Monthly Archives: April 2014

The London Mermaid, 1822

This must be the ugliest mermaid I have ever seen.

The London Mermaid, 1822

 It debuted in London as a “very dry and mummy like [creature], enclosed in a glass case.”  The man responsible for the hoax?  The Bostonian sea captain Samuel Barret Eades.  Eades had purchased his mermaid from a Dutch fisherman by way of North China.  The price?  5000 Spanish dollars, a value of about 1000l. 1

The enterprising Eades acquired the funds by selling his and his partners share in the ship the Pickering–without informing the co-owner, of course.  He then conspired to fool his neighbors across the pond and make some serious bank.* When the fish with simian parts first appeared at Turf Coffeehouse in St. James’ Street in 1822, 300 to 400 persons visited daily at the price of one shilling per entry. 1  It was an immediate London sensation.  The papers of the time, including the Gentleman’s Magazine, are filled with proofs of the mermaid’s veracity.  A thorough examination was done Reverend Dr. Philip in April, 1822 and published in The London Medical and Physical Journal.  I have pulled out a few highlights for your enjoyment:

“The head is almost the size of that of a baboon.   It is thinly covered with black hair, handing down, and not inclined to frizzle…The countenance has an expression of terror which gives it an appearance of a caricature of a human face; but I am disposed to think that both these circumstances are accidental, and have arisen from the manner in which the creature met its death.  It bears the appearance of having died in agony.

“The length of the animal is three feet; but, not having been well preserved, it has shrunk considerably, and must have been both longer and thicker when alive than it is now…The canine teeth resemble those of a full grown dog; all the others resemble those of a human subject.”

Fiji Mermaid, 1822

Attribution: Fiji Mermaid by George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the mermaid’s success, Eades would eventually run into a road block: the furious co-owner of the Pickering, Mr. Ellery.  When Mr. Ellery demanded repayment of his portion, Eades threatened to flee with his mermaid.  What followed was an amusing account described in The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History by Jan Bondeson:

“In the early 1800s, it was of frequent occurrent that adventurers abducted wealthy heiresses, whom they had previously seduced, to marry without the consent of their parents.  To stop these immoral practices, the parents could appeal to the lord chancellor’s court, since the lord chancellor had the authority to make an eloped young lady his ward (a ward in Chancery); she was then not allowed to marry without his permission.  On November 20, 1822, Mr. Ellery appeared before the court of Chancery to restrain Captain Eades from moving or selling the mermaid…It is recorded that Lord Eldon, the lord chancellor, listened to his harangues with some mirth.”

In the end, the mermaid was seized by customs officials and determined a fake by anatomist and zoologist William Clift.  He deduced that the mermaid was part orangutan/baboon/fish (possibly salmon).  Eventually it was decided to be of Japanese origin.  Eades vehemently fought the decision by hiring naturalists who declared it a newly discovered species. Debates ensued, but by January of 1823 the exhibition was taken down and London was officially over Eades’s mashup creature.  This, however, was not the end of the hoax mermaid’s travels.  You can read all about it in Bordenson’s book, including where the mermaid is today and where it journeyed after Eades’s death.

*Some accounts say Eades believed the mermaid was real.  The mermaid was credited as authentic for a time, but really?  Who believes in scary ugly mermaids?

Bengal Tiger Eats Westerner, 1792

Man’s fascination with the gruesome is often rooted in power—who has it, who doesn’t. In the case of Tipu’s Tiger, the 18th century Indian automaton that terrified and thrilled Europeans after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, it was an emblem of domination. Much like Louis XIV and his golden sun, Tipu Sultan cultivated an affinity to the almighty tiger, stitching its image on his standard, running its stripes along his soldiers’ uniforms, and placing its head on the hilt of his favorite saber. Even his gold and jewel ornamented throne bore the tiger’s shape.

Unlike his father Sultan Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan understood the importance of a fearsome image. His nickname, the Tiger of Mysore, was reinforced in his palace and beyond, but the depth of his representations weren’t understood by the west until the sack of Seringapatam in 1799 when many of his treasures were seized by the British.  Enter the object of Tipu’s amusement.


Tipu's Tiger, Victoria and Albert Museum

Attribution: Victoria and Albert Museum

Like any good Indian Sultan, Tipu grew up hating the British East India Company.  Their expansion across his father’s kingdom was an affront that resulted in four Anglo-Mysore wars, the first two bannered by Hyder Ali, the third and fourth by Tipu Sultan.  It was during the Second-Anglo Mysore War in 1781, when his father suffered a loss of 10,000 men to the British General Sir Hector Munro, though, that a cruel fate was sown.  Eleven years after Indian blood had been shed, a hunt for deer commenced on Saugur Island.   Bengal tigers had a reputation among westerners for being vicious predators, but they were unpredictable, sometimes attacking, other times retreating.  Sir Hector Munro’s only son, Hugh Munro, was not lucky enough to come upon a retiring tiger.  He stumbled upon a beast to make Tipu Sultan proud and died from the mauling within twenty-four hours.

Many think the automaton Tipu’s Tiger specifically commemorated the event.  One of the charms of his automaton–if it may be called that–is that when you turn a crank, the tiger emits a bellow while the man cries in agony.  You can see Tipu’s Tiger played in the video below, though from what I can tell we’re hearing the organ play a tune rather than the wretched sounds of Hugh Munro’s earthly departure.

If you’re interested in the Mysore/British conflict, Youtube also has a few educational videos on Tipu Sultan and his infamous tigers. You can also see why Tipu was trending in January 2014.

Napoleon, Otherwise Known as Puss in Boots

Believe it or not Puss in Boots, or General Junot Taken by Surprise is part of Thomas Rowlandson’s collections of satirical prints about Napoleon.  Confusing, I agree, as Napoleon is found nowhere in the print.  Instead we see a young girl marching around in boots with a sword and a shocked General Junot, who has been stirred upright from bed, trousers in hand.

Puss in Boots, or General Junot Taken by Surprise by Thomas Rowlandson (1811)

The story connecting Rowlandson’s print to the Emperor appears in the future Madame Junot’s memoirs, but occurred when she was just a girl and still called Martin de Permond.  Back then the Bonapartes were close friends of the de Permonds, and when Napoleon visited one day, he took the occasion to put on his uniform for the first time.  What resulted was a bit of girlhood fun and long-lasting grudge:

“I well recollect that on the day when he first put on his uniform, he was as vain as young men usually are on such an occasion.  There was one part of his dress which had a very droll appearance–that was his boots.   They were so high and wide that his little thin legs seemed buried in their amplitude.

“Young people are always ready to observe any thing ridiculous; and as soon as my sister and I saw Napoleon enter the drawing-room we burst into a loud fit of laughter.  At that early age, as well as in after life, Bonaparte could not relish a joke; and when he found himself the object of merriment he grew angry.  My sister, who was some years older than I, told him that since he wore a sword he ought to be gallant to ladies, and, instead of being angry, should be happy that they joked with him.

“‘You are nothing but a child–a little pensionnaire’, said Napoleon, in a tone of contempt. Cecile, who was twelve or thirteen years of age, was highly indignant at being called a child; and she hastily resented the affront by replying to Bonaparte:

‘And you are nothing but a puss in boots.’  This excited a general laugh among all present except Napoleon whose rage I will not attempt to describe.  Though not much accustomed to society, he had too much tact not to perceive that he ought to be silent when personalities were introduced and his adversary was a woman.  Though deeply mortified at the unfortunate nickname which my sister had given him, yet he affected to forget it; and to prove that he cherished no malice on the subject, he got a little toy made and gave it as a present to me.  This toy consisted of a cat in boots, in the character of a footman running before the carriage of the Marquis de Carabas.  It was very well made and must have been rather expensive to him considering his straitened finances.  He brought along with it a pretty little edition of the popular tale of Puss in Boots which he presented to my sister, begging her to keep it as a token of his remembrance.”

Fast forward years later when Napoleon is married to Josephine [she is forty], and General Junot and his sixteen year old wife Madame Junot are dining with the couple at Malmaison.  Old Nap has not forgotten the Puss in Boots slight of many years past, and had since developed what many thought of as a smarting wit:

Napoleon as First Consul by Jean-Antoine Gros (1802)

Napoleon as First Consul by Jean-Antoine Gros (1802)

“Madame Bonaparte that day wore powder for the first time.  It became her very well but the first consul [Bonaparte] did nothing but laugh at her, and said she would do admirably to act the Countess d’Escarbagnas [a diva countess in Moliere’s play who was subjected to provincial suitors, none worthy of her).  Josephine was evidently displeased at this and Bonaparte added, ‘What, are you afraid you will not have a cavalier?  There is the Marquis de Carabas[fictional nobleman/master of Puss in Boots],’ pointing to Junot.  “He will offer you his arm I am sure.”

The first consul had often before this called both Junot and Marmont the Marquis de Carabas, but it was always in perfect good humor.  It was, he said, on account of their taste for dramatic representation.  They, of course, merely laughed at the joke.  Madame Bonaparte, however, took it more seriously and betrayed symptoms of vexation.  This was not the way to please Bonaparte.  He took his glass in his hand and, looking towards his wife he bowed his head ,and said, ‘To the health of Madame la Comtesse d Escarbagnas.’

Empress Josephine by Andrea Appiani (1808)

Empress Josephine by Andrea Appiani (1808)

The continuance of this pleasantry brought tears into Madame Bonaparte’s eyes. Napoleon observed this and he was, I believe, sorry for what he had said.  To make amends, he again took up his glass and winking at me, he said:  ‘To the health of Madame la Marquise de Carabas.’  We all burst into a fit of laughter in which Madame Bonaparte joined but her heart was nevertheless full.”

Which brings us full circle to why Rowlandon’s Puss in Boots print is part of his Napoleon collection.  Mystery solved for today!   If any of you come across a Rowlandson print that wants explanation and doesn’t appear readily available, send it my way.  I might just be inclined to spent an afternoon looking it up.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Golddiggers Are All the Same

The difference between a classy lady and a hussy?

First and Second Floor by Thomas Rowlandson (1791)

According to Thomas Rowlandson, the first or second floor.