The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

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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.