Robert Ripley grew up at the turn of the century in Santa Rosa, a small town in Northern California. A shy, athletic kid, he dropped out of high school partway through his senior year and signed on as a pitcher for a semi-pro baseball team. But Ripley also happened to be a good artist. One afternoon a journalist saw one of the posters he drew for his baseball team and was so impressed that he helped Ripley land a job as a sports cartoonist with the San Francisco Bulletin. From there, Ripley went to the San Francisco Chronicle and then to the New York Globe.
Ripley’s job at the Globe, like the one he had at the Bulletin, was to draw cartoons depicting sporting events. One day in 1918, however, there wasn’t anything to draw, so he drew a cartoon about sports oddities, including a man who hopped 100 yards in 11 seconds, one who held his breath underwater for 6-1/2 minutes, and another who jumped rope 11,800 times without stopping. Ripley gave the cartoon the title “Champs and Chumps” and submitted it to his editor.
The editor liked the idea, but not the title, because, he said, “These guys aren’t really champs or chumps.” Ripley changed it to “Believe It or Not!” The cartoon was printed on December 19, 1918, and was so popular that the editor asked Ripley to draw some more just like it.
Believe It or Not! started out as an occasional feature in Ripley’s cartoon, but as it became increasingly popular, it became a weekly and then a daily feature, then branched out from sports trivia to include information on just about every subject. Over the years, there were over 340 different categories, including animals, architecture, records, occupations, religion, mineral and vegetable oddities, people who did weird things or had weird skills, puzzles, math, survival stories, coincidences, and, of course, sports.
By the mid-‘20s, Ripley’s column appeared in several dozen papers around the U.S. But his big break came in 1927. Shortly after Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic, Ripley wrote that Lindy was “the 67th man to make a nonstop flight over the Atlantic Ocean.” The statement was true – Lindbergh was simply the first to make the trip alone – but it infuriated people. Ripley got 170,000 letters denouncing him for picking on America’s #1 hero. The publicity made his new Believe It or Not! book a bestseller and Ripley a national celebrity.
In 1929, William Randolph Hearst signed him to a 4100,000-a-year contract that included his newspaper column, a weekly radio show, and 26 film shorts. Within a couple of years, Ripley’s name became a household word. His column appeared in 325 newspapers in 33 different countries, and that, combined with the profits from his numerous bestselling Believe It or Not! books, earned him as much as $1 million a year. He spent the money as fast as it came in, living in high style and making highly publicized trips all over the world in search of new oddities.
Ripley’s success made him a record-holder in his own right: in his lifetime he would become the world’s most highly paid journalist, the most traveled man on earth, and the man who received more mail than any other human being in history. His celebrity and his globetrotting ways so impressed the Duke of Windsor that he reportedly dubbed Ripley “The Modern Marco Polo.”
One of the ways Ripley popularized his column was through a series of locally run contests, which he encouraged readers to send in their own Believe It or Not! experiences for possible use in his column. The contests generated an average of 3,500 letters a day (1 million a year) over Ripley’s entire 30-year career. (One contest generated more than 250,000 letters in under two weeks.) Hundreds of the letters made it into his pages. “His fans specialized in creative correspondence,” Smithsonian magazine wrote in 1995. “Letters were addressed in Morse Code, sign language, and Confederate Civil War code. They composed on tin, wood, turkey bones, and , in one case, on a grain of rice. Some were addressed to ‘the biggest liar in the world,’ while others bore a rippling line or were simply torn – ripped – to signify ‘Ripley.’”
In many ways, Ripley was as unusual as the people who appeared in his column. He dressed wildly and colorfully, preferring two-toned shoes, batwing ties, hounds-tooth jackets, and Chinese robes to ordinary clothing (one acquaintance from his baseball days described him as looking like “a paint factory that got hit by lightning”). He lived in three different residences – a 28-room Long Island mansion he named BION (short for Believe It or Not), a duplex in Manhattan’s central Park West, and a Florida estate – each of which was crammed so full of his oddities that a biographer accused him of “confusing tonnage with taste.”
Ripley was selective about his excesses. He shunned gambling and smoking, but lived with groups of four or more women, rotating them in and out of his “harem” as his whim dictated. Friends credit the women with keeping him young, but blame alcohol and overwork for sending him to an early grave. Ripley died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 56. He was buried beside his parents in – appropriately enough – Santa Rosa’s Odd Fellows Cemetery. His books are still in print, and his column still appears in nearly 200 newspapers around the world.
Believe It or Not!
According to Ripley Entertainment, Inc., Ripley drew his cartoons between the hours of 7 AM and 11 AM – and drew them all while hanging upside down.
Ripley had a lasting impact on American culture. For example: In 1920, he wrote that the United States still did not have an official national anthem. More than 5 million shocked Americans signed petitions asking Congress to designate one, and in 1931 “The Star-Spangled Banner” was picked.
In 1933, Ripley reported that no one had yet been able to invent a machine that could twist pretzels into the curvy shape that bakers had been twisting them for centuries. A few months later, a Pennsylvania company called the Redding Pretzel Machine Corp. patented the world’s first pretzel-twisting machine.
In 1937, a 12-year-old boy sent in a drawing of his hunting dog, which he said “eats pins, tacks, screws, and razorblades.” The boy’s name was Charles Shulz. . .and the dog he drew later became the inspiration for Snoopy, in the Peanuts comic strip.
In 1940, Ripley broadcast a radio show while riding the rapids in the Grand Canyon. He was accompanied by a 31-year-old announcer for the Phoenix radio station that broadcast Ripley’s show in Arizona. His name? Barry Goldwater – future U.S. senator.
Ripley liked to boast that he never made any mistakes in his column, and for years he offered to prove the accuracy of any entry. Even so, he did make some errors. “There were. . .maybe one or two a year,” says Edward Meyer, the president of Ripley Entertainment, Inc. “Ripley believed that if he had something in print it was gospel, and if he didn’t have it in writing he tried to get a photograph. He could never substantiate his claim about the 254-year-old man (whose name, appropriately, was Li Yung). The note in the file says ‘can’t answer.’”
In 1933, Ripley opened a museum of oddities, which he called an “Odditorium,” as part of Chicago’s century of Progress World’s Fair. The exhibit was packed with his drawings, thousands of unusual artifacts, and also had dozens of live performers. As Mark Sloan writes in You’ll Never Believe It,
More than two million people passed through the Odditorium doors in 1933. Inside they witnessed contortionists, fireproof people, razor-blade eaters, sword swallowers, eye poppers, and other live attractions. . .Viewers fainted by the dozens at the Chicago Odditorium, yet it was one of the most heavily visited of all the World’s Fair attractions during the two-year run of the Century of Progress.
Ripley was so inspired by the success of the exhibit that he began opening museums all over the country. Today, there are 19 Ripley museums in eight different countries around the world.
Ripley was particularly despised by Iowa Postmaster Wayne Harbour, who was so convinced that Ripley’s columns were erroneous that he wrote an average of one letter a day for more than 26 years to people mentioned in the column – more than 22,700 letters in total. Of them, 10,363 wrote back. . .and not a single one contradicted the claims Ripley had made in his column.