Erin Simpson

feejee_mermaidI have been fascinated with sideshow gaffs for most of my life. There is something genius about forming a creature that is seemingly impossible to imagine occurring in nature. You are the creator of something brand new and with a little deception, you can convince others to pay money to satisfy their curiosity about the validity of your masterpiece. I imagine it is much like giving birth sans the lies and money (depending on the situation).

One of the most famous of sideshow gaffs is the Feejee Mermaid. This beauty typically consists of the top half of a baby monkey fused to the bottom tail of a fish. The original gaff appeared in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842 but suddenly disappeared. With the original vanishing, this conveniently afforded other attractions the opportunity to copy the popular exhibit.

Where did P.T. Barnum snag such a fabulous gaff?

Feejee mermaids were actually works of art by fishermen in Japan and the East Indies. The mermaids were even used in many religious ceremonies. The original is said to have been created around 1810 by a Japanese fisherman and then bought by Dutch merchants only to be sold to Samuel Barrett Eades, an American sea captain, in 1822 for $6,000. That’s basically the equivalent to $117,000 in 2016! Eades realistically couldn’t afford the mermaid but sold his ship (well, not technically his) to get the money, hoping he could make a quick buck exhibiting it in London. Sadly, Eades was not much of a showman and ran into several troubles with the mermaid. After he died, his son sold it to Moses Kimball. Kimball investigated the authenticity of the mermaid and he was assured it was most definitely a fake.


Why would P.T. Barnum want something that had been declared fake?

Here’s one of my favorite thing about gaffs. It doesn’t matter whether they’re real or not. It’s the mystery. And building on that curiosity takes some skill in the form of brilliant marketing.

Barnum leased the mermaid from Kimball and hired a fake naturalist who declared the creature was authentic. He also put illustrations of bare-breasted mermaids in the newspapers to advertise the exhibit. Now, the public needs to see the creature for themselves.

The True Original Feejee Mermaid!

Without further ado, I present to you the real Feejee Mermaid! Behold!


Amazing, yeah?

Well, this was my attempt at the Feejee Mermaid gaff. This lovely little thing is on display in a fish tank in the house, but also made its debut at the Lakeshire Freakshow this Halloween. Are you curious at how this was accomplished? Should I leave you in suspense?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.


I bought a cheap, plastic skeleton after last Halloween for this very purpose. To start, grab a heat gun and some plastic wrap. You can add the plastic wrap around the body to form “flesh” and then use the heat gun to melt it. This is basically how plastic skeletons are “corpsed” to look like decaying bodies.


Now, spray paint the body to have a uniformed look. I used a light tan, then bits of a reddish brown to give some depth. After that has dried, break out some wood stain and a sponge brush.


Horrific, right? At this point, she’s disgusting. I don’t want her corpsed, but rather mummified. For this, I grab some red sand and sprinkle it on her. You can go back and add some wood stain on top to give the mermaid more dimension. Viola!


As you look at this creation, are you sure the finished product is the same as the first one? Maybe I produced this elaborate illustration simply to create doubt in your minds. Perhaps I have the original P.T. Barnum Feejee Mermaid. Next Halloween, you should come by and see for yourselves at the Lakeshire Freakshow.

In 1986, Jim Henson directed and George Lucas produced Labyrinth, a fantasy film about Sarah’s (played by Jennifer Connelly) adventure navigating an odd maze full of creatures to rescue her baby brother, Toby, who has been hidden away by the Goblin King, Jareth (played by David Bowie).

This movie had such a creative impact on my life. I remember watching the behind-the-scenes footage of how the movie was created and all the puppeteering challenges throughout production. I was convinced that puppetry was my career path. Alas, my skills and interests evolved to computer technology and animation, but I still embrace felt and googly eyes with a nostalgic thrill.

Fast forward to 2016.

The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia announced earlier this summer that they’ll be putting on a Labyrinth Masquerade Ball to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movie. In addition, there will also be a new exhibit featuring props and puppets from the Labyrinth on display. Looking at the price and travel, the hubby and I decided to make a go of it.

I sat glued to my iPhone in the A.C. Moore parking lot, ready to refresh and get these tickets at noon on May 21. While keeping a vigilant eye on the time and creating an account beforehand, Justin looks at me and says, “You really think the tickets are going to sell out that fast?”

Noon. I furiously refreshed the browser and ordered the tickets. The event sold out in two minutes.

Time to get on the ball. 

In my previous post, I mentioned my terror in beginning to sew a jacket for this masquerade ball. Despite my fears, the jacket turned out great, especially for my first sewing project.


Basic jacket structure put together.


I actually made these straps for the buckles!


Jacket mostly finished with buckles, sleeves, and pockets added.


Finished jacket with silver buttons, mask, and necklace!

The jacket was a great learning experience in sewing from scratch. My outfit was a bit different. I found a dress at Goodwill that I thought might work for some sort of masquerade-type wear. Trying on the dress, however, was a bit challenging. It needed some alterations up top so my upper body could fit comfortably. Other than that, the dress actually fit. Luckily, there was another dress identical to the one I picked up, only a smaller size. Perfect for adding onto the dress!

I decided to go with an owl theme for my costume. After all, Jareth turns into an owl so the connection was a little more meaningful to me. I altered a mask I bought at Target a few years ago with loads of feathers. I also picked up a wreath at Goodwill that somewhat matched the dress. I’m not sure how it happened, but the outfit came together perfectly.


Basic dress without alterations.


Dress with wreath and mask.


Lace cut back to show white dress underneath.


Finished mask!


Finished outfit with feathers in the wreath, dress altered and mask completed.


A little black eye makeup and we’re ready for the ball!

The Labyrinth Masquerade Ball was everything I wanted it to be.

As we went up the beautifully lit ramp, skeleton puppets pointed the way towards the entrance. The creativity that went into the details by the Center for Puppetry Arts delighted me. For example, there were “helping hands” holding food along one side of the wall. Even staff members were dressed in red and white striped outfits like Toby donned in the movie while serving poisoned peaches (warm peach slices and blue cheese on melba toast).


The attendees’ costumes ranged from elegant to accurate to ingenious. Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson and chairman of the Jim Henson Company) was on hand to judge the costume contest. I had the opportunity to meet him and went into fangirl mode, gushing over how much he and Jim Henson have inspired my art. Thankfully, he just smiled and let me grab a photo.


Justin and I danced together, explored the Labyrinth exhibit as well as the Jim Henson and international puppetry displays, and had a memorable evening. The crowd sang “Magic Dance” together and danced to “As the World Falls Down” as we were all transported to a place far away in our imaginations.


As we were leaving, I couldn’t help but think about the part in the movie when Hoggle says to Sarah, “Yes, should you need us, for any reason at all…” and Sarah responds, “I don’t know why, but every now and again in my life – for no reason at all – I need you. All of you.”

That’s exactly how I felt. I will need all of these memories and moments for the rest of my life. It may seem childish to some people to want to live in a world full of harmless absurdity or characters with unrealistic abilities, but I need it. All of it.

“You do? Well, why didn’t you say so?”


To check out more of our fantastic evening, click the image below.

Labyrinth Masquerade Ball

I don’t know what I was thinking.

I had been staring at this sewing machine for about a year now. I kept promising myself as each week passed that this is the weekend that I’m going to learn to use this sewing machine. Yet, it remained in the box.

I just didn’t feel motivated to do anything with it. Why bother getting into all those settings? That’s just a lot of work for little return! I didn’t lack excuses.

So what do you do when you don’t feel motivated? You overwhelm yourself with a huge project! *crickets chirp*

I thought this project would be easy.

I’ll buy a sewing pattern of a coat with tails to make my husband for our trip to The Labyrinth Masquerade Ball in Atlanta, GA. I mean, I watched my grandmother sew with patterns as a kid and I even operated her sewing machine with her a few times. I got this.

jacket sewing pattern cover

After buying the pattern, the fabric, and a new pair of scissors, I came home excited, ready to dig in. As I unfolded all the pattern pieces, I immediately felt like Gob Bluth from Arrested Development.

I've made a huge mistake meme

As I’m already seeing this idea ending in failure, I think back to all the times I wish I had paid more attention to my grandmother’s handiwork. After a long sigh, I start cutting out the pieces and googling things like “darts” and “seam allowances.” Thank heavens for Google.

The next weekend, I spend an entire day pinning and cutting fabric. As I’m doing this, I’m catching mistakes (some a little late), but press on. Finally, pieces are extracted and I stare hard at the sewing machine.

I’ve sewn many things with a needle. I even use fabric glue. This sewing machine, however, just mocked and intimidated me. Before you sympathize with me, this is a “Sew E-Z” sewing machine. A whopping $30 investment. Hardly a threat. *gulp*

Sew E-Z machine

With this special day less than a month away, I had to just suck it up and give it shot. So, after reading the directions thoroughly and threading the machine carefully, I push down the pedal.

I learned two things that day.

  1. Don’t let fear hold you back from trying.
  2. Mistakes can often be erased, removed, or ripped out.

I’m almost halfway done with the jacket and my dress modifications now, and my confidence level is soaring. I don’t expect to be on Project Runway, but I am at least less fearful of a wardrobe malfunction!