Robert Ripley, founder of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! traveled to more than 200 different countries in a relentless quest for odd people, places, and things. From humble origins in turn of the century California, he became one of the best known and most successful Americans of his generation.
"All these stories, all these marvelous adventuring into the countries of the fantastically true are lavishly illustrated with a multitude of those vivid cartoons which are followed eagerly every night in the New York Evening Post and more than 100 other newspapers. You will find your old favorites-and some new puzzlers which Mr. Ripley has uncorked now for the first time. Believe It Or Not this volume contains a thousand new things under the sun!"
I was brought up quiet, amid strangers’ debris.
When I was young, each week my parents and I visited the Wellesley (Massachusetts) Recycling and Disposal Facility. Monstrous containers held every kind of color-sorted glass, metal, paper, and earth.
Beyond the bins was a cleared lot where my parents found tables and chairs and I found board games and skis. There were stage lights, painted plaster animals, and always a pile of crutches and walkers, as if a miracle-spring bubbled nearby. Sometimes you could find jade lamps and silver plate, and only the townspeople, whose cars wore official stickers, were allowed in. It was like a country club.
Beyond the swap lot, as if an afterthought, was the place for actual noncompostable garbage, and beyond the garbage, up a steep hill, was a book swap housed in a lean-to -- what we called the Dump Library. It was better than the local town library, a former one-room schoolhouse with a dirt basement, little money or space for new books, and a card catalog hand-typed by the obedient dead.
The Dump Library’s long shelves held geography magazines and abridged encyclopedias, that core collection seasoned with law school textbooks, pharmacology references, and back issues of financial journals. There were floral- and foil-jacketed novels by improbably named women and men, and several copies apiece of curricular novellas endorsed by the old as stimulating to the young.
The rest of it was a wormhole. I brought home a thriller on whose blessed page 168 I found a man described as being stiff as a flagpole; I assumed this referred to his fine posture, though in the scene, inexplicably, he was lying down. I brought home a geometry notebook written in pencil in an Arabic language and a carton of letters sent from one teenaged girl at summer camp to another teenaged girl back in town. The letters contained numeric codes. The coded parts were about making out. (Making what out?)
The best book I ever found was a 1929 edition of Robert L. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! bound in green cloth stamped with red ink. On the title page was an inscription in thick black fountain ink: To Gene Cugnet with all good wishes from Rip “Believe it or Not” Feb. 27 New York 1929.
My mother told me I should claim Gene Cugnet was my uncle, as if further personal attachment to the book were necessary to impress my friends, but I had no interest in Mr. Cugnet beyond the sound of his name, which I have known for thirty years and never thought to locate in humanity.
Who was Gene Cugnet?
From the U.S. Social Security Death Index:
Birth Date: 12 Mar 1884
Death Date: Aug 1962
Social Security Number: 017-12-3308
State or Territory Where Number Was Issued: Massachusetts
Actual Death Residence: Massachusetts
So he was forty-four, more than halfway done with his life, when he met Rip in New York City, maybe on a trip with his family. Why not? It was the Roaring Twenties.
The book didn’t turn up at the dump until fifteen or twenty years later. Maybe for fifteen years Gene’s offspring dutifully enjoyed the bound memento of their dear father’s New York trip, then tired of it. Maybe the books surrounding it on the dump library shelf had also been Gene’s. Or maybe -- imagine this -- the book had been brought there in 1962, right after Gene’s death, then picked up by some unknown reader and enjoyed for twenty years, then brought back to the dump a second time. It is not improbable that the book stayed local. My parents have lived within five miles of the dump for a combined total of 141 years.
I remember almost every page of that Ripley book, from the Cyclops Girl to the Eyeless Girl to the shape of Rameses II’s nose, which I found in 1998 on the face of a man in my graduate program and immediately took to bed. How could I not? He had the nose of an immortal!
I remember Rabelais’s will -- I have nothing / I owe much / The rest I leave to the poor -- and I remember that the man with the shortest name in the United States of America as of 1928 was Ed Ek, of Brockton, Mass.
The book is just in the other room, but I’m showing off, writing this from memory.
A pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.
All female rulers named Jane were murdered, became insane, or were deposed.
All the names of God have four letters.
There is no cork in cork legs. (The name comes from Dr. Cork who invented them.)
Red snow falls in Japan.
Rip’s beautiful ink drawings often included text at the bottom, its arrangement on the page rendering punctuation unnecessary.
playing billiards with his nose
made a run of 46
There was the eight-year-old mother, the ninety-year-old mother, and the great-great-great-great grandmother, whose tombstone read:
The Mother to her daughter spake:
“Daughter,” said she, “Arise!
They daughter to her daughter take,
Whose daughter’s daughter cries.”
Thirty years after I first read the book, I can find, in a few minutes, with the aid of telecommunicative tools, the probability that one of Mr. Cugnet’s distant relatives was a woman named Marvelous Tytlandsvik of Maxim, Saskatchewan. Her surname is Norwegian, named for a town in the county of Rogaland. Page 94 of the 1903 Baedeker (8th ed.) for Norway, Sweden and Denmark reads We next enter the Hjøsenfjord, with its wild and grand rocks, somewhat resembling the Lysefjord, and call at Tytlandsvik or Tøtlandsvik on a bay of its S. bank, and at Valde on its N. bank. . . . The town is known today as Totlandsvika.
I felt calmer and more myself back when all of my friends and I had each collected fewer than a hundred books of our own to read. When we spent time together, we told each other about them. Then we went home and drew a picture on a newsprint pad, or walked into the woods to look for red and orange leaves.
I remember the photo of all the Chinese people walking four abreast out to infinity, with the terrifying statistic that if they walked past a fixed point, they would never stop:
If all the Chinese in the world
were to march 4 abreast past a given point
they would never finish passing
though they marched forever and ever
(based on U.S. Army marching regulations)
And I remember the cipher that begins U O a O but I O thee, O O no O but O O me . . .
(You sigh for a cipher but I sigh for thee, O sigh for no cipher but O sigh for me . . .)
The ink of Rip’s line drawings is dark black, fading to charcoal at the edges of the lines, and the paper is thick eggshell pulp. I never thought to take special care of the book, and I am sure that at least some of the rings on it from wet drinking glasses are marks that I left while sick at home, sipping ginger ale to calm my nervous stomach, brought on by anxiety, which often kept me home from school and was always called a stomach ailment.
I learned as much from that book as I learned in nearly all my years of public school, though perhaps because I had terrible attendance, something I never thought necessary to measure -- unlike the longest fingernails in the world, the tardiest postal letter ever delivered, or the heaviest lemon ever grown -- until graduation, at which I learned that there was such a thing as a Perfect Attendance Award and that my classmate David Robertson hadn’t missed a day of school in thirteen years. Perhaps not coincidentally, he had been raised a Christian Scientist. (Believe it or not!)
Rip’s antique English and archaic jokes entered my lexicon insidiously.
I have traveled in 64 countries -- including Hell (Norway), and the strangest thing I saw was man.
Strange Is Man When He Seeks After His Gods. Therefore the strangest places on earth are the holiest. And the strangest and most remarkable city in the world is the holy city of Benares on the muddy arm of the Ganges, India’s holy river . . .
Rip met and sketched an Indian juggler who was able to lift a sack filled with poisonous snakes by suction cups attached to his eyeballs. The ragged man on the bed of nails is hardly impressive next to the drawing of the even more ragged man who had been a galley slave for one hundred years and a day. The most dated believe-it-or-nots were the most believable. So what if Frau C. Worth, owner of a large apartment house in Berlin, did not collect any rents from her tenants for twenty years? So what if, at the age of eleven, Sidis (his first names, William James, were superfluous in 1929) matriculated in Harvard and astounded his professors by discussing the fourth dimension?
Ripley was a cartoonist, entrepreneur, and amateur anthropologist. He wrote about hundred-pound pumpkins with the same blithe wonder as he described the Kewawngdu, the Giraffe women of Burma. According to the reference I am now reading, in 1929, the year he signed my book, he published the following in his long-running syndicated series of newspaper cartoons: Believe it or not, America has no national anthem. Two years later, President Hoover signed a law designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States.
Rip also ran a chain of Odditorium museums, hosted a radio program and then, in 1949, a television program. Other shows on the air in 1949 included Missus Goes a Shopping, Foodini the Great, Champagne and Orchids, and The Family Genius. Rip died on set, during the filming of the thirteenth episode. Before his death, he had been voted the most popular man in America by the New York Times.
It is tempting to conclude that children should be given only the cast-offs of the dead to read, with no duplicate copies within a hundred miles, but I can’t know what it was like to be the other kind of child.
Editor’s Note: “Believe It or Not!” first appeared in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, edited by Sean Manning and with a foreword by Ray Bradbury.