Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Long Con

A perusal of the archives will show that I've been interested in faux creatures and specimens for some time, but it's only the last year or so that I've actively been researching their history.  The majority of the available material on the subject concentrates on two areas.  The first is cryptozoology, where manufactured body parts of creatures like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra have bamboozled a truly amazing number of "scientists".  The second is the circus, where a cottage industry developed around the manufacture and exhibition of improbable beasts. 

Somewhere between the two are those sources that look at the historical manufacture of fantastic creatures.   Sadly, there's precious little documentation of gaffed animals beyond the 14th century, but there is one account from the 13th century that stands out.  It comes to us from The Travels of Marco Polo.  After describing the kingdom of Basma and it's unicorn (almost certainly a rhinoceros) he spills the beans on the real source of those "pygmy" bodies flowing into Europe.

I may tell you moreover that when people bring home pygmies which they allege to come from India, 'tis all a lie and a cheat. For those little men, as they call them, are manufactured on this Island, and I will tell you how. You see there is on the Island a kind of monkey which is very small, and has a face just like a man's. They take these, and pluck out all the hair except the hair of the beard and on the breast, and then they dry them and stuff them and daub them with saffron and other things until they look like men. But you see it is all a cheat; for nowhere in India nor anywhere else in the world were there ever men seen so small as these pretended pygmies.

What's striking about this passage is how it presages what's to come.  A few hundred years down the line those pygmy bodies would be passé.  But the market would come alive again when craftsman grafted the tail of a fish to those same monkey bodies and created the Fiji Mermaid.  Only to see fake versions of their fake mermaids show up when someone realized you could save a lot of trouble by crafting the thing from wood and paper mache right from the start.  It's a glorious example of meta-fraud.


CoastConFan said...

For those of you more interested in archeology and exposed fraud, try the site On the other hand some famous frauds that are favorites of mine are: Piltdown man
The Cardiff Giant and . So many hoaxes, frauds, and gaffs to enjoy and so little time. In any case reading some of this material might help the prop builder in making gaffs and props for the Cthulhu Mythos and for their RPGs or just for decoration.

Some hoaxes and frauds are all in the presentation and ballyhoo. A great favorite of mine was “The Thing” a roadside attraction that spent considerable time and expense setting up signs over many miles of desert roads for a buildup It’s a classic gaff.

Markus said...

I think that fake taxidermy is much older than many people would suppose. There are a lot of old depictions of sea-monsters which were most likely manufactured from skates, rays and in some cases probably also chimeras sewn together from fish and mammal parts. In Conrad Gesner´s "Historia animalium" you can find a lot of creatures which have a striking similarity to the Feejee Mermaids or Jenny Hanivers.

Propnomicon said...


The Cardiff Giant was the first gaff I ever saw, thanks to a childhood field trip. I was less than impressed, thanks in part to growing up with a dog eared copy of "Dick Smith's Monster Makeup".

Most of the exhibits at "The Thing" are the work of Homer Tate, one of the most prolific gaff artists of the modern era.

@ Markus

I believe Gessner was the first skeptic to expose the modified rays that were being peddled as oddities. Pierre Belon's "De Aquatilibus" may have beaten him in publishing a woodcut of one by five years, but that's up for debate. The picture in question looks like someone started to gaff it, or it could just be a terrible specimen. Here's a shot of it:

Sweet fancy Moses, I'm such a geek for this stuff. Heh.

Markus said...

The "monster" at the link was quite probably a real and unmodified eagle ray, but I suppose it was already dehydrated when it was drawn.
Here´s a photo of an eagle ray alive:

However specimens like this were quite obviously modified rays: