientists that the mermaid was a fake, but he continued to exhibit it. Sir Everard Home, who had been falsely declared to have endorsed the mermaid, arranged for its debunking. Despite all this, several decades later Phineas Taylor Barnum acquired the "mermaid" and insured its immortality, largely through its exhibition in his American Museum. The book also features photographs of other fake mermaids, plus an x-ray of one, revealing how it was faked.

The stories of the famous elephants, Chunee and Jumbo, are instructive as to the various ways people treat animals. The former met a horrible death by bayonet and bullets after he rebelled against his confinement. While the immortal Jumbo -- lifted to everlasting fame by Barnum ballyhoo and personal popularity -- also may have had his period of ill temper in England because of emerging molars, he had a keeper, Matthew Scott, who could calm him. Jumbo's death in 1885, after less arduous confinement than Chunee, came when a locomotive rammed into him in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Wonderful photographs of Jumbo and Scott are reproduced, including one taken when Jumbo was little and another when the elephant was older and immense.

Animals have not always been as beloved as Jumbo. During medieval times, it was believed that animals could be devil-possessed, and the trials of their alleged wrongdoings helped unite the public and demonstrate the Catholic Church's "omnipotence." In Falaise, France, a sow that killed a baby was hanged in human clothes. Even insects could be excommunicated.

Actual animals were not the only subjects of strange beliefs. Unreal animals dealt with in this volume include the Basilisk of Warsaw, the vegetable lamb, and tree-growing geese.

Fortean phenomena also figure, and strange showers of fishes, amphibians, and worms are examined as to their actuality. The worms that fell in Halmstad, Sweden, on December 9, 1923 were thought to come from outer space by some, but Baron Charles de Geer, the famed entomologist, established that they were earthly compost worms. Dr. Herved Berlin found a biological and meteorological explanation about how the worms sailed into the air using leaves as sails and then released their grips, coming down from above. The 1923/24 winter in Scandinavia provided the rare conditions for this verified worm fall to occur.

Mysteries about toads in holes and toads in stones provide an appropriate finale to this memorable menagerie.