For more than a century, people have considered the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise synonymous with facts, figures, and people too bizarre to be true. But the brand—which was conceived by cartoonist Robert Ripley in 1918 and originally took the form of a newspaper strip before being adapted into other media—prided itself on presenting spectacular stories of the world’s hidden wonders that held up to scrutiny. At one point, 80 million people read Ripley’s strip, which was syndicated to 360 newspapers around the world. The franchise has since grown to include television series and specials, museums, books, and even aquariums.
To commemorate the new Ripley’s Believe It or Not! television series hosted by Bruce Campbell currently airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel, we’ve rounded up some of the more intriguing trivia behind the original fun fact gatherers of the 20th century.
1. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was originally titled Champs and Chumps.
From the time he was a child growing up in Santa Rosa, California, Robert Ripley—who was born 1890—wanted to be an artist. He contributed cartoons to his school newspaper and yearbook before making his first professional sale to Life magazine in 1908. The following year, he moved to San Francisco, where he secured a job as a sports cartoonist for local newspapers. Urged on by sports writers like Jack London (Call of the Wild), Ripley decided to head to New York and take a job at the New York Globe, where his sports cartoons received both local and national attention in syndication.
During one slow sports news day, Ripley decided to dash off an illustration detailing unusual human feats he had read about, including a man who had held his breath for over six minutes; he called it Champs and Chumps. He revisited the idea again in 1919 and once more in 1920 with a new name: Believe It or Not. The Globe also sent him on trips to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp as well as around the world, the latter resulting in a strip he dubbed Ripley’s Rambles ‘Round the World. In 1926, he was working at the New York Evening Post when he decided to resurrect the strip. This time, it stuck around. Readers became fanatical about Ripley’s odd collection of arcane facts and both the syndicated strip and its author grew into worldwide sensations.
2. Most of Robert Ripley’s facts were discovered by one man in New York.
Although Ripley lived up to his reputation as a globetrotter, traveling everywhere from Tripoli to India to Africa, many of the facts presented in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! were not the result of his expeditions but of one man combing through books in the New York Public Library. In 1923, Ripley met Norbert Pearlroth while searching for someone who could read articles and journals in foreign languages. Eventually, Pearlroth—who was fluent in 14 languages—spent upwards of seven days a week at the library excavating details for Ripley to use in his strip or information he could take with him during a fact-finding mission. He was so relentless that library officials sometimes had to ask him to leave at closing time. Pearlroth worked for the Ripley’s brand as its sole researcher for an astounding 52 years before retiring in 1975. He died in 1983 at the age of 89.
3. Ripley discovered "the Star-Spangled Banner" wasn’t actually the national anthem.
Always invested in semantics, in 1929 Ripley discovered that "The Star-Spangled Banner” had never actually been formally adopted as the country’s national anthem. That fact had merely been assumed, never confirmed. The ensuing outrage led to 5 million people signing a petition that was forwarded to Congress, who finally recognized the song in an official capacity by introducing a bill President Herbert Hoover signed into law in 1931.
4. Ripley became one of the most successful cartoonists of his era.
The wide appeal of Ripley’s work wasn’t lost on the media. Following the 1929 publication of a book that compiled both new and original strips, Ripley was inundated with offers. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst hired him for his King Features Syndicate label at a salary of $1200 plus profit-sharing, which amounted to over $100,000 a year. Radio shows, books, and lectures added to the total. Ripley was earning over $500,000 annually in the 1930s and at the height of the Great Depression. In 1936, a newspaper poll found that Ripley was more popular among Americans than actor James Cagney, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or aviator Charles Lindbergh.
5. Ripley was a rather unusual man.
Befitting his curious nature, Ripley himself was a bit of an anomaly. While researching a 1940 profile of Ripley for The New Yorker, writer Geoffrey T. Hellman jotted down various observations in his notebook. Among them: Ripley was found of working in only his bathrobe and wearing his dead mother’s wedding ring; he owned a fish who could only swim backwards, a shrunken head from Tibet, and a whale penis; he could not drive; and he seemingly amassed a number of women from around the world to live with him in what might be described as a harem. At one point, Ripley’s housekeeper observed that of everything in Ripley’s Mamaroneck, New York mansion, “The most unusual thing in the house is Mr. Ripley.”
6. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had his first published work in the Ripley’s strip.
Before Charles Schulz found acclaim in newspaper pages for his Peanuts strip, he got his start in Ripley’s strip. In 1937, when Schulz was 15 years old, he submitted artwork featuring his dog, Spike, claiming that the canine could eat unappetizing fare like pins and tacks. The strip credited Schulz as “Sparky,” his nickname. Spike also bore a passing resemblance to another, more well-known pet: Charlie Brown’s pet Snoopy.
7. You can visit a number of Ripley’s Odditoriums across the globe.
In 1933, Ripley displayed some of his more sensational artifacts for crowds at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. Though the exhibit of human marvels—including a live demonstration of a man who could blow smoke out of his eyes and another who could turn his head 180 degrees—was temporary, a permanent location debuted in New York in 1939. Since then, a number of Ripley Odditoriums have opened in San Francisco, Ontario, and Baltimore. There are currently over 30 locations in 10 countries worldwide.
8. Ripley died a somewhat ironic death.
Many people recognize the Ripley’s brand from a series of television shows, including versions hosted by Jack Palance, Dean Cain, and now Bruce Campbell. But Ripley himself was the host of the first iteration, which debuted in 1949 to great success. While taping his 13th show, the cartoonist suddenly fell over on his desk, dead of an apparent heart attack. The show’s topic? The history of the military funeral anthem “Taps.” Believe it or not.