Mermaid or Mer-monster?

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Some call it "The Mermaid." Some call it "The Thing." Some simply call it "It." But everyone calls it creepy!
Mermaid at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop
This fearsome creature has been hanging in the dark rafters of the shop for almost a century, its clawed hands frozen in the act of swimming. Founder J.E. “Daddy” Standley declared that he received it from a fisherman named Smith, who shot it at the beginning of the twentieth century off the shores of Duckabush, Washington. According to Standley, capturing the creature traumatized Smith because it looked so human. "The poor fellow almost broke down," Standley was quoted in a story published on August 24, 1923 in The Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper. "He tells me it was years before he got over it. He never killed another."

The only other specimens of this type known to exist could be found in the Cliff House in San Francisco, in a curio shop in Banff, Canada, and at Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museums. (We have it on the best authority that Ripley’s has mermaid-envy and would love to get their mitts on our lovely and gracious – and prize-winningly large -- creature!)

East-West disconnect
Many visitors to the shop are surprised and disturbed when they first encounter the mermaid’s snarling visage. Westerners are most familiar with the pretty cartoon version of a mermaid who wears a seashell brasiere, so aren’t prepared for this dark figure’s pointed teeth and glaring fishlike eyes.

Standley’s story notwithstanding, the mermaid at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop probably hailed from the east, possibly Malaysia. And unlike the West’s vision of long-haired seductive sea-girls, Asian mermaids were more monster than maiden. Long before they were featured in exhibits like P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, smaller versions had been a regular part of Japanese travelling sideshows. Their tiny wizened, gnarled forms looked more like twisted tree roots than quasi-human maritime cousins of our family tree.

Legends told about them differed, as well. Though western mermaids were known for their ability to charm unwary sailors into watery graves by the irresistible beauty of their singing, Japanese mer-creatures brought longevity and misfortune in equal measure. Called ningyo, they were more like fish with human faces than half-fish, half-human beings. Anyone who caught one and could get past the notion of cooking a creature with a human face would enjoy delicious-tasting flesh and a life that lasted for centuries. But such riches came at a price. Finding the lifeless body of a ningyo washed up on the beach meant that war, storms and disaster were not far behind.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

• Read an extensive article on mermaids of all kinds (especially “Fiji” mermaids) at Atlas Obscura, “the definitive guide to the world's wondrous and curious places.” Featured in the place of honor at the top of the article is a photo of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop’s mermaid!
• See mermaid-related merchandise you can buy from us!

Mermaid at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

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