The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

In this collection of essays, Jan Bondeson tells ten stories of myths and hoaxes concerning the animal kingdom. Throughout, he recounts - and in some cases solves - mysteries of the natural world which have puzzled scientists for centuries. Illustrated with photographs and drawings, the book presents tales from across the 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 Shakespeare; and 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 USA under the management of P.T. Barnum. Bearing a 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 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 17th 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, Bondeson offers his theory to explain this old fallacy.