Robert Ripley’s life was an unbelievable adventure. For 35 years he explored the uncanny and witnessed the amazing. His Believe It or Not! cartoon teemed with incredible – but proven – phenomena every day. Called a liar more often than any man who ever lived, Ripley never failed to establish the truth of every assertion.
Ripley was an artist, a reporter, an explorer, and a collector. The stories he gathered, illustrated by Ripley himself, would later appear in his popular newspaper cartoon feature Believe It or Not! Today the venerable cartoons are still enjoyed by millions of readers worldwide.
He was a world traveler who visited more than 200 countries seeing places few people had even heard of, from the tombs of the Ming Emperors in China, to a town called Hell in Norway!
Wherever Ripley went, he searched for the odd and the unusual. In his quest, he documented the customs and beliefs of many ancient and exotic modern civilizations. Whenever possible he brought home artifacts from his journeys, which today form the heart of the greatest collection of oddities ever assembled. Today these artifacts can be seen in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums around the world. Every year millions of people visit these museums to take part in an adventure, one in which they experience first hand the incredible world of Robert Ripley!
The Ripley Story
The Ripley story begins on Christmas Day 1890 when Robert Leroy Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, Calif. A talented self-taught artist, Ripley sold his first drawing to Life magazine when he was only 18!
Ripley was also a natural athlete, and his first love was baseball. He played semi-pro ball for several years, but his dream of pitching in the Big Leagues was shattered when he broke his arm during a New York Giants spring training game. After the accident, Ripley was forced to take his art more serious; his hobby would become his occupation and his life work.
He worked first for newspapers in San Francisco but left for the bright lights of New York City during the winter of 1912.
The Birth of an American Axiom
On a slow day in December 1918, while working as a sports cartoonist for the New York Globe, Ripley created his first collection of odd facts and feats. The sketches, based on unusual athletic achievements, were initially entitled “Champs and Chumps,” but after much deliberation, Ripley changed the title to Believe It or Not! The cartoon was an enormous instant success. The rest is history and the phrase Believe It or Not! is used by just about everyone – just about every day.
Starting in 1914 with a trip to Belgium and France, travel became Ripley’s lifelong obsession. During his career he visited 201 countries, circumnavigating the globe twice, and traveling a total distance equal to 18 complete trips around the world.
In 1922-23 he traveled to the Orient, crossing through Japan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and India. He wrote about what he saw and experienced, and his “diary” was published back home in syndicated daily installments.
Ripley felt particularly drawn to China. He found Chinese culture to be fascinating, and he adopted many Chinese customs. For most of his life he preferred to entertain dressed in Chinese robes and he typically served his guests elaborate Chinese feasts. At one point early in his career he signed his name “Rip Li” and later in his life he acquired an authentic Chinese junk, which he used as his pleasure craft and it became his home away from home.
Ripley was nicknamed “the Modern Marco Polo” by the Duke of Windsor and his travels took him to the four corners of the world. On one trip alone, he crossed two continents and covered 24,000 miles – 15,000 miles by air, 8,000 miles by ship and more than 1,000 miles by camel, donkey and horse!
70 Years of Book Publishing
Ripley’s early cartoons, a collection of oddities found on his journeys, were first published in book form by Simon & Schuster in 1929. Believe It or Not! by Ripley, sold more than 500,000 copies and was on the bestseller list for months; it would stay in print for nearly 40 years.
Today, if all the Believe It or Not! books ever published – well over 100 titles – were stacked one upon another, the total number of books sold would be more than 300 times as tall as New York City’s Empire State Building!
In 1929, after signing on as a syndicated cartoonist with King Features, part of the William Randolph Hearst newspaper empire, Ripley’s salary rocketed from $10,000 to $100,000 a year. A legend was born and Ripley would soon become the first cartoonist to make a million dollars a year.
At the height of his popularity, the Believe It or Not! feature was carried in more than 360 newspapers around the world, was translated into 17 different languages and had a daily readership of 80 million people!
The response from his readers, many demanding proof of his unbelievable statements, was equally incredible. One cartoon alone, published in 1927, in which Ripley stated that Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane, drew 170,000 letters!
This cartoon made Ripley so famous that postmen forwarded his mail even without a full address. Envelopes simply addressed, “To Rip” or “To the World’s Biggest Liar” were all delivered. One man even sent a letter written in a microscopic code that could only be deciphered with a magnifying glass.
The bizarre forms of addresses and the sheer volume of mail was enough for the U. S. Postmaster General to issue a decree in 1930: “…mail to Ripley would not be delivered if the address was incomplete or indecipherable.” The law had little effect, however; “Rip-o-mania” was sweeping the world.
A Ripley contest to find unbelievable stories that ran in more than 100 newspapers for two weeks in 1932 drew 1,750,000 entries. A decade later, a contest dedicated to the war effort brought in 19,712,213 responses! A survey conducted in 1936 found that Ripley’s cartoons were the most popular feature in any paper and had a greater readership than even front-page news. Ripley himself was voted the most popular man in America, above movie stars, sports figures and even President Roosevelt.
Three linguistic experts and a dozen researchers worked with painstaking precision to verify every unbelievable fact. His huge collection of artifacts, most of which are still in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums across the world, was assembled when he began bringing items back from his extensive travels just to prove the authenticity of his bizarre and outlandish claims.
Ripley’s fans included the rich, the poor, the famous and people of all ages. His most famous fan, however, was a man who made it his life’s mission to try and prove Ripley a liar! Wayne Harbour, a postal worker of Bedford, Iowa, was an intrepid letter writer. For 26 years he wrote letters to people featured in the Believe It or Not! cartoon attempting to find factual errors.
Believe it or not he wrote more than 22,000 letters, but never received a single reply that contradicted one of Ripley’s statements! Upon his death, Harbour’s widow donated his vast collection of correspondence – more than 80 cartons – to the Ripley archives. Today Harbour’s life work has been preserved and can be seen in Ripley museums around the world.
Another famous Ripley fan, who would later settle in Ripley’s hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif., was the late Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” cartoons. Charles Schulz’s first ever-published drawing, a sketch of a certain dog that would later become famous as “Snoopy,” appeared in the Believe It or Not! cartoon panel of Feb. 22, 1937.
The Broadcasting Pioneer
During the 1930s and 40s Ripley’s stories of the odd and unusual entered millions of living rooms across America via radio. Ripley pioneered “on-location” broadcasts from the strangest locales and performed many “firsts” in the history of radio. He was the first person to broadcast from ship to shore, the first to broadcast from Australia to America, and the first to broadcast around the world simultaneously using a corps of translators. He interviewed a handler of poisonous snakes from a snake pit in Florida and a daredevil skydiver in Georgia while falling 12,000 feet before opening his parachute. He went behind Niagara Falls and to the bottom of a shark tank.
He went underground in the Carlsbad Caverns, down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and he even dragged his staff and equipment to the North Pole! He interviewed accident survivors, baseball legends, politicians, and on one Christmas Eve he even interviewed a man named Santa Claus and a woman named Merry Christmas!
In 1938 on perhaps his most memorable show, he described for his listeners the dramatic, live performance of one Kuda Bux, an Indian firewalker. A 20-foot ditch was dug in a parking lot outside Radio City in New York and filled with fiery coals. Twenty-four hours later with the temperature inside the pit at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, Kuda Bux walked across the pit not once, but twice! When examined by Ripley and a team of doctors it was found that Bux had absolutely no injuries.
During other broadcasts Ripley recalled his adventures in exotic lands and the curious people he encountered. His radio show, which started as a weekly show but at times was aired nightly, was one of the most popular radio shows of all time and was on the air for 14 consecutive years (1930-1944).
World War II changed the world of radio and ushered in the age of television. Ripley, always a risk-taking pioneer, was up to the challenges of the exciting new medium. In 1948 he created a television pilot based on one of his most popular radio shows, the story of Grimaldi the melancholy clown. The pilot was a great success and led in 1949 to Ripley being given one of the very first regularly scheduled weekly television series.
The show featured Ripley interviewing celebrities and subjects of Believe It or Not! cartoons. It also showed him drawing his cartoons and discussing his favorite unusual artifacts. Some segments were filmed in his palatial BION Island mansion and others were filmed in his downtown Manhattan studio apartment. The grind of a weekly TV show soon took its toll, however, and Ripley had a heart attack on air during Episode 13. He died in a hospital three days later. Ironically his last broadcast concerned the origins of the military death song “Taps.”
The show continued after his death with guest MCs for two full seasons. Believe It or Not! has returned to television in three different formats since, including the latest incarnation beginning in January 2000 starring Dean Cain and Kelly Packard, a series that ran for four seasons and produced 88 different episodes.
Ripley the Collector
Ripley was married briefly early in his career to a Ziegfeld Follies girl, but by the 1930s he was living up to his reputation as America’s most eligible bachelor, a man about town who thrived on activity and relished all things strange. His personality in many ways was as unusual as the stories and objects he collected.
A colleague once said that “the most curious object in the Ripley collection is probably Mr. Ripley himself.” He drew his cartoon every day between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. – often drawing it upside down! He dressed in mismatching bright colors and patterns (his best friend Bugs Baer once described his wardrobe as looking like a paint factory had exploded in his closet), wore bow ties and two-toned spat shoes.
Ripley was a contradiction. He collected cars, but never learned to drive and though he regularly used complicated sound and recording equipment for his broadcasts, associates noted that he was afraid to use the telephone for fear he would be electrocuted! He was a non-swimmer, but he lived on an island and had an odd assortment of boats, including dugout canoes from Panama, a gondola from Venice and an authentic Chinese junk, that he named Mon Lei.
His museum-like homes, one in Florida and two in New York, were filled with artifacts he brought back from his travels. At his palatial 34 room BION (Believe It or Not!) Island home in Mamaroneck, New York, there were hundreds of Chinese statues and wall hangings, Indian totem poles, a huge collection of beer steins, weapons of torture from Germany, colossus Oriental bronze guardian statues, a 20-foot pet python and even Cyclops, his beloved one-eyed dog.
The 1930s and 40s were the Golden Age of Ripley. The phrases “Believe It or Not!” and “That’s one for Rip” had become a part of everyday speech. In small towns and big cities across North America people filled movie theaters and vaudeville halls to hear his lectures and to see his films. Starting in 1931, Ripley created 23 of the earliest sound movie shorts for Vitaphone Pictures, later owned by RKO.
Virtually self-educated, he was the author of three best selling books, the holder of three honorary PhD titles from esteemed colleges, and a millionaire to boot! The shy young man born of poor farmers in a small town in California had become a celebrated public figure – a rock star of his era.
Odditoriums – Palaces of Curiosities and Wonder
In 1933 nearly two million people visited Ripley’s first “Odditorium” at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Inside the museum were dozens of Ripley’s famous cartoons and hundreds of strange artifacts from every corner of the globe, like human bone outfits from Tibet, medieval chastity belts from Europe, and the featured exhibit, an amazing life-size self-portrait of Japanese artist Hananuma Masakichi who created his own image for his fiancée after learning he was ill with tuberculosis. The sculpture, consisting of hundreds of tiny interlocking pieces of wood so skillfully dovetailed and joined as to avoid detection, is anatomically correct down to the smallest detail and includes the artist’s own hair and fingernails.
Amongst the rarest curiosities in the collection of unbelievable artifacts was a pair of shrunken heads from Ecuador, one of which Ripley received in the mail with a note saying:
“Please take good care of this. I think it is one of my relatives!”
What was once a common practice amongst the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, the shrinking of human heads was a ritual that had been handed down from one generation to another. The heads of slain enemies were valued as war trophies and symbols of bravery. When a fighter killed his enemy, the victim’s head was cut off. The skin was then peeled away from the skull and hot stones and sand were poured into the cavity. The head was sewn shut and boiled in herbs until it shrunk to the size of a fist. It was then smoked over an open fire to darken and harden it while ceremonial dances, songs, and feasts were performed-often for as long as three days.
In addition to artifacts, the first odditorium also featured a wide assortment of the strangest live performers ever gathered under one roof, characters like Alfred Langevin who could blow up balloons with his eyes, Joe Laurello, “the Human Owl,” who could twist his head 180 degrees, and Sam Simpson who could put a baseball in his mouth and sing at the same time!
The first “odditorium” was such a success that throughout the 1930s traveling trailer shows would appear in Detroit, St. Louis and Washington D.C. and permanent shows would be the hits of world’s fairs and expositions at San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco and ultimately on Broadway in New York City in 1939. The first permanent Ripley museum opened in St. Augustine, Fla. in 1950, a year after Ripley died.
When he died on May 27, 1949, thousands lined the streets of New York to watch as his body was sent by rail back to his native California. But Ripley’s legacy is still alive and well today in newspapers, books, museums, TV shows, film, on the web AND in one of the most popular and oft repeated phrases in the English language: Believe It or Not!