The Lost Museum Archive

The Exhibition at the Masonic Hall, Charleston Courier, January 21, 1843

Northerners, drawn by Barnum’s carefully-planted doubts about its authenticity, flocked to see the FeJee Mermaid. In the South, however, the issue of the exhibit’s deception aroused controversy. This exhibit review was written by an editor of the Charleston Courier, who was inclined to believe it was real and deferred to the expertise of others. A rival newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, published a review that reached the opposite conclusion -- that the mermaid was a fraud perpetrated by "our Yankee neighbors." Heated exchanges of letters and articles ensued, and defending or challenging the mermaid’s veracity became equated with challenging the honor of those who disagreed. This debate about honor was far more important to Charlestonians than the question of the FeJee Mermaid’s authenticity.

The exhibition of the wonders of nature and art, now in progress, at the Masonic Hall, corner of King and Wentworth streets, is one of the most attractive, in variety, beauty, curiosity, and comic effect we have ever witnessed. Ingenuity and taste convert the ductile glass into shapes and forms of surpassing elegance and beauty; the dancing figures exhibit the most extraordinary and most exquisite mechanism, conferring on inanimate matter seeming life, and displaying the vis comica of motion in the highest perfection; the colloquies of the ventriloquest [sic] are complete in illusion, and furnish a succession of most laughable and amusing farces; and the feats of legerdemain are performed with an adroitness rarely if ever surpassed. The natural curiosities too are well worthy a visit from the curious and scientific--and most curious among them is the Fee-jee beauty--the mermaid, hitherto believed to be of fabulous existence. We, of course, cannot undertake to say whether this seeming wonder of nature be real or not, it not being in our power to apply to it any scientific test of truth; but this we deem it but just to say, that we were permitted to handle and examine it as closely as could be effected by touch and sight, and that if there be any deception, it is beyond the discovery of both those senses. The appearance is in every respect that of a natural and not an artificial object--it is certainly no compound or combination, as has been supposed, of ape and fish--but is either altogether nature's handi-work, or altogether the production of art--and if it be indeed artificial, it is the very perfection of art, imitating nature in the closest similitude. We are rather inclined to have faith on the occasion, for the connection, which this curious object establishes between fish and women, is only in analogy with that which every body knows to exist between monkey and man. Of one allusion, however, the sight of the wonder has forever robbed us--we shall never again discourse, even in poesy of mermaid beauty, nor woo a mermaid even in our dreams--for the Fee-jee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.

The entire entertainment is an eminently successful one, it amuses the grave and heightens the gayety of the gay-- and the delight it ministers to children is literally uproarious--and exhilarating to all who own a sympathy with the innocent enjoyments of childhood. A special exhibition, for the entertainment of children exclusively and their parental and other attendants, will be given, and commence at 3 o'clock this afternoon.