; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Coney Island 'Merman' Sightings

I found the following account in 'Broadbrim's New York Letter' printed in The Carbon Advocate (Lehightown, PA) for Saturday, December 12, 1885:

Our sister city, Brooklyn, is greatly exercised about a wild man of the sea, which, if the story is to be believed, would show that the mermen of the sea are not all dead. For ten days past a man has been seen on Coney Island beach, disporting himself in the briny waves as if they were his native element. The hair on his head reaches to his waist, and the yellow hair on his body is as long as a horse's mane. Many people have seen him at night walking along the sand, but as soon as he was approached he dashed into the breakers, and no one has seen him come out. But that he does come out is evident, for he has been seen by many, men and women. Towards night men go armed with hatchets and clubs for fear the wild man might grab them up and carry them into the sea. Women and children keep close indoors, and a reign of terror of this submarine hairy man has shaken New York's favorite watering place from turret to foundation stone. People are afraid to shoot him for fear they might possibly be indicted for killing a harmless lunatic. Hundreds are watching for the wild man of the sea, and I should not be surprised when he is caught to find that it was another ingenious device of that aquatic blatherskite, Captain Paul Boyton, to advertise his life-saving suit. If it is not Boyton it is the ----.

There were a number of bizarre sightings of many unexplained anomalies on Coney Island in the latter part of the 19th century. Here is some information about the aforementioned Captain Paul Boyton: 

The word 'blatherskite' means 'a person who talks at great length without making much sense' 'foolish talk; nonsense'. The description was used in reference to Captain Paul Boyton, known as the Fearless Frogman, who was a showman and adventurer who some credit as having spurred worldwide interest in water sports as a hobby, particularly open-water swimming. Boyton is best known for his water stunts that captivated the world, including crossing the English Channel in a novel rubber suit that functioned similarly to a kayak.

Just prior to the publishing of story, Boyton was involved in the fatal leap from Brooklyn Bridge of Robert Emmet Odlum, brother of women's rights activist Charlotte Odlum Smith. Catherine Odlum, mother of Robert and Charlotte, blamed Boyton for her son's death. Boyton wrote Mrs. Odlum a letter disclaiming responsibility, which he also published in The New York Times and other periodicals. Mrs. Odlum subsequently traveled to New York City to see Boyton. According to her account, Boyton sent two men to see her who claimed to be a lawyer and a judge, and who warned her not to say anything against Boyton to avoid prosecution for slander. Catherine Odlum claimed in the biography she wrote of her son that Boyton hid or destroyed letters and telegrams from himself to Robert Odlum urging him to travel to New York and make the Brooklyn Bridge jump.

The Washington Professor of Swimming, Robert Emmett Odlum, the Washington Professor of Swimming who was killed in his jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, New York, the 19th inst., has been suitably buried here. The death of this daring man and peerless swimmer has caused much regret among Washingtonians who merely knew the hero by sight reputation. A man of undoubted courage, frank, honest, generous, and enthusiast in the art he so devotedly pursued. Odium had many admirers, and few real friends. He had lost occupation by the burning of the National Theatre last February, and had doubtless suffered for want of the necessities of life, although he had saved a dozen lives. Embarrassed, desirous of fame only for money's sake he was driven to attempt a feat that, under more favorable circumstances, he might have postponed forever. - Western Sentinel (Winston, NC) - May 28, 1995

After the incident, Boyton left New York City and formed an aquatic circus, touring as the main act in Barnum's circus during 1887. He settled in Chicago in 1888 and noted the success of the attractions Midway at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1892. Building on this, in 1894, he opened the first "permanent" amusement park (Paul Boyton's Water Chutes) in Chicago, which was also the first park of any type to charge an admission. Strangely enough, he bought 16 acres of land and opened the Sea Lion Park on Coney Island in 1895, fenced the property and charged admission. It would later become Coney Island Amusement Park. You can find his story at Paul Boyton: Sideshow World


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