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St. John USVI Stories: The Mermaid

Datura Stories

In the sixteenth century, a colleague of Galileo, Giovanni Battista Porta, documented the effects of datura, a bush St. Johnians sometimes call joy juice. In 1589 he wrote that under the influence of datura "a man could sometimes be changed into a fish."

Backing up Porta's observations in the sixteenth century is the twentieth century account of John Gibney who told me the following:

It was in West End, Tortola in the early 70s and John was visiting a friend who had a small house right on the water at Sopers Hole.

Also present were a man and a young lady from the US mainland, who could be described by the standards of that era as hippies.

The mainlanders had heard about joy juice and were eager to experiment. John tried, in vain, to dissuade them. He knew that joy juice, contrary to its name, produces effects that are anything but joyful.

Nonetheless, a tea was prepared and consumed. The young lady being more adventurous drank a significantly greater quantity than her gentleman companion.

It was a dark moon night and John went outside. He was standing on the small dock, when the young lady, pupils wildly dilated and obviously firmly in the grips of the hallucinogenic drug, ran out on the dock, dove into the dark water and disappeared.

John, concerned for the lady's safety, called out, and received no answer. He ran inside to get a flashlight and to ask for help from the owner of the house, who, like John, was intelligent enough to pass on the invitation to imbibe the toxic tea.

They grabbed a powerful searchlight and ran out to the dock. They again called out the young lady's name, and still received no answer. Shining the light in all directions, they made a thorough but unsuccessful search of the area.

About ten minutes passed. Frantic by this time, the searchers were about to get in the dinghy and look further afield. Just then, the missing woman emerged from the bay, exactly at the spot where she had dived in.

She climbed up on the dock, eyes still wild and stared off into space. Seaweed hung down from the top of her head and down over her face, creating an eerie spectacle.

"What happened? Where were you?" John asked.

"Swimming with the fish," she replied.

John remains convinced to this day that the young lady never surfaced for air, that she could not have held her breath or survived for that long underwater and that she had actually become a fish, taking on that species' ability to breathe in water.

By Gerald Singer