Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 8th, 2011
Gaffe is a French word meaning “embarrassing mistake,” and should not bemixed up with gaff: a large hook.
Gaffe is defined as (n) a socially awkward or tactless act.
Gaff is defined as
(n) a sharp metal spike or spur that is fastened to the leg of a gamecock;
(n) a spar rising aft from a mast to support the head of a quadrilateral fore-and-aft sail; and
(n) an iron hook with a handle; used for landing large fish.
It is the last meaning of “gaff” that is used for items that are made to fool people studying cryptozoology.
The “gaff” of interest to us is the one that began as a gimmicked or rigged prop often used by magicians or illusionists to imitate sword swallowers. The evolution of “gaff” was them applied to a created “creature” such as a “FeeJee mermaid,” to pull people into the sideshow. The term “gaff” comes from the “gaff” fishing tool used to pull fish in; in sideshow terms, a “gaff” can be used at sideshows to “hook” or pull people into the sideshow.
The easiest pseudocryptozoological exhibition items to have, of course, are often the gaffs and hoaxes. Among those in most cabinets of curiosities are the Feejee mermaids and the furred trouts, both taxidermy fakes. I have my share.
I use them to let people know these objects are often shown as “almost real” specimens. Most honest sideshow owners displaying them often merely only ask “What is It?” or “Is it Real?” But slowly the drift has been, perhaps due to eBay, for people to present these items as cryptozoological, from “unknown animals.” For cryptozoologists, we need to be aware of this trend, and go beyond it.
Mistakes? Yes. Let me say something briefly about the near-cryptozoological “specimens” that are not quite fakes. One-of-a-kind items, which may be authentic but not actually from a cryptid, do exist. For example, Dr. Geoff Swinney, Curator of Lower Vertebrates, Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles, National Museums of Scotland, is shown below examining the vertebrae of the Beast of Stronsay, from the carcass of the beast found on an Orkney island beach in 1808. Swinney, who is the resident cryptozoologist in his Scottish museum, did in 1987, confirm the vertebrae was from a basking shark, and not a Sea Serpent.
But within fakery, gaffs (the hook to get people into the metaphorical carnival tent) are just that – not what they appear to be. There are various kinds of gaffs, including those made to appear like classic examples and those which follow the current but old taxidermy hoaxing models. The Feejee mermaids are a perfect example.
This Feejee Mermaid above is the original prop used in the movie P. T. Barnum, which was made to look like the 1866 specimen in Barnum’s American Museum. This object is now a permanent exhibit in the International Cryptozoology Museum.
The most current type of Feejee Mermaid gaff, however, are those made from legally obtained deceased animal parts mixed together.
The jackalope does not exist. Some people have thought otherwise.
Do gaff makers have standards and ethics? You might be surprised. The item (above) was noted in my “Chupacabras: Mystery Solved?” posting and featured on Coast to Coast AM with George Noory’s site. Due to those discussions, in a radical professional move Doug Higley has recently written that he:
….might no longer be making ‘Chupacabras’ feeling that the fantasy concept had been abused and became more of unnecessary false claims than a fun ‘Unknown’ to ponder. The original idea was never to show the gaff ‘creatures’ claiming them to be ‘REAL!’ but to let the viewer make up their mind as to what IT was and to say only it was a strange ‘thing’ to be questioned and wondered over. It seems in at least one case the important Question Mark was dropped and Claims were made which I feel is not the proper way to to go…the entertainment aspect is diffused by the false claim. Most all the showmen/women ‘got it’ however and made a fun experience out of their shows…but like in any endeavor, there is always ‘one’ who’ll push the initial concept in an incorrect direction. The analogy to a ‘little sci-fi movie’ is a valid one in that Universal Studios doesn’t come right out on the poster and say “The Creature is Fake! It’s a man in a rubber suit!” They let the viewer experience the fun of suspending disbelief if only for a short time…To me, it’s all about the Illusion…but then isn’t everything?….My personal view is any show ‘Gaff’ I create should have a Question Mark attached otherwise it’s just a ‘Prop’ rather than a fun ‘mystery’ to be considered. - Doug Higley