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The Mermaid, The Mirror, Saturday November 9, 1822

The Mermaid, The Mirror, Saturday November 9, 1822

This eighth 'wonder of the world;' this “frightful monster which the world ne'er saw,' until the present year, is now the great source of attraction in the British metropolis; and three to four hundred people every day pay their shilling each to see a disgusting sort of a compound animal, which contains in itself every thing that is odious and disagreeable. But the curiosity to see a real Mermaid, after all the fictions that have been related respecting it, is natural enough—the only point is, whether it is a real one or not; and even on this professional men disagree.

This singular creature, which it is reported was brought to Bafavia, in the East Indies, from some of the neighbouring islands, is in a state of high preservation, and appears to have been so for many years. 

It is nearly three feet in length. Its head is nearly round, about the size of that of a child two or three years old—its forehead somewhat depressed, and chin projecting similar to the negro.

Its teeth perfect, and beautifully set in circular rows; but the canine teeth, as they are called, being longer, project much beyond the others. The cheeks of the face project a little, which, together with the eyes, eyebrows, chin, mouth, tongue, ears, throat, &c. exactly resemble those of the human species. Its head is somewhat bent forward. The spinous processes of the cervical and dorsal vertebrae project in that distinct, and regular order, down to the lower part of the breast, that we find in the human subject; when they gradually lose themselves on entering the natural form of the lower portion of the body of a fish. The scapula and arms—the latter of which are of great length—hands, thumbs, fingers, and nails, furnish us with an exact representation of those of a delicate female: the breast bone, clavicles and ribs of the chest are perfectly distinct, and the breasts—which are now of some size, and appear to have been very large—and nipples are a tolerable model of those in the human species. Its body appears to be muscular above the chest, and covered with cuticle and hair, dispersed as in the human skin.

The one side of the head is covered with black human hair, about half an inch or an inch in length; but on the other side it appears to have been much worn or rubbed off.

When examining this singular phenomenon, what excited astonishment was, the external covering from the chest upwards to be such a near representation of that of a human being, whilst the whole of the body below was enveloped with the scaly covering of a fish.

Immediately under the breasts, the fishy form commences, by two large fins on its belly, on which it has been represented by those who have seen it at sea to rest the upper-part of its body above water; it then tapers off and terminates in the tail of a fish, not unlike that of a salmon.

The engraving we give in our present number is a very correct delineation of the appearance of the Mermaid which has been brought from one of the Molucca Islands. But, positive as some persons are, as to its realty being that long-deemed fabulous creature, the Mermaid, we must beg leave to express our doubts—we may say firm conviction—that it is an imposture— certainly not the first that has been practised on the credulity of honest John Bull. The fact is, that the lower part is a real fish, of a species found in the rivers of Chioa and Japan, the head and shoulders being cut off, and replaced by the bust of a baboon. We are confirmed in our opinion of its being an imposture by several of our contemporaries, as well as by the opinions of several professional gentlemen. The Editor of the Literary Gazette, in speaking of it, says:

'Our opinion is fixed that it is a composition; a most ingenious one, we grant, but still nothing beyond the admirably put together members of various animals. The extraordinary skill of the Chinese and Japanese in executing such deceptions is notorious, and we have no doubt but that the Mermaid is a manufacture from the Indian Sea, where it has been pretended it was caught. We are not of those who, because they happen not to have had direct proof of the existence of any extraordinary natural phenomenon, push scepticism to the extreme and deny its possibility. The depths of the sea, in all probability, from various chemical and philosophical causes, contain animals unknown to its surface waters, or if ever, rarely seen by human eye. Bat when a creature is presented to us, having no other organization but that which is suitable to a medium always open to our observation, it in the first instance excites suspicion that only one individual of the species should be discovered and obtained. When knowledge was more limited, the stories of Mermaids seen in distant quarters might be credited by the many, and not entirely disbelieved by the few; but now, when European, and especially British, commerce fills every corner of the earth with men of observation and science, the unique becomes the incredible, and we receive with far greater doubt the apparition of such anomalies as the present. It is curious that though medical men seem in general to regard this creature as a possible production of nature, no naturalist of any ability credits it after five minutes observation! This may perhaps be accounted for by their acquaintance with the parts of distinct animals, of which, it appears, the Mermaid is composed. The cheeks of the blue-faced ape, the canine teeth, the simia upper body, and the tail of the fish, are all familiar to them in less complex combinations, and they pronounce at once that the whole is an imposture. And such is our settled conviction.'

A monthly journal, after giving a long account of Mermaids, and referring to an engraving of the one now exhibiting in London, which, we are told, appears in that number, has withdrawn the plate in consequence of a subsequent conviction of the imposture. It is, however, a very ingenious imposture, and therefore is worth seeing on that account.

But while we doubt the reality of the disgusting looking Mermaid (as it is called) now exhibiting, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is a host of evidence in favour of the existence of such a creature, both in ancient and modern times. Pliny says, that 'the Ambassadors to Augustus from Gaul declared that sea-women were often seen in their neighbourhood.' Solinus and Aulus Geilius also speak of their existence.

It is related in the Histoire d'Angle-terre, part 1, page 403, that in the year 1187, a Merman was 'fished up' in the county of Suffolk, and kept by the governor for six months ; it was exactly like a man in every respect, and wanted nothing but speech. He never could be brought to any understanding of his nature or situation, and at length made his escape, and was seen to plunge into the sea, from whence he returned no more.

In 1430, in the great tempests which destroyed the dykes in Holland, some women at Edam, in West-Freezeland, saw a Mermaid, who had been driven by the waters into the meadows which were overflowed. They took it, and (as it is said,) dressed it in female attire, and taught it to spin. It fed on cooked meat, but all efforts to teach it to speak proved ineffectual, though Parival says, “it had some notion of a deity, and made its reverences very devoutly when it passed a crucifix.' It was taken to Haerlem, where it lived some years, but it ever retained an inclination for the water. At its death it was allowed Christian burial.

In 1560, on the coast of Ceylon, some fishermen caught, at one draught of their Bets, seven Mermen and Mermaids. — They were dissected, and found made exactly like human beings. For a full account of this last circumstance, see the Histoire de la Compagnie de Jesus, part 2d. t. 4. No. 276.

In 1531, a Merman, caught in the Baltic, was sent to Sigismond, king of Poland, with whom, says the account, he lived three days, and was seen by the whole court; but whether he died or escaped at the end of that period, we cannot say. But in some tracts published by John Gregory, A. M. and chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1650, this identical Merman is described, 'as a huge animal of the human form, but very much resembling a bishop in his pontificals.' A German engraving of this being I have seen, it is extremely curious.

Georelius Trapanzantius declares that he himself saw a Mermaid, extremely beautiful, rise many times above water; he adds, that in Epirus, a Merman came on the shore, and watched near a spring of water, endeavouring to catch young women that came there; he was caught, but could not be made to eat.

Maillet, in his Teliamede, speaks of a Merman which was seen by the whole of a French ship's crew, off Newfoundland, in 1730, for some hours. The account was signed by all the crew that could write, and was sent to the Comte de Maurepas on the 8th September, 1725.

Such are the accounts given by different writers at various periods relative to the Mermaid. In our next we shall give similar evidence of more recent times, reserving for ourselves what we wish all our readers to do, the right to exercise their own private judgment as to its fallacy or truth.

Story continues in The Mirror, SATURDAY, November 16, 1822.

(Concluded from No. II.)

In our last Mirror we gave a very correct engraving and description of the compound animal now exhibiting at the west-end of the town as a Mermaid. We also gave a general history of Mermaids, or of the evidence on which their existence is founded, from an early period down to the commencement of the last century. That history we shall now bring down to the present day.

Valentyn describes a Mermaid he saw in 1714, on his voyage from Batavia to Europe, sitting on the surface of the water, with its back towards them, the body was half above water, and was of a grizzly colour, like the skin of a codfish, it had breasts, and was shaped like a woman above the waist, and from thence downwards 'went tapering off to a point.

In the year 1758, a Mermaid is said to have been exhibited at the fair of St. Germains, in France. It was about two feet long, very active, sporting about in the vessel of water, in which it was kept, with great agility and seeming delight. It was fed with bread and fish. Its position, when at rest, was always erect. It was a female, with ugly negro features. The skin was harsh, the ears very large, and the back parts and tail were covered with scales. M. Gautier, a celebrated French artist, made an exact drawing of it.

Another Mermaid, which was exhibited in London in 1775 (for the one now shown is neither the first nor the second with which John Bull has been duped), was said to have been taken in the Gulf of Stanchio, in the Archipelago, by a merchantman trading to Natolia, in August, 1774.

Its face, say the accounts of the day, is like that of a young female ; its eyes a fine light blue; its nose small and handsome; its mouth small; its lips thin, and the edges of them round like that of the codfish; its teeth are small, regular, and white; its chin well shaped, and its neck full. Its ears are like those of the eel, but placed like those of the human species, and behind them are the gills for respiration, which appear like curls. Some are said to have hair upon their head; but this has only rolls instead of hair, which, at a distance, might be taken for short curls. But its chief ornament is a beautiful membrane or fin rising from the temples, and gradually diminishing till it ends pyramidically, forming a foretop like a lady's head-dress. It has no fin on the back, but a bone like that of the human species. Its breasts are fair and full; the arms and hands are well proportioned, but without nails oh the fingers; the belly is round and swelling, but there is no naval. From the waist downwards the body is in all respects like the codfish; it has three sets of fins one above another below the waist, which enable it to swim erect on the sea.

In the year 1794, a Mermaid, as it was called, was shown at No. 7, Broad-court, Bow-street, Covent-garden; it was said to have been taken in the North Seas by Captain Fortier. This nymph of the sea, a woman from the head down to the lower part of the waist, and a fish from thence downwards, was three feet long, having ears, gills, breasts, fins, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, and a contiguous scale covering the fish part. The existence of this animal is firmly believed in the northern parts of Scotland, and in the year 1797, a school-master of Thurso affirmed, that he had seen one, apparently in the act of combing its hair with its fingers. The portion of the animal which he saw was so near a resemblance to the form of a woman, that but for the impossibility of a female so long supporting herself in the waves, he should have presumed it to have been one. Twelve years afterwards, several persons observed near the same place a like appearance.

The next publication in which we find any account relative to the Mermaid worthy of notice, is Dr. Chisholm's Essay on the Malignant Fever of the West Indies, published in 1801. The Doctor speaks of it as follows :— ' I probably hazard the implication of credulity by the following note:—In the year 1707, happening to be at Govenor Van Battenburgh's plantation, in Berbice, the conversation turned on a singular animal which had been repeatedly seen in Berbice river, and some smaller rivers. This animal is the famous Mermaid, hitherto considered as a mere creature of the imagination. It is called by the Indians mene mamma, or mother of the waters. The description given of it by the Governor is as follows:—The upper portion resembles the human figure, the head smaller in proportion, sometimes bare, but oftener covered with a copious quantity of long black hair. The shoulders are broad, and the breasts large and well formed. The lower portion resembles the tail-portion of a fish, is of immense dimension, the tail forked, and not unlike that of the dolphin, as it is usually represented. The colour of the skin is either black or tawny. The animal is held in veneration and dread by the Indians, who imagine that the killing it would be attended with the most calamitous consequences. It is from this circumstance that none of these animals have been shot, and, consequently, not examined but at, a distance. They have been generally observed in a sitting posture in the water, none of the lower extremity being discovered until they are disturbed; when, by plunging, the tail appears, and agitates the water to a considerable distance round. They have been always seen employed in smoothing their hair, or stroking their faces and breasts with their hands, or something resembling hands. In this posture, and thus employed, they have been frequently taken for Indian women bathing.' Mr. Van Battenburgh's account was much corroborated by that of some gentlemen settled in Mahaycony and Abary.

At Sandside, in the parish of Reay, in the county of Caithness, there was seen, on the 12th of January, 1809, an animal supposed to be the Mermaid, The head and the chest, being all that was visible, is said to have exactly resembled those of a full-grown young woman. The breasts were perfectly formed; the arms longer than in the human body, and the eyes somewhat smaller. When the waves dashed the hair, which was of a sea-green shade, over the face, the hands were immediately employed to replace it. The skin was of a pick colour. Though observed by several persons within the distance of twenty yards, for about an hour and a half, it discovered no symptoms of alarm.

In 1811, a young man, named John M'Isaac, of Corphine, in Kintyre, in Scotland, made oath, on examination, at Cambletown, before the sheriff-substitute of Kintyre, that he saw, on the afternoon of the 13th of October, in that year, on a black-rock on the sea-coast, an animal, of the particulars of which he gives a long and curious detail. He states, that the upper half of it was white, and of the shape of a human body; the other half, towards the tail, of a brindled or reddish-grey colour, apparently covered wish scales; but the extremity of the tail itself was of a greenish-red shining colour; that the head was covered with long hair; at times it would put back the hair on both sides of its head; it would also spread its tail like a fan; and, while so extended, the tail continued in tremulous motion, and, when drawn together again, it remained motionless, and appeared to the deponent to be about twelve or fourteen inches broad ; that the hair was long and light brown ; that the animal was between four and five feet long; that it had a head, hair, arms, and body, down to the middle, like a human being; that the arms were short in proportion to the body, which appeared to be about the thickness of that of a young lad, and tapering gradually to the point of the tail; that when stroking its head, as above mentioned, the fingers were kept close together, so that he cannot say whether they were webbed or not; that he saw it for near two hours, the rock on which it lay being dry; that, after .the sea had so far retired as to leave the rock dry to the height of five feet above the water, it tumbled clumsily into the sea; a minute after he observed the animal above water, and then he saw every feature of its face, having all the appearance of a human being, with very hollow eyes. The cheeks were of the same colour with the rest of the face; the neck seemed short; and it was constantly, with both hands, stroking and washing its breast, which was half immersed in the water; he, therefore, cannot say whether its bosom was formed like a woman's or not. He saw no other fins or feet upon it, but as described. It continued above water for a few minutes, and then disappeared. The Minister of Campbeltown, and the Chamberlain of Mull, attest his examination, and declare that they know no reason why his veracity should be questioned.

In 1812, Mr. Toupin, of Exmouth, published the following account of his having seen a Mermaid: 'The day (August 11),' says he, ' being very fine, I joined a party of ladies and gentlemen in a sailing excursion. When we had got about a mile to the southeast of Exmouth-bar, our attention was suddenly arrested by a very singular noise, by no means unpleasant to the ear, but of which it is impossible to give a correct idea by mere description. It was not, however, unaptly compared by one of our ladies to the wild melodies of the AEolian harp,* combined with a noise similar to that made by a stream of water falling gently on the leaves of a tree. In the mean time we observed something about one hundred yards from us, to windward.  We all imagined it to be some human being, though at the same time we were at a loss to account for this, at such a distance from the shore, and no other boat near. We hailed, but received no reply, and we made toward this creature as soon as possible; when, to the great astonishment of us all, it eluded our pursuit by plunging under water. In a few minutes it rose again, nearly in the same place; and by that time  we had got sufficiently near for one of the boatmen to throw into the water a piece of boiled fish, which he had in his locker. This seemed to alarm the animal, though it soon recovered from its fears, for we presently observed it to lay hold of the fish, which it ate with apparent relish. Several other pieces were thrown out, by which the creature was induced to keep at a short distance from our boat, and afforded us the opportunity of observing it with attention, and found, to our astonishment, that it was no other than a Mermaid. As the sea was calm, and in a great degree transparent, every part of the animal's body became in turn visible. The head, from the crown to the chin, forms rather a long- oval, and the face seems to resemble that of the seal, though, at the same time, it is far more agreeable, possessing a  peculiar softness, which renders the whole set of features very interesting. The upper and back part of the head appeared to be furnished with something like hair, and the forepart of the body with something like down, between a very light fawn and a very pale pink colour, which, at a distance, had the appearance of flesh, and may have given rise to the idea that the body of the Mermaid is, externally, like that of the human being. This creature has two arms, each of which terminates into a hand with four fingers, connected to each other by means of a very thin elastic membrane. The animal used its arms with great agility, and its motions in general were very graceful. From the waist it gradually tapered so as to form a tail, which had the appearance of being covered with strong broad polished scales, which occasionally reflected the rays of the sun in a very beautiful manner; and, from the back and upper part of the neck, down to the loins, the body also appeared covered with short round broad feathers, of the colour of the down on the fore-part of the body. The whole length of the animal, from the crown of the head to the extremity of the tail, was supposed to be about five feet, or five feet and a half. In about ten minutes, from the time we approached, the animal gave two or three plunges, in quick succession, as if it were at play. After this, it gave a sudden spring, and swam away from us very rapidly, and in a few seconds we lost sight of it.' It must be in the recollection of most persons, that in the autumn of 1819, a creature appeared on the coast of Ireland, about the size of a child of ten years of age, with a bosom as prominent as a girl of sixteen, having long dark hair, and full dark eyes. We shall not transcribe the account, as it will doubtless be well remembered; but it may be right to add, for the satisfaction of those who have not seen it, that a spectator endeavoured to shoot it, but on the report of the musket, it plunged into the sea, with a loud' scream. Since this time, we heard nothing of Mermaids until an American Captain and a Bostonian too, Captain Eades, exhibited this wonder of the deep, which is now the wonder of the good people of London, at the Cape of Good Hope. It is said to have been caught on the north coast of China, by a fisherman, who sold it for a trifle, when Captain Eades bought it for 5,000 Spanish dollars. At least so the first account from the Cape stated; but the present possessor of this interesting creature, who certainly believed it to be a real Mermaid, only estimates the whole cost at the Cape and bringing home at 1,000l; so that it is probable Jonathan did not give half the money stated.

Without offering any remarks as to the existence or non-existence of the Mermaid, we may observe, that the question is as far from solution as ever, since it seems to be universally acknowledged, by all persons capable of judging, that the Mermaid now exhibiting is nothing but the head and bust of a baboon joined to the tail of a fish. This circumstance, however, does not appear to affect the exhibition, which continues as crowded as ever.

* Here we have the fiction of the Syrens realized, which none of our Argus-eyed Mermaid hunters had hitherto done. The Syrens, in fabulous history, were certain celebrated song-stresses, who were ranked among the demi-gods of antiquity. Hyginus places their birth among the consequences of the rape of Proserpine. Others make them the daughters of the river Achelous and one of the Muses. The number of the Syrens was three, and their names were Partkenope, Ly-yea, and Leucosia. Some make them half women and half fish; others, half women and half birds. There are antique representations of them still subsisting under both these forms. Pau-sanias tells us that the Syrens, by the persuasion of Juno, challenged the Muses to a trial of skill in singing; and these, having vanquished them, plucked the golden feathers from the wings of the Syrens, and formed them into crowns, with which they adorned their own heads. The Argonauts are said to have been' diverted from the enchantment of their songs by the superior strains of Orpheus. Ulysses, however, had great difficulty in securing himself from seduction.

A letter in response to the above article, The Mirror, Saturday, November 23, 1822


To the Editor of the Mirror.

I see by the Papers, that the Mermaid, after having escaped the attempts of Collectors, who would have immured her in their Museums; and the barbarity of the Surgeons, who wanted to dissect her, is at last—to use an expression at the sound of which every experienced man's face instinetively lengthens—' thrown into Chancery.' Alas! poor Mermaid!

It is to be hoped, that the individual who ran away with this object of universal admiration, was not aware that she was fated to become a Ward of Chancery; for, if he did, he may, according to the doctrines lately promulgated, stand in a very perilous situation. Such protegees are a sort of animal noli-me-tangere; the coming in contact with which draws down on the unhappy adventurer dreadful consequences.

But as this interesting personage is really in this accomplished Court, there is now an excellent opportunity of setting at rest, in an indubitable manner, all the anxieties which have been excited respecting its reality. What think you, Mr. Editor, of a reference to the Master, to inquire, and state to the Court, whether1 the Mermaid be a Mermaid? What an opportunity would here offer for judicial jokes and forensic witticisms! And what a field would be opened for erudite research in the Master's office! The copyright of the Master's Report would be a fortune. Or, if this subject should be thought too difficult to be attempted by the 'sages of the law,'' unassisted by other illumination, let an issue be directed, to ascertain the momentous fact in dispute. In such a proceeding, it is obvious that the Jury ought to be awarded de medietate; which, being translated, for the benefit of country gentlemen, into language that is common both to the lawyers' bar and the publicans' bar, signifies 'half and half.' The combination I would suggest would be, that one half of the Jury should consist of ' matrons,' to afford the means of ascertaining the womanhood of the subject; and the other half chosen from the Master, Wardens, and Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, in order to try its ichthyology.

It is the opinion of Sir Thomas Browne (see his Vulgar Errors, 1. 5, ch. 19,) and of many other authors, that the Syrens, mentioned by Homer in his Odyssey, were no other than Mermaids, if that be so, how great must be the value of the individual, now, alas ! thrown into Chancery ? for, as Homer speaks of them in the dual number, it has been most reasonably argued, that they were but two, end Eustathius gives their two names. The Court of Chancery, then, possesses & Ward, who may be described as presque unique.

Sir Thomas Browne, in the place above cited, says, 'No man's eyes have escaped the picture of a Mermaid.' I cannot deny that my visual organs have encountered this universal exhibition. But I never saw any picture of a Mermaid, which did act represent this enchanting compound with a Mirror (I do not, Mr. Editor, mean a copy of your interesting miscellany, though, from the interest you take in the damsel, your work would, no doubt, be acceptable to English Mermaids,) but a looking-glass in one hand, and a comb in the other. 1 may add, in the only introduction of this bi-formed being which I remember to have witnessed on the stage, in Tom Dibdin's Harlequin Hoax ; or, A Pantomime Rehearsed, according to my recollection, she appeared with these appropriate ornaments.* But, Sir, the Mermaid in question is, I am shocked to say, de-spoiled of these essential attributes. Now, I would seriously put it to the Chancellor, whether this be not a very alarming circumstance? and I doubt not, that his Lordship will have no doubt, that it ought not to be allowed to grow into a precedent. Think, Mr. Editor, only think, what a dreadful calamity it would be, if all his Lordship's Wards were to be in like manner deprived of their combs and looking-glasses? Think, Sir, how many angelic faces would—but I cannot proceed with this topic: it is too much for my nerves; and, if pursued, would probably operate too powerfully on the lachrymal sensibility for which his Lordship is so justly celebrated.

But, Sir, I am not without apprehension, that some evil-minded persons, not having the fear of the law before their eyes, but being moved and instigated by the (Printer's) devil, and being desirous to bring the practice of a most honourable profession into hatred, ridicule, and contempt, and to scandalise the same, may be tempted to convert this matter into an occasion of sneering against the Law.—Some critics, in their labours to explain what was the foundation of the fiction of the Syrens (who, we have already seen, have been identified with Mermaids;, have asserted, that the Syrens were Queens of certain small islands, named Sirenusae, lying near Capree, in Italy, and chiefly inhabited the promontory of Minerva, on the top of which that Goddess had a temple. Here, it is said, there was a renowned academy in the reign of the Syrens, famous for eloquence and the liberal sciences; whence the fable of the sweetness of their voices. But at length, we are told, the students abused their knowledge, to the colouring of wrong, and the corruption of manners; and therefore they were feigned to be transformed into monsters, and with their music to have enticed passengers to their ruin, and the consumption of their patrimonies. Such ill-natured persons may perhaps ask, Whether the temple of Law was not originally the school of eloquence, and the academies of liberal sciences? and whether some modern students there have not abused their knowledge to the colouring of wrong, and the corruption of manners, and enticed clients to their ruin, and the consumption of their patrimonies?

London, Nov. 21, 1832.

* Our correspondent is here in error. The Mermaid in Harlequin Hoax has not a looking-glass in her hand when she rises from the ocean, but a glass of gin and water, of which she acknowledges having drank so freely that she is half seas-over.—editor.

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