Strange Creatures of The Filson Museum

Halloween may have just passed, but in an archive, it can be Halloween every day!  Two of the more curious items in The Filson collection include a "Fiji Mermaid," and the supposed mummies of a giantess and her child.  The Fiji Mermaid is the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of traditional mermaid stories.  One huxter who hawked viewings if the Fiji Mermaid was the famed P. T. Barnum.  Barnum’s version of the mermaid was actually the torso and head of a baby monkey sewn to the back half of a fish and covered in paper-mâché.  This Filson photograph of a Fiji Mermaid was taken by former Filson president Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, and the mermaid itself was an object acquired by Filson founder Reuben T. Durrett.  The appeal of such objects is easily deduced, as among the public there endures the desire to uncover the subjects of myth and legend, or to at least maintain the belief that they exist.  For the huxsters, this was a quick way to increase their funds by pandering to those desires.

The Fiji Mermaid is not the only carnival hoax to catch the attention of Durrett.  Also found in our collection is a mummy and its child.  The mummy, dubbed “Annie” was in Reuben Durrett’s collection at the time of his death, and was given to The Filson in 1913.  According to Dr. William Durrett (Reuben Durrett’s son), the Mummy was exhibited at county fairs and public sales for exhibition by A. J. Adye of Perry Co., IN.  He charged the public 10 cents apiece to see it. A cotton banner displayed with Annie and child read, "Measures 6 ft. 6 in. as she lies with babe 2 ft. 5 in. in arms.  Pronounced by Press & Public to be the Most Wonderful Mummified Remains in the World.  The Body of this Giantess with others of the Cliff Dwellers was on Exhibition at the World's Fair and the Greatest Attraction there in the way of Mummified Remains.  Seeing is Believing." However, X-rays have revealed that the mummies are indeed a hoax, and that Annie’s skeleton is formed from nails and wire.  Whether Durrett believed this was actually a mummy is unknown. He was not one to let the facts get in the way of an artifact’s story so he either turned a blind eye or was taken in by the ruse: an interesting approach for one so involved with the preservation of our region’s history.


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