My great-aunt – born at the turn of the 20th century, a woman who might have been dubbed a “spinster” when that term still had currency – was a world-traveler and voracious reader and collector of books. After she died, her last will and testament afforded a local convent the first right of refusal of her vast library. The nuns picked out the best of the lot, no doubt intent on selling the booty and turning the proceeds over to the leadership of the diocese who knew best how to spend the loot. What remained after the spheniscidine vultures had snapped up their allotment was a mostly tattered assortment of odd volumes packed up in a few dozen liquor boxes that my father grudgingly lugged home. Luckily, the nuns were unschooled in literature and arcana because those liquor boxes contained a few real treasures. A beautiful set of three mid-19th century volumes of birds, reptiles and mammals complete with stunning colored etchings, several bound volumes of National Geographic magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s, the complete Stoddard’s Lectures, and a Gutenberg Bible. Ok, no bible – but better still, a signed, first edition of Robert Ripley’s “Big Book of Believe it or Not.”
Of all the leftover books we retrieved from my great-aunt’s musty flat, Ripley’s “Big Book” was my favorite, the one I read cover to cover over and over, the book I reached for first before visiting the bathroom. I memorized all the tales – mostly observations of mutant humans and bizarre behavior centered about the Far East – and the mind-twisting number puzzles, peculiar word origins and historical trivia. Did you know a butterfly was once called a flutter-by? That the oldest man in the bible – Methuselah – died before his father? That a cryptic letter containing just this series of letters – OPQRST – led to the successful recovery of a prisoner of war? That Pennsylvania was not named after William Penn?
As much as I reveled in these odd pieces of trivia, the stuff of “Big Book” that riveted me most of all were the voyeuristic drawings of the poor, hideously deformed people Ripley stumbled across in his many years journeying to more than 150 countries (at a time when most American’s stayed within 50 miles of their birthplace.) The Chinaman with four pupils in his eyes, the construction worker who survived a crowbar pierced through his skull, the blind man who read Braille with his tongue, the woman with two-foot long feet, the drunk who ate a sack of Portland cement, the acetic who every day stared at the sun long after his eyes were seared into glassy marbles – these were the stories I ate up.
How Ripley came to be a world traveler, author of several adventure books, and founder of a still-operating “freak” show exhibit called the Odditorium is meticulously documented in the recent biography “A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley” by Neal Thompson (Crown Archetype, 2013). As a boy Ripley was a talented sketch artist who eventually snagged a job as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. At a time before the technology of photography was solid enough to faithfully capture high-speed athletics, Ripley was employed to draw the action to accompany stories covering the games. Such were the quality and liveliness of his drawings that Ripley parlayed his stint into becoming a syndicated cartoonist. He distinguished himself from others of his ilk by searching out and sketching amazing tales of off-the-wall athleticism: a man who hopped the 100 yard dash in 11 seconds, another who skipped rope 11,810 times, an armless golfer who broke 100 on an 18 hole course. It was these stories of unusual and “unbelievable” human prowess that brought in the readers – and this was in the days when newspapers were king. No competition from radio or TV for the attention of the public, Movietone newsreels being the only visual outlet for goings-on around the world. A man who could attract loyal readership to a newspaper syndicate was highly regarded – and highly compensated. At his peak Ripley commanded salaries during the Depression that would satisfy most people today – before adjusting for inflation.
Like all media outlets competing for eyeballs, Ripley’s employers at Hearst needed him to continue the production of cartoons depicting strange and exotic escapades – stupid athletic tricks weren’t enough. So they sent him out to the four corners and across the seven seas to seek out the weird and wonderful. To wander the world – especially China – was Ripley’s most cherished avocation.
You don’t need to read Thompson’s book to recognize that Ripley possessed a kind-of macabre interest in the human “freak.” (In fact, you only should read the book if you want to dive extremely deep into Ripley’s whole life from start to finish). Just check out his numerous volumes of drawings and the legacy of his early 20th century Odditoriums. Often he seemed more interested in shocking viewers with ever more grotesque discoveries than in educating them on the curiosities of far-flung cultures. Still, if you imagine yourself isolated in rural Nebraska or Utah or Iowa in the 1930s wary of driving more than a few dozen miles in your un-roadworthy Model T with tyres made from rubber trees, reading one of Ripley’s reports complete with first-hand sketches from Siam or Transjordan or Ceylon would have been exhilarating.
Today, in a world of YouTube and always-on cameras, virtually nothing comes as a shock anymore – which I find saddening. The inability to be astounded has ruined it for me.
A man with a forked tongue covered completely in green tattoos so that he resembles an iguana? Run of the mill. A guy eats 413 biscuits in one sitting at Red Lobster and it barely makes news (even when he flops into a coma afterwards). Ripley writes of an Indian swami who could lift a 40 lb bag of snakes with his eyeballs. What about a guy who hoists more than 100lbs with his nutsack? Boring, right?
Ripley’s time of wide-eyed wonder has disappeared, and all we’re left with is jaded ennui.