Robert Ripley’s life story was so much more than just oddities and mystery.
I’m pretty sure that if I ask you about a man named Robert Ripley, you will immediately think of mysterious and intriguing stories you witnessed on TV, or maybe you will remember going to one of his museums at least once in your life and felt deeply amazed by the world of oddities kept inside. As defined in Ripley’s Entertainment website, this man’s legacy includes over 90 attractions in 10 countries, best-selling books, a network television series in more than 70 countries, and the longest continuously published newspaper comic in history.
It’s clear that we all know the famous Mr. Ripley for opening our eyes to the unknown, but do you know how this empire of eccentricity began? Before fame and fortune arrived, Robert Ripley had a very different lifestyle. It may come as a surprise to you, but he was actually a cartoonist that made a living from his drawings. So, how did he get from freelance artist to worldwide explorer and showman? Here’s the story about the odd life of a very odd man.
Robert LeRoy Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California, on December 25, 1890. As a kid, he had a very keen interest in drawing and playing baseball. He had a pretty normal life until his father died. He was only fifteen years old when his mother and him had to do some important life changes to make it through without his dad. Robert had to quit school and got a job as a newspaper deliverer to help his mom. Nevertheless, he never lost hope in pursuing his dream of becoming a draftsman, so he kept drawing besides working in the delivery section. Eventually, he got really good at it.
In 1908, he got to sell his first cartoon to Life Magazine. Ripley left his hometown and moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a sports cartoonist for Bulletin. In 1913, a friend of his offered him a much better position at Globe, also as a sports cartoonist; here is where the magic happened. Robert was asked to create a feature about rarities in the sports world, which was called “Champs and Chumps.” Talking about sport quirks seemed to be working very well for him, and less than a year after his first cartoon for Globe, he shared another cartoon of the same bizarre nature. This one was entitled “Believe It or Not!”, and as much as the first one, this caricature gained popularity right away.
Soon enough, Globe saw an very attractive business opportunity on Ripley, and after witnessing how people reacted to his sport feature, they decided to send him on a trip to multiple countries around the world. This time, his assignments were much more ambitious. In a series of cartoons, he was requested to feature all the weird facts from the most exotic places and people he could find while being away. William Randolph Hearst, the pioneer on sensationalist journalism, was one of the biggest investors on Robert’s voyages. Hearst’s publicists became so intrigued by Ripley’s search for the eccentric that they eventually nicknamed him “The Modern Marco Polo.” Moreover, Ripley was also becoming obsessed with these journeys. The odd side of life was so appealing to him that he could not ignore the fascination he had developed for it.
His segments on the world’s rarities gave him the kind of popularity that also came with a little bit of hatred. Even though he was often called a liar, Ripley always managed to prove people wrong. His extensive travels included thorough research and accurate information, which made those cases even more mind-bending. The man got to visit more than 200 countries, and this clearly included a lot of places which, at that time, weren’t very well known, hence the skepticism. Many of his followers just couldn’t believe Robert was telling the truth. Also, the fact that he was making money from other people’s culture wasn’t very well seen, which make the doubt grow even more. Annoyed and upset about Ripley’s stories and fame, people constantly wrote him letters protesting against his lies and his posture on profiting from other cultures. Robert could receive thousands of angry letters in just one day! People called him all kinds of names in them, but one of the most popular was “The Biggest Liar in The World.”
Against this wave of hatred, Robert replied:
“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.”
Alongside his multiple journeys abroad, Ripley started to build a very interesting collection of rarities he came across with. Among his most curious possessions was a bullet that a man had coughed up forty-nine years after being shot, a whale’s penis, and a shrunken head of an Jivaro Indian Ecuadorian woman. It was until 1933 that Ripley decided to exhibit for the first time a part of his weird findings at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition. This particular display was called “The Odditorium,” and it became the stepping stone for the multiple museums and exhibitions that are now located all over the world. To this point of this life, Ripley was particularly wealthy, and his eccentricity couldn’t help but come in the way of his investments. He had two houses (a house near Manhattan’s Central Park and another one in Florida) and a small island in the northern side of New York City which he named BION for some reason. There, he built a huge mansion where most of his possessions were kept.
Unfortunately, the upcoming years that led to the World War II began to deteriorate the global situation, and Ripley wasn’t able to travel as much as he used to. This caused him to develop complicated health issues. On May 24, 1949, while filming one of his shows, Robert fell unconscious. He was taken to the nearest hospital, where he stayed for the next three days, until he died from a heart attack. His body was buried alongside his parents in a family grave located in his hometown, Santa Rosa.
Robert Ripley was a very eccentric but a very talented businessman. He discovered the way to empower his passion, and take it to unimaginable places; becoming insanely famous for displaying the flip side of the coin when it came to talk about oddity and quirkiness, and we will forever remember him for doing so.
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