Gaffs are simply tricked exhibits. The most famous of them all, of course, is the mummified "mermaid" body exhibited by P.T. Barnum during the 19th century. This creature, dubbed the Feejee Mermaid (from the original spelling of the Fiji islands), was of course nothing more than a hoax.
P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid
More info and pictures after the jump.
Beautifully crafted from the lower body of a fish and the torso of a primate, sewn and mummified together with their junction seamlessly hidden with papier maché, the gaff attracted thousands of visitors during the 20 years it was exhibited. Most of the visitors knew the doubtful nature of the creature, but paid to see it merely by curiosity. This first masterpiece opened the way for many other ingenious artists and showmen who made their fortune by exhibiting such artificial monstrosities to gullible fair-goers.
The mermaid is a classic, but there exists many more sideshow gaffs. Another classic is the Cardiff Giant, a huge statue carved from stone, which William Newell (and Barnum, who possessed a copy) claimed to be the remains of a petrified giant.
Other popular gaffs are called Bouncers. They're basically fake versions of pickled punks. To those unfamiliar with sideshow term, pickled punks are merely human fetuses and embryos preserved in alcohol or formaldehyde. Nowadays, pickled punks aren't legal to show on most fairs, so bouncers are much more popular.
You can also count the good ol' jackalope mount as a gaff; this popular object is simply made by attaching small antlers to a preserved hare's head.
Many people collect and create such oddities nowadays, and you can find some on eBay and etsy at prices going from 30$ to 3000$ and more.
One of the most famous sideshow gaff artists was Homer Tate. His creations were purchased by grindshow owners and curio collectors all over the USA during the 40's and 50's. created from whatever Tate could get his hands on, such as animal bones, human hair from the barbershop, paper pulp, animal glue, newspaper and shoe polish, these were very affordable, and all lovingly made by hand.
Oddities made by homer tate
They weren't the most realistic gaffs around, but still many people fell for them, and they are now priceless collector's items.
Nowadays, taxidermy is still used with great effect to create sideshow gaffs. These are not merely hoaxes anymore; they have become true works of art. One of my favorite taxidermy and gaff artists is Sarina Brewer.
This artist from Minnesota creates not only gaffs, but quality traditional taxidermy mounts for collectors and museums, jewelry, and sculptures from animal parts. I have the utmost respect for this woman, who manages to make something cute, humorous and horrific all at the same time, from naturaly and accidentally deceased animals, and without wasting a part of the original creature.
Flying monkey by Sarina Brewer
Another gaff artist of interest is the Prof. Burnaby Q. Orbax. Orbax is a talented canadian sideshow performer, who also founded Fiendish Curiosities, a small company who creates wonderfull oddities using special effects techniques, advanced casting techniques, and taxidermy. He can create everything from freakish animals, to cryptozoological specimens, to abnormal human remains. His work is amazing, and some of the smaller pieces are very affordable.
Alligator Boy by Fiendish Curiosities
Orbax's work is delightfully creepy and dare I say... slightly disgusting. Truly amazing.
A member of Craftster.org recently made me discover another very talented artist. Alex CF is an AMAZING artist, who's work has a certain stempunk or fantasy aspect to it. I'm not very familiar with his methods, but his websites truly deserves your attention.
Dante's descent into the pit by Alex CF
Finally, for more info about sideshow art and creative taxidermy, I strongly suggest you take a look at these two websites:
Sideshow World, which covers everything, past present or future, that there is to know about sideshows
Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, which is an association dedicated to presenting, sharing and preserving the art of creative taxidermy.