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FeeJee Mermaids & Other Gaffs

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 6th, 2007

Feejee Mermaid

The easiest pseudocryptozoological exhibition items to have, of course, are often the gaffs and hoaxes. Among those in most cabinets of curiosities are the Feejee mermaids and the furred trouts, both taxidermy fakes. I have my share.

Fur-Bearing Trout

I use them to let people know these objects are often shown as “almost real” specimens. Most honest sideshow owners displaying them often merely only ask “What is It?” or “Is it Real?” But slowly the drift has been, perhaps due to eBay, for people to present these items as cryptozoological, from “unknown animals.” For cryptozoologists, we need to be aware of this trend, and go beyond it.

We must document items, of course, such as the Crookston Bigfoot, which I posted about yesterday here. But we also have to travel into the world of mistakes and gaffs.

Mistakes? Yes. Let me say something briefly about the near-cryptozoological “specimens” that are not quite fakes. One-of-a-kind items, which may be authentic but not actually from a cryptid, do exist. For example, Dr. Geoff Swinney, Curator of Lower Vertebrates, Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles, National Museums of Scotland, is shown below examining the vertebrae of the Beast of Stronsay, from the carcass of the beast found on an Orkney island beach in 1808. Swinney, who is the resident cryptozoologist in his Scottish museum, did in 1987, confirm the vertebrae was from a basking shark, and not a Sea Serpent.

Geoff Swinney

But within fakery, gaffs (the hook to get people into the metaphorical carnival tent) are just that – not what they appear to be. There are various kinds of gaffs, including those made to appear like classic examples and those which follow the current but old taxidermy hoaxing models. The Feejee mermaids are a perfect example.

Feejee Mermaid

This Feejee Mermaid above is the original prop used in the movie P. T. Barnum, which was made to look like the 1866 specimen in Barnum’s American Museum.

Fiji Mermaid

The most current type of Feejee Mermaid gaff, however, are those made from legally obtained deceased animal parts mixed together.

Jackalope

The jackalope does not exist. Some people have thought otherwise.

Chupa Gaff

Do gaff makers have standards and ethics? You might be surprised. The item (above) was noted in my “Chupacabras: Mystery Solved?” posting and featured on Coast to Coast AM with George Noory’s site. Due to those discussions, in a radical professional move Doug Higley has recently written that he:

….might no longer be making ‘Chupacabras’ feeling that the fantasy concept had been abused and became more of unnecessary false claims than a fun ‘Unknown’ to ponder. The original idea was never to show the gaff ‘creatures’ claiming them to be ‘REAL!’ but to let the viewer make up their mind as to what IT was and to say only it was a strange ‘thing’ to be questioned and wondered over. It seems in at least one case the important Question Mark was dropped and Claims were made which I feel is not the proper way to to go…the entertainment aspect is diffused by the false claim. Most all the showmen/women ‘got it’ however and made a fun experience out of their shows…but like in any endeavor, there is always ‘one’ who’ll push the initial concept in an incorrect direction. The analogy to to a ‘little sci-fi movie’ is a valid one in that Universal Studios doesn’t come right out on the poster and say “The Creature is Fake! It’s a man in a rubber suit!” They let the viewer experience the fun of suspending disbelief if only for a short time…To me, it’s all about the Illusion…but then isn’t everything?….My personal view is any show ‘Gaff’ I create should have a Question Mark attached otherwise it’s just a ‘Prop’ rather than a fun ‘mystery’ to be considered. - Doug Higley

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


9 Responses to “FeeJee Mermaids & Other Gaffs”

  1. Remus responds:

    As I mentioned in a similar post, I am guilty of making and selling a number of “Jenny Hannivers” during the years of 1976-1980. Living in a seaside resort town, I sold them to tourists. My goal was to make money. Period.

    But it was fun too! My tale was that a “fisherman” had caught the Thing. (Never told them what It was nor did I mention that I was the fisherman!)

    That was the whole story. I left the details to the buyer’s (rube’s?) imagination.

    The point here is well made. But I also would contend that the more detailed the lie, the harder it is to pull off.

  2. Lee Pierce responds:

    I have always enjoyed Gaffs when presented the right way. Fun stuff

  3. DeBo responds:

    Living 5 minutes away from the Barnum and Bailey museum, I appreciate all these things. I just want someone to produce something real! =)

  4. mystery_man responds:

    I rmember being a kid and really thinking the jackalope was a real creature! My father even made a whole detailed history and biology of it and I was enthralled by it. Of course I know they don’t exist now, but I think it was actually one of the first things that got me interested in animals and subsequently led me to study biology and zoology. For kids, I think if these things instill a sense of wonder and lead to interests later in life, and that is a great thing. For adults, they are good entertainment!

  5. peterbernard responds:

    People are hypnotized all day long, things like this are there to either de-hypnotize you or take advantage of your hypnosis. In John Keel’s books, he urges us to remain agnostic otherwise the belief itself can drive us insane. Belief is the enemy, not “hoaxers.” The PT Barnums of the world serve a valuable purpose. Andy Kaufman never used the question mark, you know, and he was the greatest of pranksters, he took it beyond hoaxing– his entire career was a commercial for agnosticism. Hoaxers aren’t mocking scientific studies, they are mocking dogma and belief, which exists on all sides everywhere and is a great enemy of humankind.

  6. Benjamin Radford responds:

    … and don’t forget the gaffe that fooled Sanderson and Heuvelmans: the Minnesota Iceman!

  7. Loren Coleman responds:

    Ben, that’s a low blow.

    The Minnesota Iceman may be a “gaffe” to you, but I do not consider the evidence compelling that the Minnesota Iceman is indeed a gaff – except for the replacement model!

  8. Doug Higley responds:

    Peter, on a personal level, I happen to agree…if there was a ‘mission’…however my stated policies are for the ‘whole’ not my personal beliefs. What I teach the ‘showmen’ is not a way to make a statement but an honest dollar…and to avoid the confrontational and frankly people wanting their money back. We’re not out to ‘mock’ anything with the little show I designed, just have fun and pay the space rent. I had one of those old fashioned upbringings I guess where I was taught you didn’t have to lie. Ever. What people choose to believe is not necessarily the truth, nor is truth necessarily what they believe. It’s just a show without a political agenda…a live cartoon if you will…yes a prank of sorts but a gentle one. I knew Andy Kaufman, at least over the phone and one of his favorite places was the old Times Square Hubert’s dime museum, mine too, a place packed with Freaks and Gaffs. So that was a good anology Peter. :-) Personally, I don’t mind a good hoax and have done it and will do it as long as I live…but in advising others on how to get into the business of entertainment with a sideshow type exhibit I have to take a higher ground. In the same way some of us Magicians do a little misdirection to fool the eye or the senses…not to adjust a persons believes but to purely entertain, wrinkle a brow and crack a smile. I also look at these little shows as a replacement for the long gone Kiddie Matinee and I feel a twinge of responsibility to get the kids imaginations sparked but not bare faced lie to them. Most of us that do these shows (yes most) were that little kid that sees a FeeGee Mermaid and talks about it for weeks and investigates and learns and eventualy figures it out and tries to make his own. The seeds of a ‘showman/woman’ not an activist or a crook. I, (like PT Barnum and many others) are the biggest so called ‘suckers’ of them all when it comes to this stuff…we love the gaffs…in idea and execution of showing them. IF we could afford to make a Movie instead, we probably would. Thanks for your excellent ‘take’ Peter.

    Doug

  9. Tengu responds:

    I’ve got the jackalope postcard, of course, and a “big jack” one.

    And when I saw the stuffed head of one, the owner was surprised that I knew what it was.

    She said most people thought it was an odd antelope, more the pity.



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