Arthur Pember: The Mermaid Hunter Who Invented Football

The untold true story of the journalist, adventurer, and football pioneer who created the rules of soccer

Paul Brown
Soccer Stories
Published in
24 min readAug 11, 2022


Arthur Pember, The Mermaid Hunter Who Invented Football, artwork by Paul Brown

In the spring of 1872, the intrepid New York journalist Arthur Pember plunged into the cold and murky waters off Manhattan in search of mermaids. Pember was no stranger to adventure. As an undercover reporter, he investigated and exposed injustice, crime, and corruption during the “Gangs of New York” era for the city’s leading newspapers. But he never wrote about his previous life, back on the other side of the Atlantic, as the first president of the English Football Association and the inventor of the rules of the world’s favorite sport.

Arthur Pember lowered the 25-pound brass helmet onto his head, and over his remarkable mustache. He fixed the helmet to the collar of his waterproof suit with 12 nuts and bolts. The suit was made of layered canvas and India-rubber. Underneath the suit, Pember wore underpants, stockings, and a thick woolen shirt. His waterproof gloves were secured to his sleeves with brass rings. On his feet were lead-soled boots that weighed 16 pounds. A further hundred pounds of lead weight was strapped to his chest. His remarkable mustache was at least 10 inches long.

It was a pleasant April morning in 1872. Pember stood on a sloop off the southern tip of Manhattan. Through the round glass window on the front of his helmet was a paddle-steamer vision of New York Bay. The Statue of Liberty was still a figment of a Frenchman’s imagination, the Brooklyn Bridge was in its earliest underwater stages of construction, and there were no high-rises on the New York skyline. The city’s tallest structures were church spires, which, along with the masts of hundreds of sailing ships docked hull-to-hull along Manhattan’s piers, reached upward into the blue spring sky.

Pember was 38 years old, strong and intrepid. He was a journalist from England who worked as an investigative reporter for the New York Times, the Tribune and several other of the city’s publications of note. Pember was known for his adventurous stories, and there were many adventures to be found in the sprawling, overcrowded, and crime-ridden streets of lower Manhattan. As a curious outsider, he immersed himself in the depths of Reconstruction-era New York in an effort to uncover the city’s secrets. Today, on assignment for the Times, he would plunge on an unlikely quest into the murky waters of New York Bay as a deep-sea diver.

“The part of the bay in which I took my underwater stroll was that off the Battery,” he later wrote, “where the mighty currents of the Hudson and East Rivers expand into the open bay, bringing with them a rare and unique collection, consisting of dead cats and dogs, the sewage of the east and west sides of New York, the refuse of Fulton, Washington and other markets, and a variety of other interesting materials and ingredients too unsavory to dwell upon and too numerous to recapitulate.” Nevertheless, he was eager to enter the water: “I was burning with an insatiable desire to investigate Mr. Davy Jones’s Locker.”

“I was burning with an insatiable desire to investigate Mr. Davy Jones’s Locker.”

Pember was searching for the underwater creatures he had read about in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. These were ladies of the sea that Andersen described as wearing oyster shells and combing their hair with pieces of reef-coral. They were said to draw men underwater with their beauty and their song and keep them as prisoners forever. But the presence of these creatures was not confined to fairy tales. New York’s newspapers were reporting strange sightings, and a great showman was exhibiting a mysterious specimen in a glass case. Pember was searching for mermaids.

The New York press was fond of tales of mermaids in the early 1870s. The Tribune had recently reported that a “real mermaid” had been found in the sea near Japan, and was being displayed at a bazaar in Delhi. “I saw the animal and felt it with my own hands,” said the newspaper’s correspondent. “I couldn’t make out anything fictitious about it.” The Times had reported a sighting of a “supposed mermaid” by a lady and several children on a beach at Brewster, near Cape Cod. The creature had the body of a fish and a head that “resembled exactly that of a child”. The lady was terrified, but the children approached the creature and threw sand in its eyes, causing it to cry out, roll into the water, and swim off. Most notably, newspapers had published tales of P.T. Barnum, who was exhibiting around New York a curiosity known as the “Feejee Mermaid”, a desiccated half-mammal, half-fish that had apparently been found in South Pacific waters near Fiji.

Pember was too clear-minded to believe any of this could be real, but he recognized that donning the suit and helmet of the deep-sea divers and exploring the unseen world in which they operated would make for a good story. In the course of his work, he went undercover as a circus worker, a coal miner, a street hawker and — for a series of acclaimed articles — a homeless beggar living among the city’s poorest souls. He exposed bogus doctors, peep-show operators, and spirit mediums. He described slum tenements, dens of iniquity, and death row prison cells, and took on profiteering officials, ruthless gangs, and a crooked police department. He wrote about poverty, religion, domestic violence, corruption, robbery, and murder. He wrote about many things, but one thing he never wrote about was the game he had helped create in an earlier part of his life. He never wrote about football.

A decade earlier, in January 1863, Pember had stood on a wintry field in the grounds of Oaklands Hall, a gothic mansion in Kilburn, north-west London. He was among a group of young men, members of two fledgling clubs on London’s emerging football scene, dressed in an assortment of knitted jerseys, long trousers, stockings, walking boots, and caps. They worked together to drive sets of goal posts into the muddy ground at opposite ends of the field. Then a ball was thrown into the air, and they began to play.

The strapping, 28-year-old Pember was the captain of the N.N.s, which stood for “No Names”, or, according to one London newspaper, “No Nothings”. He lined up alongside two of his brothers: Edward, two years older, was a well-respected lawyer; George, just 18, was already an established footballer, having played in several “top class” matches. Other teammates included Alec Morton, who would go on to captain the England national team, and Alfred Baker, who would score England’s first international goal.

This was the N.N.s’ first game on record, and it did not attract a great deal of attention. The opponent was Barnes F.C., a team captained by a lawyer named Ebenezer Cobb Morley. The N.N.s won 4–0 on the steeply-banked field. The goal scorers aren’t recorded, nor are any other match details, although we can assume it would have been a muddily-confusing spectacle for fans of modern football. Early games such as this were played with an ox-bladder ball, on a field with no markings, by teams of indeterminate numbers, with no goalkeepers and no referee. It was football, but not soccer. Soccer — or association football — did not yet exist.

“FOOTBALL — A MEETING will be HELD at the Freemasons’ Tavern… for the purpose of promoting the adoption of a general code of rules for football.”

Football had yet to be separated into its three major codes — association, rugby, and American. Instead, there existed a multitude of different rulebooks, belonging to various towns and institutions, each containing different elements of the three codes. Cambridge University played a kicking game, while the Rugby public school (where the sport of rugby was born) allowed players to handle the ball, and matches in the town of Sheffield could be won by touchdowns. This variety of incompatible rules made it difficult for rival clubs to play each other. What was needed was a universal rulebook that would allow any club to play any other, and enable the game to expand its reach and popularity.

The N.N.s played a series of games against other London clubs over the next few months, with the rules being agreed upon in advance on a game-by-game basis. Rule negotiations could be difficult, with some clubs enjoying hacking and handling, while the N.N.s preferred a more refined kicking game. When the N.N.s played Ebenezer Cobb Morley’s Barnes for a second time, in April 1863, they won 2–0, but a third goal was disallowed after it was “technically objected to by the Barnes men”. This dispute emphasized the rulebook problem, and the two team captains Pember and Morley decided to do something about it.

In October 1863, Morley posted a small ad in London’s sporting newspapers: “FOOTBALL — A MEETING will be HELD at the Freemasons’ Tavern, Queen-street, Lincoln’s Inn, on Monday, the 26th instant, at 7 o’clock p.m., for the purpose of promoting the adoption of a general code of rules for football, when the captains of all clubs are requested to attend.”

Arthur Pember and his remarkable mustache, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874
Arthur Pember and his remarkable mustache, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874

The Freemasons’ Tavern was part of a rather grand three-story masonic temple, located in the Lincoln’s Inn legal quarter, right in the heart of Victorian London, a short walk from the hectic flower and produce markets of Covent Garden. The choice of venue may have been made by Arthur Pember — his brother Edward held offices in the Lincoln’s Inn enclave. It was in one of the Tavern’s wood-paneled meeting rooms that the captains of local clubs gathered to create the world’s greatest game.

Among the prominent captains present, alongside Pember of the N.N.s and Morley of Barnes, were John Alcock of Forest, Herbert Steward of the Crusaders, and James Turner of the original Crystal Palace club. History remembers these founders of football as old men, as they were photographed in later life, reclining in easy chairs with grey mustaches and balding heads. But in 1863 they were young and fit and were fighting for the future of a game that they personally played and enjoyed. Reflecting his high standing in the football community, Pember was invited to chair the meeting.

It had been felt desirable, Pember announced, for a universal set of rules to be adopted by all football players. There were so many different ways of playing, he explained, that when rivals met it was exceedingly difficult to “get a goal”. It was therefore proposed to form an association “for the purpose of settling a code of rules for the regulation of the game of football”.

“His idea was,” the Sporting Life newspaper reported, “that the captains of all clubs should put their names down as members of a society to be called the Football Association.”

“His idea was that the captains of all clubs should put their names down as members of a society to be called the Football Association.”

A motion to form the association was carried, and, having “put himself prominently forward”, Pember was appointed its first president. Morley was appointed secretary. Eleven clubs agreed to become founder members of the association, but not all those in attendance supported the venture. The fledgling organization faced formidable opposition, most notably from England’s public schools.

In the U.K., the term “public school” is perhaps a misnomer. The traditional public schools are elite, fee-paying institutions. They held — and still hold — great power and influence due to the proliferation of their “old boys” in high society. (Then-prime minister Lord Palmerston was an old boy of Harrow. Recent prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson are old boys of Eton. So, too, are Prince Harry and Prince William.) Steeped in tradition, the schools were fiercely protective of their unique football rulebooks and did not take kindly to outsiders proposing change.

The only public school present at the meeting was Charterhouse, represented by Bertram Fulke Hartshorne, a 19-year-old upstart, later described by a relative as “an appalling snob”. While Hartshorne declared his support for the formation of a football association, he felt the public schools should “take a prominent part”, or should be in control, and said Charterhouse would not join unless that was the case.

Pember expressed frustration that the schools were reluctant to get on board, despite the fact that a universal set of rules could only benefit all involved. Every association must have a beginning, he said, and he hoped the public schools would come around to the idea. But if they didn’t, he intended to maneuver them out of the way. Pember had seen public school men take control of many aspects of English society, and he was not about to let them take control of football.

Arthur Pember on Mont Blanc, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874
Arthur Pember on Mont Blanc, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874

Arthur Pember was not a public school man, although he was well-bred and well-educated. He was born on January 15, 1835, in Brixton, south London. This was the gas-lit London of pickpockets, poor-houses, and Pickwick clubs, as described in the novels of Charles Dickens. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Pember was educated at home by his family’s governess. Unlike his brothers, he did not attend university. Instead, he traveled across Europe, undertaking the Grand Tour — a rite of passage for privileged young Victorian men that saw him enjoy the cultural delights of Paris, Geneva, Milan, Rome, and Venice.

He embarked on the Grand Tour in 1853, at the age of 18, and enjoyed a formative adventure. “I have been on runaway horses, I have been lost in forests, I have been in terrific gales on the ocean,” he later recalled. Perhaps the most perilous part of the tour was his ascent of the actively-erupting Mount Vesuvius, during which he made a “great rush through the stifling vapors” and dodged showers of red-hot projectiles to gaze into the fiery furnace of the volcano’s crater. Two decades later he would write in the Atlantic Monthly about his Vesuvius experience, and of watching “this gigantic lava-wall moving — a doom! — toward an affrighted village”, which was thankfully spared.

While crossing the Alps during the tour, Pember was awed by the majestic peak of Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain. On a subsequent trip, he decided to climb the great “King of the Alps” with the assistance of two guides, four porters, and a white French poodle named Bouquet. Negotiating treacherous glaciers, seemingly-bottomless crevasses, and sheer ice walls, the party eventually reached the summit, where Pember collapsed unconscious into the snow. After being revived with a glass of wine, he lit up his pipe and blew clouds of tobacco smoke “into what seemed to us to be the very heavens themselves”. He was one of the first British climbers to conquer Mont Blanc.

“I have been on runaway horses, I have been lost in forests, I have been in terrific gales on the ocean.”

If the ascent was difficult, the descent proved almost impossible. Pember and his colleagues endured multiple avalanches, collapsing snow bridges, and even a hurricane. At one point, an exhausted, frost-bitten and sun-blinded Pember gave instructions to one of the guides as to how he should break the news of his death to his wife, insisting that, if possible, his body should be recovered and returned to England for burial. Finally, the men found themselves trapped on a cloud-bound glacier, with zero visibility, as a deadly thunderstorm rolled in — only to be led to safety by Bouquet the poodle.

After descending to the town of Chamonix, a crowd of 500 people gathered to greet them. Witnesses following their progress via telescope had feared they had perished. Church bells rang and shots were fired into the air. “There was a scene of joy which I will not attempt to describe,” wrote Pember. His conquering of Mont Blanc brought notoriety. “I doubt if one man in a hundred has sufficient physical strength and power of endurance to carry him to the summit of Mount Blanc,” he wrote. “I doubt if one in a thousand would attempt it if the danger and suffering which must be encountered in getting there could be thoroughly known and appreciated before determining on making an effort.”

Returning to London as something of a hero, he took a stockbroking job with his father and set up a home in Kilburn. In March 1860, Pember married Elizabeth Hoghton, the daughter of another stockbroker. Tragically, Elizabeth died just nine months later, following a miscarriage. It would not be the last tragedy to hit Pember’s family. He remarried in 1862, to 17-year-old neighbor Alice Grieve. He also cultivated a grand mustache, which was eccentrically extravagant in its dimensions, even by Victorian standards. Meanwhile, influenced by his brothers and work colleagues, Pember became involved in football.

In a series of meetings through the end of 1863, with Pember in the chair, the newly-formed Football Association began to set out its universal rulebook — christened “the Laws of the Game”. Initial discussions set the length of the field at 200 yards and the width at 100 yards — longer and wider than modern dimensions. The width of the goal posts would be eight yards, as it is today, but there would be no bar or tape across the top, meaning goals could be scored at any height. Teams would change ends after each goal, and there was no half-time, and no prescribed match length — nor a prescribed number of players.

Most notably, the initial rules allowed players to handle the ball by way of a “fair catch”, although players were not allowed to run with the ball in their hands. Handling was a divisive issue, but it was not nearly as divisive as hacking. And it was a standoff between “hackers” and “non-hackers” that threatened to tear the universal rulebook apart before it had been properly written.

The hacking argument centered around the association’s proposed Law 10: “Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed”. Hacking was defined as “kicking an adversary on the front of the leg, below the knee”. Like corporal punishment and “fagging” (where young boys were required to act as servants for older pupils), hacking was favored in the public schools, where roughhousing and bullying were accepted parts of life. Many of those who had played football at public school saw hacking as absolutely integral to the game.

“Hacking is the true football game,” claimed Blackheath captain and leading “hacker” Francis Maule Campbell, a wine merchant and public school old boy. Non-hackers, he said, did not truly appreciate the “spirit of the game which was so fully entered into at the public schools and by public school men in after life”.

But non-hacker Pember strongly disagreed. He called hacking “a very brutal practice”, and pointed out that not all public school men were hackers. He was the only member of the N.N.s who had not attended public school, he said, but his teammates were all “dead against” hacking.

“Be that as it may,” responded Campbell, “I think that if you do away with hacking you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice!” If hacking was outlawed, Campbell said, Blackheath would withdraw its membership and set up its own association.

“Success to football, irrespective of class or creed.”

Campbell’s comments provoked anger. Pember accused Campbell of blackmail, saying, “It certainly is not, in my opinion, a fair and honest way of dealing.”

Ebenezer Morley, who, like Pember, was not a public school man, said that, while he personally had nothing against hacking, it would be a “death-blow” to the association if Blackheath was allowed to have its way.

Campbell requested an adjournment to the meeting so he could get representatives of the public schools to support his argument. But Pember was not about to allow that to happen. He pushed through an immediate vote, and hacking was banned.

Blackheath quit the Football Association in protest. Pember admitted from the chair that the other public schools were unlikely to give up their own rulebooks, and said that the association would have to get by without them. Charterhouse, Eton, Rugby and the others continued to play their own idiosyncratic games. Only the latter school’s game would go on to gain any form of widespread popularity.

After five meetings, the Laws of the Game were settled, and it was arranged for sports outfitter John Lillywhite to publish them in a small booklet, to be sold for a shilling a copy. Pember congratulated his fellow members on having achieved their goal “after very considerable labor”, and said he sincerely hoped the rules would be found to work well. He had no doubt that when the Laws were published many new parties would decide to join the association.

The first official game under the new rules — the first official game of association football — was played on January 9, 1864, in Battersea Park, between the President’s side, captained by Pember, and the Secretary’s side, captained by Morley. Both captains “especially distinguished themselves” in a game that Pember’s team won 2–0. The goals were scored by 20-year-old Charlie William (C.W.) Alcock, the brother of Forest captain John Alcock. In the evening, the members of the Football Association dined together at the Grosvenor Hotel on Buckingham Palace Road. As President, Pember raised a toast: “Success to football, irrespective of class or creed.” The toast was heartily drunk.

Arthur Pember as the Amateur Vagabond, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874
Arthur Pember as the Amateur Vagabond, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874

Pember continued to play for and captain the N.N.s, and also played for Wanderers, an influential touring side. He also had the honor, in 1866, of captaining a London representative team in a match against Sheffield. London won the match, played under a curious hybrid of London and Sheffield rules, by two goals and four touchdowns to none.

In 1867, Pember ceded the presidency of the Football Association to Ebenezer Morley. Young C.W. Alcock became secretary. In subsequent years, Alcock would rise to the top of the Football Association as it expanded its membership base and refined its rules. Handling was outlawed, field dimensions were refined, crossbars were added, and the 90-minute, 11-versus-11 format was defined. Alcock instigated the FA Cup competition, arranged the first international matches, and pushed through the legalization of professionalism, precipitating the formation of the Football League. Although he had not been directly involved in the formation of the Football Association or the creation of the Laws of the Game, it is C.W. Alcock, not Arthur Pember, who has come to be remembered as the Father of Football.

Meanwhile, the public schools continued to play their own separate games. Blackheath and its fellow hackers got behind the Rugby school rulebook and formed a rival association, the Rugby Football Union. In the U.S., college teams took elements from the association and rugby games and began to develop their own code of football. Back in England, at Oxford University, an association football enthusiast and future England captain named Charles Wreford-Brown was credited with creating the abbreviated term “soccer”.

Pember still turned out occasionally for the N.N.s, but his footballing days were coming to an end. His work as a stockbroker, it seemed, was unfulfilling, and a new challenge was required. In 1868, he took the typically-adventurous decision to immigrate with his family to the U.S. That summer, Pember, his wife Alice, and their two sons left London and football behind and boarded a steam-powered ocean liner for New York.

After setting up home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Pember toured the lecture circuit with his well-received adventure talk “Up and Down Mont Blanc”. He began to write, for the New York Standard, then the Tribune, and the Times, contributing descriptive sketches of workplaces and other institutions that gradually took on an investigative nature, and eventually became undercover exposés. He became known for wearing disguises — despite the giveaway nature of his distinctive mustache — and was often published semi-anonymously under his initials, “A.P.”, and, after his popular undercover series on down-and-outs, “the Amateur Vagabond”.

Pember braved criminal gangs and a corrupt police force to lay bare the scam of New York’s panel-houses, where clients were lured by promises of prostitution and gambling before being beaten and robbed. Pember wrote about panel-houses in 1871 and was later called to testify in front of a legislative committee. “I walked the streets night after night, and found the location of several panel-houses, the names of the girls in each, and the names of the owners of the houses,” he said. He never saw the police take any action against the house operators and had “no hesitation in saying that the officers were in league with the thieves”.

On another occasion, he got himself arrested to investigate the brutal and dehumanizing conditions at New York’s corrupt federal prison, the Ludlow Street Jail. His reporting was directly responsible for the clearing of the jail, an “execrable relic of the dark ages”, removing victims of debt and other innocents from its squalid confines. “Thank heaven imprisonment for debt is once more abolished here,” said the Buffalo Daily Courant, “and let us also thank Arthur Pember, the enterprising and daring journalist.” Pember was praised by the same newspaper for exposing the sale of rotten and diseased meat by a city-wide network of more than 150 “delinquent butchers”. Pember, the newspaper said, “attacks the specialty of abuses like a terrier after rats”.

“If one will only take the trouble he can find out something good even among the professional beggars of New York.”

His interest in crime and punishment drew him to another prison, the dank and dilapidated municipal House of Detention commonly known as “the Tombs”, which housed the city’s ill-famed Murderers’ Row. Pember wrote about one prisoner’s unsuccessful appeal against a death sentence, then described the unnamed man’s execution by hanging. Pember, unable to say whether the death had been caused by a broken neck or strangulation, was traumatized by the “dire tragedy”. “I saw it all,” he wrote. “I could not help it. I could no more have taken my eyes from that dying man than I could have taken his place on the gallows.”

According to a colleague, Pember had “a willingness to risk his life when desirous of exposing vice and villainy to the glare of sunlight”. One summer evening, he was brutally assaulted by three assailants while walking through City Hall Park. Despite receiving “a severe beating”, he fought back, knocking two of the attackers down, and chasing all three of them away. It was reported that the assault was intended to be revenge for the publication of “attacks on private character” in the New York Sun, a newspaper that Pember did not write for. (It was thought that he had been mistaken for Sun editor Charles Anderson Dana.)

In March 1872, the month before his deep-sea dive, Pember wrote in the Times about a grand dinner party he had arranged for a group of impoverished beggars, in an effort to humanize them for readers who might otherwise have only viewed them as nuisances. The lively and eloquent attendees at this “Beggars’ Banquet” included Cully the Codger, Cock-eyed Sarah, Mickey the Fish, String-o-Beans, Big-headed Ida, Wooden-legged Jerry, and One-armed Nelson. The latter had lost an arm in a fight but cheerfully remarked that it only took one arm to grind an organ. Pember was charmed by the grace and wit of his dinner guests. “Nothing is all bad,” he concluded, “and if one will only take the trouble he can find out something good even among the professional beggars and bummers of New York.”

The “Beggars’ Banquet” was one of Pember’s most popular articles. It was excerpted in newspapers in London, described as “an interesting, graphic and humorous account of a dinner given by the writer to the riff-raff of New York”. On the same day that the article was published in New York, newspapers in London carried reports of the first FA Cup Final, played on March 16, 1872, and won 1–0 by Wanderers — one of Pember’s former clubs, now captained by C.W. Alcock. It was a historic match that helped establish the Laws of the Game as football’s definitive rulebook. The man who helped write the rulebook continued to mix with the “beggars and bummers” across the Atlantic. A few weeks later, he would find himself on a sloop off Manhattan, searching for mythical ladies of the deep.

Arthur Pember as the Amateur Prisoner, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874
Arthur Pember as the Amateur Prisoner, adapted from Mysteries and Miseries, 1874

Pember stepped over the side of the sloop and climbed down the short ladder that hung from the boat’s gunwale. Gradually he slipped into the water until fully immersed. It was then that he felt a terrific stab of pain to his head. “I felt as though someone had run an iron rod clean through my head from one ear to the other,” he later wrote. The pain — caused by the pressure of compressed air being forced into his helmet — only increased as he sank lower and lower into the deep: “It seemed as though my cranium must explode, like an engine boiler, and that the drums of my ears would certainly burst.”

He was about to pull the signal rope to be hauled back up to the boat when his feet touched the river bottom. “I stood perfectly still for a while,” he wrote, “and the pressure on the brain from the compressed air soon began to decrease.” Then he began to hear what he thought was the faint sound of music. But, to his disappointment, it was not the “dulcet and harmonious” tones of a “mermaid on a dolphin’s back”. It was simply a ringing in his ears caused by the build-up of pressure. So, gathering his senses, he began to explore the depths.

Pember’s exploration was a product of a public fascination with mermaids that had, in particular, been stoked by P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. Described by the Times as “a codfish and a monkey in equal proportions”, the Barnum exhibit became one of history’s most famous hoaxes. In 1869, during a court hearing surrounding another hoax (a photograph alleged to show the ghost of Abraham Lincoln), Barnum was asked about the Feejee Mermaid. “The mermaid, at the time I exhibited it, was represented to the public to be exactly as it was represented to me,” he said, later confessing, “I may have given a little drapery with it sometimes.”

If Pember did not expect to find mermaids, he did at least hope to see fish, or, he admitted, “dead bodies”. But he was astonished by his total inability to see anything at all in the murky depths. “I could not even see my hand when I put it before the glass window in the helmet,” he wrote. After a few minutes of “groping blindly in the darkness”, Pember pulled the signal rope, and was raised swiftly onto the boat, where his helmet was removed: “What a long breath I drew!”

“I can vouch for the fact that there are no mermaids in New York Bay, at least not in that part of it which I explored,” he wrote. “If anyone will take the trouble to follow my example, and go see for himself, I think he will agree with me that the bottom of New York Bay is about the last place in the oceanic world which the mermaids would select for their marine residence; that is if they were proper-minded mermaids.”

“The bottom of New York Bay is about the last place in the oceanic world which the mermaids would select for their marine residence.”

Pember’s deep-sea dive was among the last assignments he took for the New York press. In 1874, he published a collection of his writing, The Mysteries and Miseries of the Great Metropolis, With Some Adventures in the Country: Being the Disguises and Surprises of a New-York Journalist, credited to “A.P., the Amateur Vagabond”. “I have submitted to many inconveniences and faced dangers while pursuing my adventures,” he wrote in the preface, “but how could I possibly pen sketches from real life had I not been ready to do so?” The book was well-reviewed. The Times said each chapter was “a brilliant picture of actual life”. The Post commended it as “a book of moral character and absorbing interest”.

But the book’s release was overshadowed by tragedy. A new-born son, Geoffrey, died in July 1872. Another son, Valentine, was born in May 1874 and died three months later. Twin daughters Mabel and Alice were born in May 1875 and died within days of each other that July. Pember continued to write occasionally for the Times and also worked at the Museum of Natural History. He and Alice had three more sons, who survived. Then, in 1881, Alice died of typhoid, aged 36. Left alone to care for his five remaining sons, Pember himself became sick. A colleague from the Daily Graphic wrote that Pember was told by a doctor that “if he did not cease pumping his brains into a daily paper, his heart would soon stop pumping blood to his brains”.

So, in 1884, Pember took his sons and headed into the mid-west, to set up a farm in LaMoure, North Dakota. He began work on a new book, Twenty Years in New York Journalism. It would never be published. Arthur Pember died on April 3, 1886, aged 50.

In the week before his death, the Times reported a meeting of area football clubs “playing according to association rules” for the purpose of forming a New York football association. Pember’s universal rulebook had followed him over the Atlantic. But his role in its creation had already been forgotten.

“Formerly a writer on the New York press… he was an Englishman by birth,” read his short Times obituary. “His death was the result of kidney difficulties, supplemented by blood poisoning from a carbuncle in the lumbar region.” There was no mention of mermaids, or Mont Blanc, or remarkable mustaches. There was no mention of football.⬧

With thanks to George Quraishi, David Gendelman, and Dennie Wendt.

A version of this story was originally published in Howler.

Thanks for reading! The best way to support my writing and help me write more stories like this is to share it with friends. You can also sign up for my newsletter, read my books, or buy me a coffee. Click here for more — Paul.



Paul Brown
Soccer Stories

Writes about history, true crime, adventure. Author of The Rocketbelt Caper, The Ruhleben Football Association, and The Tyne Bridge.