February 3, 1843

My Dearest Sabrina,

Having momentarily sated what you once aptly termed my “Herculean appetite for lethargy,” I rouse myself dutifully to pen this somewhat belated missive, all too aware that you, my beloved sister, must be starved for news of your Charleston friends.  Everyone inquires about you, of course, & I invariably assure them that motherhood flatters you & that you and your amiable Yankee husband grow daily more prosperous.  But, alas, I have little in the way of gossip to retail.  I dine once a week, as always, at the Planters Hotel with a few of my bachelor familiars, where we remind one another of the horrors attendant upon the matrimonial state.  Aside from that comforting ritual, I socialize very little, pursue my bookish habits, & return most invitations with some politic expedient or other.  My gout seems to be flaring up a good deal of late!

Speaking of matrimonial matters, I do have one alarming scrap of gossip for you.  You will no doubt be shocked to learn that your old schoolmate at Madame Talvande’s, Sue Petigru, has recently announced her engagement to none other than Mr. Henry King.  It is widely supposed that Susan will now retire her quiver of poisoned darts & terrorize our drawing rooms no more.  If I were a betting man, I would wager that, contrary to popular opinion, we will hear more from our brilliant Susan after she has managed to depose her King.  Indeed, it is rumored that she is at work on a novel, a series of satirical portraits that, if ever they see the light of day, will make our respectable matrons squirm.

Now, on to the entrée.  You know how fond I am of those itinerant shows that feature freaks of nature or prodigies of one kind or another.  Flea circuses, bearded ladies, talking automata, prestidigitators, ventriloquists—all of them provide me an exquisite delight that no doubt bespeaks some deformity of my own character.  But life, my dear, is so fatiguing & these entertainments are so refreshingly absurd!  Some swear by Brown’s Iron Bitters, while I find perfect rejuvenation in observing the amazing Signor Blitz produce a lady’s glove from a loaf of bread.  Imagine my rapture, then, when I came across a notice in the Mercury on January 17, announcing a Grand Exhibition of the Wonders of Nature, featuring a “Mermaid recently taken near the Feejee Islands.”  You will recall, of course, my youthful infatuation with sea sirens.  I required no further incentive to view this fabulous creature at the first opportunity, but my appetite was sharpened by the rather extravagant claims made by the promoter of this event.  His Feejee Mermaid, it seems, having been previously exhibited in New York and Boston, “had utterly dispelled the doubts of thousands of naturalists and scientific persons regarding the real existence of such an animal.”  Was this not tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet?  Could this enterprising Yankee be unaware that our somnolent Charleston is a veritable viper’s nest of said naturalists?

With mounting anticipation, then, I made my way up King Street on the opening day of the exhibition, where I found, to my dismay, that a long queue had already formed before the Masonic Hall.  I took my place along with the usual motley assemblage of truant schoolboys, vagrant apprentices, parlor maids, and mechanics (and not a few of our own class!).  Mounted over the main entry of the Hall was a rather large signboard bearing the image of a mermaid, her naked torso rising sensuously above the water.  As I beheld that smiling visage, I smiled inwardly to recall Heine’s “Lore-Ley”—“A Siren lost in her dreaming, combing her golden hair.”  Distracted by such juvenile reveries, I found myself gazing at length upon a sort of glass dome, in which was encased the sea maiden.  The contrast between the intoxicating image still lingering in my mind’s eye & that which now assaulted my vision was unnerving!  Here was hideous monstrosity!  This was no mermaid, but a shriveled, brown sea hag, no more than three feet long, with a head of hair that resembled nothing so much as dried seaweed.  And yet, one could not deny that this disgusting thing fulfilled, in the strictly anatomical sense, the requirements of a mermaid.  From the waist down, it was all scaly fishtail; above, one might at least descry the lineaments of the female sex in its misshapen dugs.  I assure you, Sabrina, that I, who never do hurry, flew from that hellish sight as quickly as my dignity would allow.

Of course, I was never so credulous as to believe that I would see an actual mermaid.  I had hoped, though, for some credible piece of cozenage.  In any event, I congratulated myself on my prescience when, on the following day, a communication appeared in the Mercury from someone styling himself “No Humbug.”  This writer, clearly incensed, pronounces the Mermaid a “contemptible hoax.”  The crux of his proof?  The Mermaid is “rather a clumsy affair—the seams are not sufficiently covered to conceal the point of union between Fish and Monkey, even through a glass case.  Our Yankee neighbors usually show more ingenuity, and they ought to have recollected that although we poor simpletons of Charleston are a long way off from the Banks of New Foundland, we are not to be imposed upon by the tail of a Codfish!”  Mr. “No Humbug” then offers a bargain.  If the “man who exhibits the Mermaid” will allow the “naturalists of Charleston” to take the “smoke-dried affair” out of her glass case and examine her, they will be delighted to issue a certificate of authenticity, should the Lady in question prove to be, indeed, the “greatest wonder in nature.”

Now, I am quite sure, Sabrina, that this “No Humbug” is none other than our old acquaintance, the Rev. Bachman, who was never so amusing, as I recall, at the supper table.  Moreover, the Mermaid’s agent is a rascal by the name of Alanson Taylor, said to be the uncle of that Master of Humbug, Phineas T. Barnum, whose museum of wonders I believe you visited on your last trip to New York.  Mr. Taylor lost no time in defending his loathsome exhibit, & what a transparent piece of knavery was his first of several letters to the Mercury.  Of course, he refused to remove the Mermaid from her glass dome on the grounds that she might be “defaced” (though God knows that could result only in dramatic improvement!), and repeatedly charges his accuser with a lack of “moral courage” for failing to reveal his true identity.  He then offers to pay $500 if “No Humbug” will “present to our notice a Baboon or any other animal of the monkey species, which has a head and shoulders like this Mermaid’s.”  However ignorant Mr. Taylor may be of our little corner of the world, he is no doubt perfectly aware that Baboons, or any other creatures resembling the “monkey species,” are not known to frequent Southern climes—unless, of course, one includes those apes of fashion who promenade along the Battery each evening.  (I confess that I agree with the Comte de Buffon that the ape is a singular animal, one upon which we cannot gaze without, perforce, reflecting upon ourselves!)  Thus, Mr. Taylor is not unlike a man who invites his friends to dine upon pickled tripe, knowing full well that they will hastily recall prior engagements.

Our Rev. Bachman, of course, was never a man to leave well enough alone.  After the controversy spilled over into the pages of the Courier, which resoundingly endorsed that unprepossessing Lady’s authenticity, he called up the heavy scientific artillery.  When the Courier would not publish his scathing denunciations, he found the editors of the Mercury more than willing.  To spare you the tedium of a full account, my impatient sister, I will merely relate the gist of the matter.  Upholding the cause of science as well as “truth & morals,” “No Humbug” asserts that the “pretended mermaid” is nothing that could possibly exist in nature.  Her nostrils, clearly those of a mammal, declare that she breathes through lungs and is warm-blooded; her nether parts, however, indicate that she is “an animal that breathed through gills and was cold blooded.”  According to our ecclesiastical naturalist, the “system of nature is beautiful, harmonious, and perfect in all its parts, and Naturalists feel it a duty to defend it against those who, with barbarous hands, would mutilate the symmetry of her works.”

Indeed, what I beheld beneath that glass dome was certainly a vile caricature, but I am afraid, Sabrina, that I do not quite share the Rev. Bachman’s benign view of nature’s perfection.  Does not nature herself routinely beget grotesqueries every bit as ghastly as our Feejee Mermaid?  Does not my beloved Pliny speak of a tribe of dog-headed, barking men, & of headless men with eyes in their shoulders?  Haec atque talia ex hominum genere ludibria sibi, nobis miracula ingeniosa fecit natura!  Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree that the Mermaid is doubtlessly a fraud.  Poor Mr. Taylor!  After several days of rough treatment, he fled with his smoke-dried darling to Savannah, from whence he fired one last riposte at his accuser.  “When, Sir,” he blusters, “did God reveal to you what kind of animals He had power to create and what not?  Into what kind He could infuse life and cause them to live and breathe in one element; and what kind He could not?”  In short, the petty taxonomies of our Naturalists are no match for the creative genius of the Divine Artificer.  But no doubt suspecting that some evidence might be in order, Mr. Taylor proffers the example of the green turtle.  “Has he not ‘nostrils’ (and no gills) through which he breathes like land animals?  Yet has he not got ‘fins’ and not feet, by the aid of which he moves; and not withstanding his fins, is he not ‘warm blooded’?”

Green turtles, indeed!  What a desperate piece of humbuggery!  And, yet, Sabrina, I confess that my deepest sympathies lie with Mr. Taylor.  I fear that our scientific men are become altogether too evangelical.  For all their pious talk of the beauties of the “system of nature,” I suspect that they are intent upon stripping our common Mother of every last vestige of her charm!  The Rev. Bachman claims no other motive than to expose a fraud, but it is clear to me that there is no place in his “system” for mermaids, or gremlins, or faeries, or unicorns—not to speak of angels & devils!  If superstition is to be eradicated, then how long can religion itself continue to flourish?  Both, surely, rely upon our willingness to believe in a realm of mystery & miracle which our zealous empirics cannot abide.  In its place they would erect a sterile idol called “Scientific Truth” and have us all grovel before it.  Bah!  Speaking for myself, I prefer to believe in Oberon’s mermaid, riding the waves upon her dolphin’s back, “uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath / That the rude sea grew civil at her song.”

But enough of that, dear sister.  I must nap.

Ever your fond brother,