Mermaids and Mermen appeared in art and literature across cultures for thousands of years. In the early 1800s, they regularly appeared in “news” reports as well, with “real” sightings by coastal residents and sailors. Several mermaid skeletons and preserved corpses from exotic locales filtered into museums. With P.T. Barnum’s expertise at creating fake news and alternative facts, Victorian Era Mermaids flourished.
There was no shortage of snake oil salesmen and con artists in the Victorian Era. People were fooled by advertising and promotion, just as we are now. Among the scammers who concocted outrageous alternative facts, P.T. Barnum was one of the best. He had great business savvy and knew how to create promotional campaigns that routinely went viral. He gave people what they wanted and they gave him their money with a smile.
Alternatively spelled Fejee and Fiji, Barnum’s Mermaid remains one of the most famous. Spoiler Alert: she was crafted from the head and torso of a monkey that was sewn to the bottom half of a fish.
Beauty was not one of her traits like the mermaids we know and love. Supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands, she was originally purchased by Samuel Barrett Edes, an American Sea Captain, for $6,000. Having borrowed the money from his ship’s expense account, the purchase nearly sank him.
It’s believed that fisherman in Japan and the East Indies commonly constructed what became Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid. Apparently, Captain Edes was not aware of that traditional craft. Edes’ son later sold the mermaid to Moses Kimball of Boston in 1842.
Kimball brought his Fiji Mermaid to Barnum in New York. Barnum had a naturalist examine the mermaid for authenticity. In spite of the expert’s skepticism, Barnum believed that the public would flock to see this fine specimen.
Step #1: Invent An Expert. Barnum leased the Fiji Mermaid from Kimball for $12.50 per week on June 12, 1842. He created a fake news story about the mermaid being caught by naturalist, Dr. J. Griffin. In reality, Griffin was Levi Lyman, one of Barnum’s trusted associates.
Step #2: Create A Buzz With Letters And Testimonials. Barnum launched a letter-writing campaign to New York newspapers from Washington D.C., Alabama and South Carolina. Each letter mentioned the astonishing Fiji Mermaid. New York Newspapers were hungry for promotional stories that would capture new readers.
Step #3: Leak Your Fake News Story. He also sent Griffin to Philadelphia where he manipulated the “leak” of his fake story of the mermaid to newspaper editors.
Step #4: Make Your Fake News Exclusive. Griffin returned to New York where he showed the Fiji Mermaid for only one week at the Concert Hall. He started with a small group, then opened the showings to a bigger audience.
Step #5: Follow It Up With More Fake News. Barnum then stepped in with another fake news story. He announced that he had managed to convince Griffin to allow Barnum to show the Mermaid at his American Museum of Natural History.
Step #6: Disguise Your Promotional Materials. Barnum had 10,000 illustrated pamphlets ready to spread the word. He pretended that the deal went sideways, but still he gave the press the news kits since he supposedly no longer had use for them.
Step #7: Bait And Switch Without Shame. The pamphlets showed a bare breasted beauty, which was a far cry from the shriveled demon that the public saw. Still, Barnum’s model was a huge success.
P.T. Barnum embraced the use of hype, which he called humbug. In his mind, it was ethically fine as long as the public got what they wanted. If they left with a smile, they got their money’s worth. That said, Barnum had no patience for people who made their fortune by defrauding the public.
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