The Fiji mermaid (also Feejee mermaid) was an object comprising 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, but research studies has solved the mystery. Barnum had hired a man to create a mermaid, which appeared to be the dead body of a monkey attached to the tail of a fish.
Mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries. These were often dugongs or people afflicted with sirenomelia. During the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, the remains of mermaids were a staple of cabinets of curiosities. However 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. The exhibit has since been acquired by Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and is currently housed in the museum's attic storage area.
The Fiji mermaid came into Barnum's possession via his Boston counterpart Moses Kimball, who brought it down to Barnum in late spring of 1842. On June 18, Barnum and Kimball entered into a written agreement to exploit this "curiosity supposed to be a mermaid." Kimball would remain the creature's sole owner and Barnum would lease it for $12.50 a week. Barnum christened his artifact "The Feejee Mermaid". In Barnum's exhibit,the creature was allegedly caught in 1842 by a "Dr. J. Griffin." Griffin was actually Levi Lyman, one of Barnum's close associates.
In his Secrets of the Sideshows, Joe Nickell documents several modern-day claimants to the title of Barnum's "true" original mermaid, or as he describes them, "fakes of Barnum's fake". Exhibits at Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore, and Bobby Reynolds's traveling sideshow all lay claim to the title, but in Nickell's opinion, none is to be believed. He also describes an update of the tradition that uses an elaborate system to project the image of a live woman into a fishbowl, giving the appearance that she is only an inch or two long. He relates the story of a performer who was smoking a cigarette in her hidden chamber; the man outside was confronted by an angry patron who demanded to know how this was possible if the "mermaid" was underwater. In Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, Rainn Wilson's character is murdered and his corpse is transformed into a Fiji mermaid via taxidermy. In the '90s TV series The X-Files, the episode "Humbug" depicts the possibility of a series of sideshow murders having been committed by a Fiji Mermaid. Also, in the 2010 animated series Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the Fiji Mermaid makes an appearance as one of the objects in display at Darrow's Oddity Museum, in the episode The Secret Serum.
A guide to constructing a Fiji mermaid appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fortean Times magazine, in an article written by special effects expert and stop-motion animator Alan Friswell. Rather than building the figure with fish and monkey parts, Friswell used papier mache and modelling putty, sealed with wallpaper paste, and with doll's hair glued to the scalp.