The Greatest Mermaid

This week, he have enjoyed the assistance of a school pupil named Eleanor who decided on Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for her work experience. The staff found Eleanor to be energetic and enthusiastic and her knowledge of the Marvel Comics Universe unparalleled. We encouraged her to write about something she found interesting and like many visitors to the museum, Eleanor was fascinated by the Victorian mermaid on display (first written about here) and how it related to a recent film she had seen called The Greatest Showman, where Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum. Over to you, Eleanor:

P.T. Barnum was an American showman, politician and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he had had “freaks” perform and do tasks the average person couldn’t do. Some of these acts include the Fiji mermaid, the top half of a under-developed monkey and half of a fish sewn together to look like a mermaid and General Tom Thumb, a small boy who Barnum taught to sing, dance and impersonate famous people.

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The Derbyshire Mermaid. Photo by Nick Lockett

It is believed that Barnum mistreated his “freaks” and used them for his own financial gain. One such case was Krao who was sold to Barnum after her parents were captured during an expedition to Laos. Her mother was detained in Bangkok and her father died. She was exploited as “The Missing Link” between humans and apes and toured throughout Europe for 70 years until she died of influenza (flu) in 1926.

Another case was Myrtle Corbin who was named “The Four-Legged Woman” because of an under developed twin who gave her two pelvises and four legs. She was bought by Barnum from her family aged 13.

Feodor Jeftichew was a boy suffering from hypertrichosis, (excessive hair growth all over the body). He was nicknamed “Dog Boy” when he joined Barnum and was made to bark, growl, and act like an angry dog and was even pitted against his own father (who suffered from the same condition) as a wild savage. In 1898, a group of performers protested against being called freaks and Feodor was at the forefront.

General Tom Thumb, one of Barnum’s most famous performers, was only 5 years old when Barnum took him on tour where he was made to drink wine and smoke cigars for the amusement of others. He was also a personal favourite of Queen Victoria who loved “freak shows”. His marriage to Lavinia Warren was exploited by Barnum making both of them stand in many positions in full attire weeks before the real wedding. He sold photos for 20p (£12.86 in 2018). When he died, Barnum bought a life-sized statue of him and placed it as a head stone. When his wife Lavinia died, she was buried next to him with her gravestone only reading “his wife”.

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Extreme close up. Photo by Nick Lockett

At the age of 80, Phineas Taylor Barnum died of a stroke in his home in 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport. The circus was left to Bailey who carried it on until his death in 1906 when leaders of the amusement world, the Ringling brothers purchased the show and combined it with their own.

To gaze upon the beauty of the mermaid yourself, click here to plan your visit. Admission free!

To learn more about P.T. Barnum, visit this museum.

 

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