The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

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Cornell University Press, Apr 30, 2014 - Nature - 315 pages

In his new collection of essays, Jan Bondeson tells ten fascinating stories of myths and hoaxes, beliefs and Ripley-like facts, concerning the animal kingdom. Throughout he recounts--and in some instances solves--mysteries of the natural world which have puzzled scientists for centuries.

Heavily illustrated with photographs and drawings, the book presents astounding tales from across the rich folklore of animals: a learned pig more admired than Sir Isaac Newton by the English public, an elephant that Lord Byron wanted to employ as his butler, a dancing horse whose skills in mathematics were praised by William Shakespeare, and, of course, the extraordinary creature known as the Feejee Mermaid. This object became the foremost curiosity of London in the 1820s and later in the century toured the United States under the management of P. T. Barnum. Bearing a striking resemblance to a wizened and misshapen monkey with a fishtail, the mermaid was nonetheless proclaimed a genuine specimen by "experts."

Bondeson explores other zoological wonders: toads living for centuries encased in solid stone, little fishes raining down from the sky, and barnacle geese growing from trees until ready to fly. In two of his most fascinating chapters, he uncovers the origins of the basilisk, considered one of the most inexplicable mythical monsters, and of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. With the head and body of a rooster and the tail of a snake, the basilisk was said to be able to kill a person with its gaze. Bondeson demonstrates that belief in this fabulous creature resulted from misinterpretations of rare events in natural history. The vegetable lamb, a mainstay of museums in the seventeenth century, was allegedly half plant, half animal: it had the shape of a little lamb, but grew from a stem. After examining two vegetable lambs still in London today, Bondeson offers a new theory to explain this old fallacy.

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THE FEEJEE MERMAID: and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

User Review  - Kirkus

Bondeson (A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, 1997) is back with another mind-blowing collection of scientific anomalies and mysteries. Presented here are ten investigations into natural history at its ... Read full review

The feejee mermaid and other essays in natural and unnatural history

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

This book is a testament to human ingenuity and determination through the ages. From the elaborate education of performing pigs to the brisk enterprise of manufacturing mermaid remains for tourists ... Read full review

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About the author (2014)

Jan Bondeson is a physician specializing in rheumatology and internal medicine. He works at a major research institute in London and is the author of A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, also from Cornell, and The Prolific Countess.

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