The tale of Charleston’s 1867 mermaid riot

4,430
Mermaid sculpture by local artist Julyan Davis | Photo provided by Julyan Davis

Table of Contents

If you thought 2020 was weird, wait until you hear about the mermaid riot of 1867.

Picture this: It’s a Charleston summer day in June of 1867. Suddenly, a terrible storm hits, bringing wind + rain heavy enough to tear down houses and uproot trees. Local papers begin reporting that it is the heaviest rainfall the Lowcountry has seen in 50 years. It won’t stop, and no one knows why.

Now, if you were a mythologist, you may entertain a passing thought that a mermaid could be causing the storm, which they are said to do when provoked. But if you were one of the citizens of Charleston in 1867, you would believe this to be absolutely true.

Time for some backstory. In the spring of 1867, Dr. William G. Trott opened an apothecary inside of the John Lining House (106 Broad St.). Three days after opening, the shop finally had its first customer. Trott inquired as to what competition was out there supposedly stealing his business. 

The woman told him that, nearby, there was a Gullah Geechee root doctor that practiced HooDoo medicine + root work (think: spells + charms). The Civil War just having ended, Charleston residents sought out her help, which was more affordable than Trott’s remedies.

Trott had to think on his feet to find a way to make his apothecary more appealing. While brainstorming ideas, he found inspiration from P.T. Barnum’s FeeJee Mermaid hoax. (If you are familiar with “The Greatest Showman” film, you can probably picture what this deception must have entailed.) 

Trott decided to close down his shop to gather supplies for a “free magic show” the shop’s windows now advertised. This sparked buzz within the community, and four days later excited patrons were lining up to see the spectacle.

Guests entered rooms filled with ocean + river exhibits, which were rare and likely unheard of during this time period. Tanks were filled with plants, frogs, fish, reptiles, seahorses + more, but the attractions did not stop there.

For his final act, Trott led guests to a dimly-lit room with a covered tank, in which he claimed to be a mermaid. He lifted the cover to reveal various plants + shells, distracting enough to disguise a “tail-like object.” He would only let them gaze at the tank for a few seconds before covering it back up.

Mesmerised patrons began to claim they could see the mermaid, which caused quite a stir. Next door, the root doctor began to express concerns that this mermaid was bad news for Charleston + its people.

In late June, a category 1 hurricane hit Charleston and would not let up. The root doctor confronted Trott, claiming that his mermaid probably had a baby out at sea + was causing a storm that wouldn’t stop until she was freed.

As the storm continued, concerned citizens took the root doctor’s side. Following the death of a young boy in the floodwater, 500+ people rioted + stormed the apothecary, according to The Daily News

Trott tried to calm down the angry rioters + save his own name by admitting the mermaid was never real to start with. Unfortunately, his hoax was so believable that people actually thought this admission was the lie. He garbed a “see for yourself” attitude, and the crowd rushed inside.

As the people flooded in, so did the storm. The roof gave way, destroying the tanks + freeing their contents. Animals, fish + plants were swept away in the rain, and some claimed to have seen a mermaid go with them, making her way back to the sea.

It’s said that the rain stopped within minutes of this incident, further tangling the web of the lie that was Dr. Trott’s mermaid extravaganza. 

Is this tale fact or fiction? We may never know… just like those who never knew if the mermaid was a truth or a lie. 

Poll