Who is Monkey-Fish?

Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

In June 2011, the Horniman Museum offered to loan a genuine Japanese monkey-fish to the museum of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). The RCP said ‘yes’, of course, because who wouldn’t want a genuine Japanese monkey-fish?

The monkey-fish was not due to arrive until December, but the word of his coming spread through the corridors of the RCP like wildfire. What was monkey-fish? Who was monkey-fish? ‘It’s the missing link,’ said some, while others speculated about a chupacabra roaming 11 St Andrews Place after dark. An urban legend was born. I work at the RCP and it is likely that I played a small part in the creation of the RCP’s very own cryptid.

So while the bees are on their winter break, here is a post about another species, or two, sort of.

Fakes, forgeries and quacks

Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

The RCP held two lunchtime talks on Tuesday 20 December with experts from the Horniman Museum and Wellcome Library on the subject of ‘Fakes, forgeries and quacks’, inspired by the loan of the Horniman monkey-fish. Japanese monkey-fish, or mermen, were popular attractions during the 19th century and were touted as being real creatures. The second talk, ‘Making mermaids: a fishy business’ by Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden, traced the chequered past of monkey-fish revealing the history of mermaids, tales of fraud, media manipulation and shipwrecks. Among the audience were a number of RCP staff who were eager to find out more about monkey-fish, or ‘Alan’ as he is affectionately called.

Paolo took us on a journey of mermaid sightings from the Sirenia, or sea cows, mistaken for mer-folk by ancient mariners, to the thousand-year-old shrivelled ‘mermaids’ of Japanese Shinto shrines, to the famous Fiji Mermaid exhibited by master showman PT Barnum in the 1840s.

This was all very well, but what I wanted to know was this: who is our monkey-fish?

Who is monkey-fish?

X-ray of monkey-fish. Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

On Tuesday, 2 September 1919, a Japanese merman was purchased by, or on behalf of, Henry Wellcome at an auction held by Stevens London auctioneers. The auction catalogue listed the specimen as ‘Japan, Mermaid, paper-mache body, with fish-tail 20 in. long x 9 in. high’.[ref] The merman came to the Horniman Museum from the Wellcome Collection in 1982, and somewhere along the way it gained the name ‘monkey-fish’ because of its appearance of a monkey’s head and torso sewn onto the body of a fish. Mystery solved, or is it?

What is a monkey-fish?

CT scan of monkey-fish. Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

I was curious to know, what is a monkey-fish made of? Is it the mummified head and torso of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish? The Horniman Museum had investigated the makings of monkey-fish through X-ray and CT scans – and the results? ‘What is a monkey-fish made of? Paper, wood, string and clay, with fish bits and chicken feet!’ said Paolo. ‘But no monkey.’

Monkey-fish babies and the dark sibling, Paul

As if that were not enough excitement for one afternoon, we were told that there could be 100s of monkey-fish out there, waiting to be found. There might also be monkey-fish babies, which led to a twittering of ‘I want’ tweets.

The Horniman monkey-fish even has a sibling on display elsewhere in the UK – a dark twin called Paul. I may have made up that last bit.

Come and see our monkey-fish!

Me (left) and monkey-fish (right)

The monkey-fish will be exhibited alongside items from the RCP’s own collections, which involve an element of fakery – whether intentional or not  – until 20 January 2012, and is open Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm. No booking is required and entry is free. The exhibition area is closed on public holidays and for RCP ceremonies. The RCP museum holds various events all year round and information on how to visit is here.

Monkey-fish will return home to the Horniman Museum at the end of January, which also looks like a pretty interesting place to visit.


229 thoughts on “Who is Monkey-Fish?

  1. We were originally conjoined, but I gnawed through the mess of reconstituted chicken feet tying us together, constructed a boat from a discarded bible (my Japanese origami skills serve me well) and set sail from shore to shore wreaking havoc & mayhem and bringing wonder & awe. Not for me the confines of a glass case, smeared with the snotty noses of gasping tourists and gawping toddlers. One day twins will reunite. Babies shall gather with their ‘monkey’ teeth gnashing and their fish tails thwacking on marble stairs. And, finally, we shall rule.

    Wishing you a prosperous new year,


  2. What an interesting story. I’ve heard of the Horniman Museum before and now think it is definitely worth a visit. Have to feel sorry for the bits of fish and chicken used to make this strange creature. Where did the feet come from I wonder?

  3. What an odd little creature. He looks more like an alien fish than a monkey fish. He does have a very angry appearance. I’m not sure if he liked being a monkey fish at all. Lol

  4. I am Monkey Fish. Therefore I am. Fantastic. Thank you. In Australian colonial days it was quite common for similar such beasts to be constructed and sent back to England to delight the common folk. So common it was that, as I understand, the original Platypus sent back the the “mother country” was believed to be a fake!

    • Welcome Monkey Fish, are you perhaps related to Alan and Paul?

      Interesting that you mention the platypus. You are right, when Europeans first ‘discovered’ the platypus they did not believe IT was real: ‘Is it a mammal?’ ‘No, it’s a fish’ ‘I think it’s a duck’… It took collectors a while to prove that accounts of tortoises were real too, because sailors kept eating them on the voyage home!

      Thank you for visiting and leaving a fantastic comment, Monkey Fish! 🙂

      • E.S.T: “It took collectors a while to prove that accounts of tortoises were real too, because sailors kept eating them on the voyage home!”

        Aww, you beat me to it. This was hilariously covered by the UK panel show “QI”

        Who knows how many undocumented, severely endangered species were lost to history due to a single man’s impulsive hunger.. Sadder that my first thought upon seeing the monkey-fish is what it’d taste like fried, buttered with a garnish of lemon.

      • Thank you for the link to QI, it’s a brilliant clip and show: Why did it take them 300 years to give the giant tortoise a scientific name? ‘They thought it was a normal tortoise, but closer’ 🙂

        Gosh, who knows how many other species Darwin ate into extinction? I bet he never tasted anything as good as a monkey-fish fried in garlic butter.

        Thank you for visiting and leaving your excellent comment!

  5. They did a show on the “monkey fish” on the OLN show Destination Truth. It was great. While they did not find a monkey fish it was very informative on what these creatures are. Interesting! Thanks! Ha ha

  6. What the whaaaat??! Those monkey fish are freaky things…lol. However, this was the most interesting post that I’ve read today! You held my attention the entire time. Great post! 🙂

  7. I’ve never heard about the monkey fish before but I must say that the monkey fish has a face that only a mother can love. That is one ugly little thing, just goes to show you combining body parts from other species is bad!

    • Thank you, Susie. You make a good point – what if monkey-fish were a school project for some kid thousands of years ago. Who knew where he’d end up? 🙂

      Thank you for visiting and leaving your comment!

  8. Who couldn’t be hooked with a good fish story about a monkey. Under the right condition I would probably pay to see it. If it was a flying monkey-fish I would pay a premium. The whole story is fascinating. Well presented.

    • Thank you for your kind comment on my post. The thoughts are my own but the images and research are thanks to Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum and also great information from the Wellcome Library. If you are in London, they are great places to visit!

    • Good question – it is true that the Horniman Museum lent their monkey-fish to my work to the cause of much fun and delight! There has been a lot of research, and speculation, about these strange artefacts (once thought to be actual mummified monkeys sewn to fish tails), but I suspect the true story is still out there…

    • Funny you should say, because there are more out there, somewhere…

      Ross MacFarlane of the Wellcome Library gave a really interesting talk at my work that took us on the trail of Henry Wellcome and his ‘mermaids’. This monkey-fish was originally purchased by Henry in 1919 and later went to the Horniman Museum. There are records of more monkey-fish in auction catalogues but not all have been found, including monkey-fish babies. How cool is that?

      If you like this stuff, the Wellcome Library has a cool blog of curiosities: http://wellcomelibrary.blogspot.com/

  9. Loving the Monkey-fish! Pity that he contains none of the major ingredient, monkey. Can I ask what the teeth are made of, are they wood or clay? Perhaps made out of chicken, the ever elusive ‘hens teeth’!

    • The teeth are made of fish bone, according to Horniman research, and the curators are getting these DNA tested to find out what species of fish was used. Fascinating!

      Thank you for loving monkey-fish, he is very happy!

      • HA! I did find a 1938 article about a member of his family when he was called the Manchu man-fish, I have posted about it today and included a link to this post.

  10. you could try manchester’s natural history museum here in the UK Im sure Ive seen one there ??? they have other stuff of interest to your museum Im sure there can be some dialog for mutual satifaction 🙂 james rochdale UK

  11. Pingback: You mean I DIDN’T invent the term “monkey-fish”? « The Old Gray Cat

    • Good question! Monkey-fish were exhibited in the past as genuine animals by show-men to an incredulous Victorian public. Our exhibition displayed it as an example of a forgery – a fake monkey on a fake fish! I hope that helps clear things up? Thank you for visiting.

    • Thank you, glad you like him. I did have a nightmare about monkey-fish the first time I saw him – sort of creeping through the corridors – but the little beastie grows on you. If you hear of anything weirder, let me know!

  12. While I do appreciate academic findings that further explain where we have come from as a species, I don’t think that this post could have been creepier. It’s a fish. With a monkey head. At the very least, it redefines “surf and turf”.

    • That is funny! One of my work mates truly believed that monkey-fish was the ‘missing link’ until we explained that he was made mostly of paper mache and fish-and-chicken bits. Sorry to have creeped you out ;o)

  13. Thank you to everyone who liked this post about monkey-fish! The little fella couldn’t be more pleased. It has really made his day – and mine! I am now going to make a cup of tea and do my best to answer the great comments.

    • You were not alone! Captain Eades, a 19th-century American sea captain, sold his ship (that wasn’t even his) to buy the Feejee mermaid (a famous monkey-fish fraud) because he thought it was real (it wasn’t). It is still a mystery who made this monkey-fish and why. I hope Paolo, its curator, can unravel it. Thank you for visiting my blog, I am enjoying reading everyone’s comments!

  14. OK. I like monkeys (the stuffed kind) very much. I do a video with one every Monday. Thankfully, he does not have teeth like this creature. My monkey hath not teeth – like chickens have no teeth.

    My question is this: if there are no monkey parts, then doesn’t the mystery deepen? What the heck kind of man-eating chicken has teeth like that? Huh? Now that would be scary! Let them start breeding…Lord! That would be the end of the McNugget, for sure!

    • The mystery does indeed deepen… These mermen are thought to be over thousands of years old in Japanese Shinto shrines, but only became known in 18th and 19th centuries through trade between Japan and the West. I would love to know how old this monkey-fish is, where he came from originally and who made him.

      I do hope there are no man-eating chickens with sharp fish teeth roaming about! Thank you for visiting and, um, beware of chickens!

  15. I was drawn to this with hopes of a discovery of a new species! lol. I love your elaborate ponderings of wht it could POSSIBLY be! It looks like a shrunken head on a cod.

    • I hope I didn’t disappoint! I thought it was a shrunken baby monkey head when I first saw it and was quite worried. Fortunately, it is just made of papier-mâché, although actual fish teeth and tail. Thank you for visiting, if you discover any strange new species let me know 🙂

  16. Brilliant! People might be fascinated also by the work of Spanish artist/photographer Joan Fontcuberta, particularly his series called “Fauna”. I just adore the flying elephants.

  17. This is a hilarious post. There is a monkey fish in Karen Joy Fowler’s book, Sarah Canary, and it’s terrifying. The funniest thing is how much hype this thing seemed to cause. It’s so bizarre that I can’t tell if this is really convincing satirical fiction, or a well told anecdote. Cool story.

    • Thank you, Ben. I am glad you enjoyed it. It was pretty hilarious having a monkey-fish visit my work – that part is true 🙂 You are right, these fake creatures caused a lot of hype among Victorians who loved collecting cabinets of curiosities.

      ‘Sarah Canary’ sounds like a great book, I will check it out!

    • Gosh! As a beekeeper, I am always on the look-out for woodpeckers in winter as they burrow holes into hives to eat bees, larvae, comb and honey. No wonder if they can peck 20 times per second, amazing!

      Thank you for visiting and sharing also! 🙂

  18. This is a great post and it looks a fine exhibition, but whilst monkey-fish’s head is evidently made of paper, his teeth are surely real teeth? Monkey teeth? Chicken teeth?

    • You are right, the teeth are real but not monkey teeth. Horniman research has uncovered that fish teeth were inserted into the papier-mâché head. Paolo said they were doing DNA testing to find out what species of fish were used to make monkey-fish! Those guys leave no stone unturned! Thank you for visiting and your great comment :o)

  19. Interesting post. Funny enough, there is also a monkey fish in Banff, Alberta that has always fascinated me. Although there was no description or write up on the display, it’s just there under glass in one of the stores.

  20. Apparently 19th-century British scholars thought the platypus was faked when a specimen was brought back from Australia. They dissected it, tested it and scrutinised it only to discover that it was real. Nature’s own little joke.

  21. Wow. Did not expect such as lovely response to monkey-fish or to be Freshly Pressed. Tickled pink (me, not monkey-fish).

    A big thank you to all the great WordPress bloggers who liked and commented on this post. And a huge thank you to WordPress for being such a brilliant place to blog with like-minded people!

  22. This reminds me of when I first heard that people used to think that the platypus wasn’t real, they believed that it was an egg-laying beaver/otter with a duck’s bill, nature has popped out some interesting phenomena I just had to see if a monkey-fish was real,

    • What’s funny is that people DIDN’T believe in the platypus but they DID believe in the monkey-fish. People are stranger than fiction.

      You are right, there certainly is interesting phenomena out there! Thank you for visiting and for your comment.

  23. Some years ago I read on a newspaper someone found a dragon fetus preserved in a bottle which had been forgotten in the Louvre basements for decades. But now I don’t know if professors think it is a real dragon or just a joke! I’m just a little curious about it…
    Very nice and interesting post! 🙂

  24. Pingback: The Manchu Man-Fish. 1938. « Buried words and Bushwa.

  25. This would have been a million times better if you just told me that monkey fish was found in an underwater tomb in japan and was indeed half fish, half unidentifiable creature from mythical asia.

    • Yes. Darwin discovered the species in the Galapagos but hid it from the rest of the world fearing they were not ready for the ‘missing link’.

      What I have just passed off as fact is actually a lie.

      No. Monkey-fish is not real. He is made of papier-mâché. 🙂

  26. It looks scary. Still so many “creature” in our world. And maybe we still don’t know.
    Thank for your great information

  27. When I was a kid we went to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in – I think it was St. Augustine, Florida. It was a great, big old Victorian building. There we saw a “mermaid” – maybe this very same one….but it was a genuine monkey which had been sewn to a fish and was really ancient, allegedly from the latter days of the P. T. Barnum Museum.

    • Gosh! We have a Ripley’s too at Piccadilly Circus, London. I got lost in the maze of mirrors. Ripley’s popularity shows people still want to be incredulous and amazed just like in Barnum’s time! I wonder where the Floridian monkey-fish came from?

      Thank you for visiting 🙂

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