1) THE ABYSSINIAN MERMAID

Latin: Æthiops ad syreni

Fascinated since childhood with the condition of Sirenomelia, or Mermaid Syndrome, a rare congenital deformity in which the legs are fused together in one out of every 100,000 live births, the 18th-century Irish Naturalist and Philologist Lancea Olufson collected this specimen for his famous “caibinéad de nithe inspéise”—giving it the foreign sounding provenance “Abyssinian.” His cabinet of curiosities proved so successful that in 1852, it was shipped intact by his great granddaughter Zippora Fitzpatrick to Doctor Jay Wellborn Griffin, the British Lyceum of Natural History Archivist of Rare Oddities. 

From there, Dr. Griffin brought the specimen to New York, and, along with the fantastic Feejee Mermaid, displayed both at the Broadway Concert Hall while he delivered a series of popular lectures on the “Sirenomeliac Tendency in the Native Irish.” The specimen soon landed in the collection of P.T. Barnum, where the great showmaster counter-intuitively refused to put the item on display. In his diary of 1872, he explains: “The Feejee was a fake, and therefore fair game for the midway. Yet, the Abyssinian fish girl is real, and I didn’t want to trick the public twice by having them pay for something billed as real, which they come to see as fake, that is indeed real.”

– LANDI OLSEN