The Feejee Mermaid
P.T. Barnum may or may not have uttered the infamous phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute," but he certainly lived it. Barnum was the perhaps the best-known Victorian-era huckster to enthrall the public with outrageous specimens of odder-than-life humans and mythical creatures.
One of Barnum's earliest sensations was the so-called "Feejee Mermaid," purported to be the preserved remains of a real-life mermaid captured in the Bay of Bengal. In 1842, Barnum displayed the creature in his American Museum on Broadway in New York City, where it drew crowds of onlookers [source: Ringling Bros.].
The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University got its hands on a specimen called the Java Mermaid in 1897; it's thought to be the "Feejee Mermaid" [source: Early].
The museum staff tracked down the true origin of the shriveled, 16-inch (40-centimeter) creature, which is not simply a monkey head stitched to a fish body, as many had speculated. It turned out to be a souvenir handicraft made by Southeast Asian fishermen and sold to tourists as a little mermaid. The body parts are a mix of paper-mâché and fish bones and fins but no monkey skulls [source: Early].