Robert Ripley: Believe Him... or Not?
by Jeff Wagg
Robert Ripley has come to the American consciousness once again, some 65 years after his death. A book by Neil Thompson and a PBS special tell the tale of a gangly kid with a talent for cartooning who made it big with a little help from Randolph Hearst.
But the basic question remains… can we actually believe it, or not?
Ripley got his start as a cartoonist reporting on sports. He'd pick one event from the night's contest, and recreate it a single panel cartoon. One day when he couldn't find anything to focus on, he wrote a panel called "Champs and Chumps" that featured several small illustrations, each with a one word sentence explaining something about them. They seem tame by today's standards:
And so on. And from there, an empire was born. But it's important to note this origin for one specific reason—Ripley was drawing about things that actually happened, at least if the newswire was to be believed. From the very start, Ripley was focussing on facts.
The "Champs and Chumps" piece was the most popular thing he'd done, and as time went on he did more pieces like that, and started including non-sports items. When some doubt was thrown his way as to whether these things were true, he decided to call the strip Believe it or Not!
One of his most provocative pieces celebrated Charles Lindbergh as the 67th man to cross the Atlantic by air without any stops. The 67th? His office received a blizzard of protests that Ripley was besmirching the image of man who many viewed as a hero. But was he right? As it turns out, yes he was. Lindbergh’s accomplishment wasn’t crossing the Atlantic, it was crossing the Atlantic by himself. 66 other people had accomplished the task before him, all but two of those aboard dirigibles. Ripley used this incident to simply prove to his growing readership that everything he published was the truth. He once said in an interview:
I think mine is the only business in which the customer is never right. Being called untruthful is to me a compliment. And as long as I continue to receive the lion’s share of this odd form of flattery, I don’t worry about a wolf being at my door.
Later, Ripley would adopt as a tagline the provocative phrase "I dare you to prove me wrong." Beneath some of his cartoons were the words "Full proof and details on request." And yet it's estimated that Ripley's office received an average of 3,000 letters a month. It's hard to imagine that every letter could be answered, let alone proof provided.
There is some evidence that Ripley did lie about things on occasion, at least about his personal life. He reported his birthdate as 1891, 1892 and 1893, when it was actually 1890. He boasted of his extensive education, which would have to have been self-taught since he dropped out of high school and never graduated. But for his oddities, he always had a least a nugget of truth.
Whenever possible, Ripley would collect items not only for his personal edification, but also to say "See? I told you this was real." His home was a veritable museum, and at the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago, Ripley opened his first "Odditorium," where many of his objects were displayed. Visitors were hustled in side-show style, and marveled at items like shrunken heads, foreign art and deformed animals. A bed was provided for those who fainted at the experience of seeing such "real" things.
But it's one thing to show a shrunken head, and it's another to explain how it came to be. While we know today that there was head shrinking in South America as recent as the 19th century, Ripley wouldn't bother with any details other than the simple one sentence description that also accompanied his drawings. His model seemed to be: state the fact, and leave the details to someone else.
This of course gave him a great defense—he didn't have to prove anything other than the fact that such a thing existed. In a recent trip to Ecuador, I was able to speak with a museum attendant who explained that shrunken heads were not common until European tourists wanted to collect them. Such a fact would not have made it into Ripley's pages.
Much of Ripley's content came from readers, who would send a photo of themselves with a 12 foot mustache or tap dancing on the back of a cow. (I made those up, but you get the idea). For these, Ripley's proof was simply the fact that someone had said they had done or witnessed these things. We have no record of what actual research was done to verify these claims, but Ripley was insulated by the fact that they weren't actually his claims, but those of his readers.
Ripley's claim of truth also had a secret weapon in the form of a polyglottal Jewish man who spent most of his life at the New York Public Library. Fluent in eleven languages, Norbert Pearlroth's job was to provide Ripley with dozens of curiosities each week. He'd spend his days poring through books and periodicals trying to find items suitable for Ripley's cartoons. Not only did he find the items, he was also responsible for finding the "interest" in some of the pieces, such as the fact that there are 21 …different ways to spell the syllable "san” in French.
If someone were to dispute one of Ripley's oddities, all he'd have to do was point back to Pearlroth and say "This man researched it and here's his evidence." Should Pearlroth have proven unworthy, he could have been sacked, thus proving Ripley's committment to the truth. But in fact, Pearlroth labored for Ripley about sixty hours a week for 52 years, half of those after Ripley's own death. As a side note, I feel it's important to point out that the bulk of Ripley's content came from Pearlroth, and he never received a single credit save one in 50th anniversary book. He was let go in 1976 without a pension, bonus, or even a mention.
Let's take a close at one amazing story found in the annals of Believe it or Not! as published on January 12, 1941. There is an image of a ship about to be struck by a fireball. The text reads as follows:
This is one of the more famous Believe it or Nots, and it's found even in the Believe it or Not! pinball machine, of all places. But is it true?
First, you'll note that there's not much to go on. We have a ship named Eclipse—of which there have been a great many—no date, and a location of "mid-Pacific." We also have three dead men, and that's possibly enough to identify the incident.
As reported in the Marlborough Express of Queenstown, New Zealand on April 29, 1908, a sailing ship named Eclipse was on it's way from Newcastle to San Francisco when it encountered a storm and three lives were lost. Ok, that covers the ship name, the mid-Pacific and the dead men. What of the meteor?
Here are the paragraphs verbatim:
Ok, we'll forgive the use of the word "meteor." The proper term is "meteorite," as "meteor" refers only to the light in the sky. But consider what we've just been told? A crew of men trying to save their ship in a hurricane, beneath a sky filled with lightning, saw a meteorite streak through the sky, smash into the top of one of the masts and through the deck. Impossible? No. Unlikely? Yes. Wouldn't a simpler explanation be that lightning hit the mast and it is actually what fell and crashed though the hull?
Also, the report mentions that the three deaths weren't due to the meteorite strike directly, but rather from exposure and starvation afterwards.
You may have noticed a similarity between the writing in the article, and Ripley’s own writing. Journalism at the time was about selling papers, as it has always been. 1908 was a time when newspapers weren’t afraid of some embellishment, and the narrative tone suggests that the reporter was trying to tell a story rather than report an event.
Is the news report accurate? Fortunately, we don't have to solve this mystery—we're just trying to examine one of Ripley's stories. It's unlikely that he gave this any thought at all, as he had a newspaper article reporting the incident, and that's all he needed to treat the incident as a "fact." Ripley's job was to entertain his audiences, not provide them with critical thinking skills. That job falls upon us, people who actually care about the truth. We don't have to completely dismiss Believe it or Not!, but it should be treated as a starting point at best. If you want to know what's really going on, you'll have some work to do.
It's easily argued that the publishing industry, if not Ripley himself, was unfair to Mr. Pearlroth who did most of the research, but it should be noted that it would also be unfair to deny the credit for the phenomenon that is Believe it or Not! to anyone but Ripley. Though he had support in the form of corporate backing, researchers, contributors and a very handsome salary at a time when many people were starving in the streets, Ripley was the awkward and curious showman that made it all happen.
After his death, his empire continued with dozens of museums and at least two TV series bearing his name. Sadly, the current incarnations do not distinguish between magic tricks and real phenomenon. An episode of the most recent TV show hosted by Dean Cain featured a man who could use his "chi" to light paper on fire. In reality this is a well-known magic trick that requires very little skill to perform. Believe it or Not! museums feature video of man swallowing razor blades and regurgitating them, and while that's impressive, it's also a magic trick, though not one I'm eager to try. In fact one of Ripley's most famous performers was a man who could swallow live mice and "regurgitate" them. It's unknown if Ripley was aware that this too was a magic trick, but if he was he sure didn't let on to his audiences.
Believe it or Not is akin to Hollywood biopics. There's some truth there, but it's never the complete truth, and it's presented in the way that promotes entertainment, not truth. Believe it or Not! remains an amusing diversion, but it is only the start of the journey for the truly curious.
By Jeff Wagg
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