The Greatest Showman may shy away from showing Barnum’s tricks, but it includes a reference to one of his most notorious hoaxes: the Fiji Mermaid.
The Greatest Showman fictionalizes the life of the famous circus founder and showman P.T. Barnum, and it sneaks in a reference to one of Barnum’s notorious hoaxes. The musical portrays Barnum’s life and his desire to open a circus in a largely positive light, but the real Barnum was best known for his talent for effectively tricking his audiences. He and his associates went to great effort to craft elaborate hoaxes people would pay to see, and one of his most infamous hoaxes was the Fiji mermaid.
The movie never discusses the more creepy or morally questionable exhibits that he created, instead building toward the inspiring songs that made The Greatest Showman, but it does have a single sly reference to the Fiji mermaid hoax. As Barnum is discussing how to improve the show with his daughters, they suggest he should add “a unicorn or a mermaid.” In fact, long after Barnum’s death, the circus that survived him would claim to have a unicorn, too, which was actually a goat with its horns modified to grow together. The mermaid, though, Barnum exhibited in his own time.
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The Fiji mermaid, hailed as a half-fish creature caught near Fiji, was actually the torso of a monkey sewed onto the back half of a fish. In 1822, an American sea captain paid a significant sum to buy the strange creation from Japanese sailors who had crafted it. It was displayed in museums with little fanfare at first, but when the owner brought it to P.T. Barnum in New York City, its fame truly began once the greatest showman got ahold of it. Barnum consulted a naturalist who would not confirm it as authentic for obvious reasons, but Barnum didn’t care if it was real. He knew he could sell it to a crowd with an elaborate plan to generate interest.
Barnum’s team sent fabricated letters to New York newspapers, discussing a “Dr. Griffin” and the amazing mermaid he had shown them. “Griffin,” played by Barnum associate Levi Lyman, then arrived at a hotel with his “mermaid” and attracted enough attention to generate press. Afterward, Griffin and Barnum staged a public fight, where Griffin refused to let Barnum showcase the mermaid, so Barnum offered the promotional materials he already created that he now supposedly couldn’t use to the newspapers instead. The fake Griffin finally agreed to let Barnum exhibit the mermaid and even gave lectures about it to Barnum’s eager customers. Neither this story nor a terrifying CGI Fiji mermaid were included in The Greatest Showman, which was probably for the best.
The real Barnum had a well-deserved reputation for trickery, though the musical shied away from showing him entirely in that light. He may not have actually said the famous phrase he is credited with, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but he did follow that sentiment in his business. The Greatest Showman is an incredible musical, but it barely touches on the wild and winding path of the real Barnum’s life.
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