The flamboyant creator of ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!’ is profiled by Cornelius Mullally

LeRoy Robert Ripley was born on the 25th December, 1890 in Santa Rosa, California. He was a gifted young athlete who was intent on a career in baseball. Alas he broke his arm in one of his early semi-professional games, and this changed the nature of his career.

He was also an excellent illustrator and so he began drawing team posters to publicize the games. This brought his work to the attention of a San Francisco newspaper editor. The editor felt he had great potential, and Ripley was soon hired as a cartoonist covering sporting events.

The ‘Believe It or Not’ series came about in 1918 when Ripley was trying to come up with a new idea. Though a talented sports reporter, he found himself without a new sports story on that winter day. He decided to string together annotated drawings noting odd sports facts: e.g., “J. Darby of England jumped backwards 12 feet 11 inches (with weights),” and “Ed Lamy broadjumped on ice 25 feet 7 inches.”

Originally the feature was called Champs and Chumps. Over time, Ripley saw ways to begin changing the column, and he added odd facts from science, politics, history, and the animal world. After its evolution, the column was re-titled ‘Believe It or Not’.

Ripley brought foreign customs, amazing oddities, outrageous bits of information, and bizarre human feats to readers each week. He featured stories like the accidental fisherman who caught a four-pound sea bass with his bare hands, or the fellow who sat on a block of ice for 27 hours and 10 minutes for a competition, but was disqualified for running a fever of 102.
He also included items sent in by readers, ranging from the dog that was elected mayor of a California town, to a will that was written on an egg shell. Ripley provided illustrations for each item he penned, sketching them himself.

Ripley’s facts also challenged readers perceptions such as: Buffalo Bill never shot a buffalo, for example – he shot bison; or Ireland’s St. Patrick wasn’t Irish or Catholic, given that he was born outside of Ireland, and long before Martin Luther’s Reformation of the 16th Century.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own festive double issue