While the coast of Delaware may have been treacherous, the Zwaanendael Museum celebrates the rich history of Sussex County by highlighting its maritime connections and stories of the people who lived and worked along Delaware’s southeastern coast.
I found the set of jaw molds altered to display the progress of scurvy particularly interesting, but then my sense of humor often devolves to the level of your average 10 year old. Similarly, the museum has one of two “authentic” mermen specimens in the state. This artifact is actually currently relevant.
Now referred to as Fiji mermen the objects are made up of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish, covered in papier-mâché. It was a common feature of sideshows, which was presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of traditional mermaid stories.
The exhibit which created the Fiji mermaid concept was popularized by P.T. Barnum, but has since been copied many times in other attractions, including the collection of Robert Ripley. The original exhibit was shown around the United States, but was lost in the 1860s when Barnum’s museum caught fire.
These events took place at around the time people discussed Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species, as it was reviewed by Thomas Henry Huxley in the April 1860 issue of the Westminster Review. People from all stations of life began to question their place in the natural order. Hoaxes like the Fiji Mermaid were easily played on unsuspecting sea captains and visitors to the islands.
This story was first published in the News Journal in 2008, under the byline of Gail A. Sisolak. All copyrights reserved.