A few weeks ago, we hosted a guest post from Vaughn Scribner on mermaids. Since sequels are all the rage in Hollywood, we are having him back for seconds.
Well, here we go again. Just when I thought I had figured out the riddle of Captain John Smith’s alleged seventeenth-century mermaid sighting, research threw me a curve ball. A quick recap: in a recent Junto post, I argued that Alexandre Dumas added a brief (supposedly legitimate) story of Smith meeting a mermaid into his fictional 1849 adventure tale. Dumas’ fabricated account, I demonstrated, steadily gained a life of its own as subsequent historians cited it as fact. I had solved the “Curious Case of John Smith, a Green-Haired Mermaid, and Alexandre Dumas.” Or so I thought.
The other day, I stumbled across a translation of a 1671 article by the Danish physician, Thomas Bartholin, in which he surveyed historical mermaid sightings. But as I read Bartholin’s article, panic washed over me in thundering waves. Bartholin referenced Smith’s mermaid sighting…in a 1671 publication…a full 178 years before Dumas. This instantly discredited key facets of my previous piece for the Junto. I had to get to the bottom of this, and fast.
After frantically re-labeling my research folder from “John Smith Mermaid Hoax” to “John Smith Mermaid PROBLEM” and slugging a shot of scotch (OK, I didn’t drink any scotch, but maybe I should have in retrospect), I dove into Bartholin’s text. Where did he get this? Bartholin’s story matched Dumas’s account almost perfectly, but there were key differences. For instance, Bartholin claimed that Smith met the mermaid in New England (not the West Indies as Dumas asserted) in 1614 (not 1611 as Dumas claimed). Then I noticed something interesting. Bartholin stated that his Smith story was “related” from the works of two seventeenth-century German scholars, George Stengel and Johann Ludwig Gottfried. I had a start.
With a quick Google search, I was able to track down the full text of Stengel’s De Monstris et Monstrosis (1647). And though Stengel’s notation of Smith’s mermaid encounter was basically just an extended version of the account in Bartholin’s 1671 article, Stengel attributed his information to Gottfried’s Historia Antipodum oder Newe Welt (1631). With further research, however, I found that this section of Gottfried’s Historia Antipodum was actually a reprint of the Flemish engraver Theodore de Bry’s 1628 edition of Dreyzehender Theil Americae. Because de Bry’s tome—which consists of de Bry’s engravings accompanied by others’ first-hand travel writing—was published before Gottfried’s, I decided to use it as my primary resource with Gottfried as a reference piece. So, to make this clearer, here’s how I worked my way down the chain of Smith’s mermaid tale:
- Dumas, “Nuptials of Father Polypus” (1849)
- Bartholin, “Of the Mermaid, &c.” (1671)
- Stengel, De Monstris et Monstrosis (1647)
- Gottfried, Historia Antipodum oder Newe Welt (1631)
de Bry, Dreyzehender Theil Americae (1628)
De Bry (and, by association, Gottfried) revealed some important points. First, neither provided reference to any other secondary source. From what I can tell, de Bry’s text was the genesis of Smith’s supposed mermaid encounter. Second, de Bry placed Smith’s mermaid sighting in 1610. But this was impossible! While settling Virginia in 1609, Smith had been blown up by a powder bag and was shortly thereafter sent back to England (in October). The poor sot was nowhere near America in 1610. As I continued to read, however, I realized that de Bry’s account was an exact copy of Stengel’s, and in both instances Smith assured the reader that his “servant,” William Hawkridge, also saw the mermaid. But I could find nothing about Hawkridge in any of Smith’s writings. Who was this guy? With a little research into Hawkridge, the murky tale of Smith’s mermaid suddenly came into full focus.
Hawkridge was the servant of the seventeenth-century English explorer, Captain Richard Whitbourne. In 1618, Whitbourne published A Discourse and Discovery of New-Found-Land. In the conclusion, Whitbourne claimed that he had seen a mermaid while sailing off the coast of Newfoundland in 1610. Here is the passage (long, but important):
“Now also I will not omit to relate some thing of a strange Creature, which I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early, as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which very swiftly came swimming towards me, looking cheerfully, as it had been a woman: by the face, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, eares, necke, and forehead, it seemed to bee so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blue strakes, resembling hayre, downe to the Necke, (but certainly it was no haire), yet I beheld it long, and another of my company also yet living, that was not then farre from mee, saw the same comming so swiftly towards me: at which I stepped backe; for it was come within the length of a long Pike. Which when this strange Creature saw, that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim towards the place before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders & back down to the middle, to be so square, white and smooth as the backe of a man; and from the middle to the hinder part, it was poynting in proportion something like a broad hooked Arrow: how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I could not well discerne; but it came shortly after, to a Boat in the same Harbour (wherein one William Hawkridge then my servant was,) that hath been since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there so imployed againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boat, and did strive much to come in to him, and divers then in the same Boat; whereat they were afraid, and one of them strucke it a full blow on the head, whereby it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the said Harbour, where they lay by the shore: the men in them, for feare fled to land. This (I suppose) was a Marmaid. Now because divers have writ much of Maremaids, I have presumed to relate what is most certaine, of such a strange Creature that was thus then seene at New-found-land, whether it were a Maremaid or no, I know not; I leave it for others to judge, &c.”
This is the Smith mermaid encounter. It all stems from this. The Smith and Whitbourne accounts are one and the same. But Smith never claimed to have seen a mermaid. Somehow, Whitbourne’s supposed interaction with a mermaid in Newfoundland in 1610 has become attributed to a fictionalized Smith encounter somewhere in America in the early 1610’s. How did this happen? Let’s investigate, shall we?
In one section of America (1628), de Bry reiterated both John Smith and Richard Whitbourne’s New World narratives. De Bry clearly transitioned to Whitbourne’s travel log, noting, “now we shall hear what happened with Richard Whitbourne.” Captain Whitbourne’s mermaid sighting followed, word for word. So far so good.
But then arrived Stengel’s 1647 piece, where he attributed Whitbourne’s encounter to John Smith. In fact, Stengel contended that Smith published his 1610 mermaid encounter in a 1614 volume. But, as I have already detailed, Smith never wrote anything about a mermaid. I have no idea why Stengel wrote this. Either a) Stengel made a simple mistake, or b) (and I’m more convinced by this) Stengel wanted to use Smith’s celebrity to provide his own work more validity and popularity. Though Smith had died in 1631, his name would have still carried weight in 1647. Smith had published ten separate (quite popular) books, and in doing so had, as Walter W. Woodward recently argued, “refashioned himself as a writer and celebrity during the last decade of his life.” Hence Stengel’s possible choice to attribute a fanciful mermaid sighting to a man many people would have recognized. Whether intentional or not, this error spawned over 350 years of historical falsity.
Now, Dumas isn’t totally off the hook, either. Though we now know that Dumas was not the first one to claim that Smith saw a mermaid in the early seventeenth century, he still contributed his share of fiction to this curious case. Not only did Dumas create a new date (1611), but he also changed the mermaid’s hair from blue to green. But the date and the hair aren’t huge deals—Dumas’s most notable addition was a rather unsettling love story. In Dumas’s account, the “beautiful swimmer” made Smith “experience the first effects of love.” This could be taken a number of ways—none of which I’m going to get into here. Historians and scholars since have almost always noted this interesting addition, attributing it to Smith’s propensity for romance (or lust). Whitbourne never said anything of the sort in his account. In fact, Whitbourne claimed that he and his men “strucke [the mermaid] a full blow on the head” when she got too close to their boat. Hardly an act of love.
In closing, I’m not entirely happy that my earlier article required a “part two,” but I am quite happy that I have almost surely gotten to the bottom of this curious case. It’s amazing how one slip-up can cause a domino effect of historical error that spans centuries. It’s also fascinating that Smith’s celebrity (most likely) caused Stengel to include his name rather than poor Whitbourne. Then again, I’m not sure if we should feel too sorry for Whitbourne. Until now, after all, readers have been laughing at Smith’s supposed mermaid crush. Celebrity has its downsides, I suppose.
 Thomas Bartholin, “Of the Mermaid, &c. from the Miscellanea Naturae Curiosorum, Dec. 1, 1671,” in Acta Germanica: or, the Literary Memoirs of Germany, &c., Volume One (London: G. Smith, 1742), 120.
 Though de Bry died in 1598, his family continued to print more parts in his name. Gottfried had inherited de Bry’s publishing firm sometime between 1628 and 1631 and continued to produce books thereafter. Georgio Stengel, De Monstris et Monstrosis (Ingolstadt: Gregor Haenlin, 1647), 58-59; Johann Ludwig Gottfriedt, Historia Antipodum oder Newe Welt (Frankfurt: Matthias Merian, 1631), 193. Special thanks to Robert Blankenship and John Parrack for translation assistance and to Jeanne Willoz-Egnor of the Mariners’ Museum (Newport News, VA) for assistance in locating Gottfried’s volume online.
 Theodore de Bry, Dreyzehender Theil Americae, das ist, Fortsetzung der Hitorien von der Newen Welt (Frankfurt, 1728), 4-6.
 Captain Richard Whitbourne, A Discourse and Discovery of New-Found-Land (London: Felix Kingston, 1620), Conclusion.
 Walter W. Woodward, “Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England: A Study in Early Modern Identity and Promotion,” The New England Quarterly 81, no. 1 (March 2008): 122.
 Whitbourne actually claimed she had “round about upon the head, all blue strakes, resembling hayre, downe to the Necke, (but certainly it was no haire).”
 Alexandre Dumas, “Nuptials of Father Polypus,” in The Gazette of the Union, Vol. 11 (New York: Crampton and Clarke, 1849), 200-201.
I liked this post so much more than your other one, because I felt that the mermaid story must have come from some deep folklore or other source not solely Dumas. So great that you tracked this down. But now I do wonder which source/s Dumas drew from. What was he reading? Were these sources easily available to him? And, I can imagine him knowing enough about Smith’s life to realize the problem with the 1610 date, and deciding it must have happened in 1611.
Hi Kate! Thanks so much for the note–I’ve wondered the exact same thing. This connection between Dumas and the seventeenth-century sources remains murky. I haven’t been able to find anything about the Smith mermaid sighting in nineteenth-century sources. However, I have not dug into the French sources, which might be where he found it. That’s next, I suppose!
Congratulations on tracking down the origins of the mermaid myth! It shows the importance of really, really checking those footnotes! Could the fact that there is a Sir Thomas Smith in Whitbourne’s account been the inspiration for Stengel to change that person into Captain John Smith, who was much better known? I guess we’ll never know!
Hi Martha! That’s a great point. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Wow, this was even more fascinating than the first! Great job! I think what you uncovered getting to the bottom of this mystery may actually be more interesting and important than the mermaid sighting itself; you effectively found a living record of the creation and evolution of a legend. It’s on a micro scale in this case, but I’m imagining so many other heros and other characters of folk lore changing in this way throughout time. The stories we grew up with may very well have been based in some sort of fact many thousands of years earlier…or, as you demonstrated, even more recently, given how drastically a simple account can change in less than a lifetime. The problem with orally transmitted stories, of course, is that there’s no paper trail, which is why I find this mermaid story you’ve been researching so fascinating. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks so much, Allaya! I’m so glad you enjoyed the posts. It’s been a fun ride. Well, fun sometimes. ha.
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