Robert Ripley was a famous cartoonist and adventurer who built his “Believe it or Not!” empire by collecting unusual oddities from around the world. He was born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890, and moved to San Francisco in 1908. Ripley worked as a sports cartoonist until the year 1913, when he decided to move to New York and start working for The Globe.
It was in New York where he crated the feature known as “Believe it or Not!” It showcased strange and bizarre facts from around the world, and helped Ripley to gain more popularity than he could have ever imagined. His fame soon led to international travel and a weekly column in the Evening Post.
It was in 1929 when Ripley was hired at Hearst’s King Features Syndicate and Simon & Schuster published a book of his popular cartoon. Believe It or Not! Radio and TV programs were soon to follow. And by the mid-1930s, Ripley had gained a huge fortune. He died on May 27, 1949 from heart problems, only days after falling unconscious during the filming of his television program.
The Early Years of America’s King of Oddities
LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890. The exact date of his birth is unknown and remains a point of debate. His parents were Isaac and Lillie Ripley. Isaac worked as a carpenter when he and his wife were not travelling throughout the west searching for fortunes. They passed their adventurous spirit on to LeRoy Robert, their firstborn son.
As a young child, Ripley was a shy and awkward little boy. He was also very talented and during high school he spent his time focused on his two favorite passions, baseball, and art. However, when his father died in 1905, Ripley was forced to quit school and go to work delivering newspapers and polishing headstones to help his mother make ends meet.
Working Hard to Reach His Goals
Despite all the challenges he was faced with, Ripley wouldn’t stray far from his artistic ambitions. He sold his first cartoon to Life magazine in 1908, and later left Santa Rosa for San Francisco. He worked for a short time as a sports cartoonist for the Bulletin, before he moved on to the more prestigious Chronicle, where he would work for the following two years.
In 1913, after being encouraged by a friend, writer Jack London, Ripley picked up his roots and decided to head east. He found work as a sports cartoonist for The Globe. And even though it was not one of the most popular papers in the area, The Globe was a syndicated publication and brought Ripley’s column to a wider audience.
Thanks to the syndication, Ripley’s popular column soon made The Globe more popular and Ripley, was rewarded by the paper with trips to cover events both in the United States and abroad.
The Beginning of Believe It or Not!
During a slow day at the office, Ripley started to work on a sketch that featured various odd achievements in sports history. The piece was published on December 19, 1918 and was titled “Champs and Chumps”. It was the seed from which Ripley’s future fortunes would come from. A similarly themed Ripley cartoon, bearing the title “Believe It or Not!”, was published 10 months later. Another was published the year after that. As Ripley’s popularity continued to rise, in 1922 The Globe sent him on a trip around the world, where he covered in a series of cartoons and essays that featured unusual and bizarre facts from exotic cultures and locales.
After he had returned from his adventures, Ripley hired an assistant to help him conduct his research. In 1926, his good fortune continued when he was hired by the Evening Post, where he quickly got to work on reviving his Believe It Or Not! Feature. When the Jazz Age and the rise of tabloids, Ripley was well on his way to becoming a household name.
Each week, Ripley would be bombarded by hundreds of angry and admiring letters. When he wasn’t travelling the globe in search of new oddities, he would spend his time out on the town, rubbing elbows with the likes of the Marx Brothers and Rube Goldberg.
In 1929, with a little urging from William Randolph Hearst, Ripley was hired by King Features Syndicate for a massive salary. The move would get his column in hundreds of papers. That same year, a Believe it or Not! book was published by Simon & Schuster and was a hit for Ripley, selling more than 500,000 copies.
Ripley soon found himself on top of the world as he signed a contract in 1930 with NBC to host a weekly Believe It or Not! Radio show. It wasn’t long before he was making short films for Twentieth Century Fox as well. During Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1933, Ripley built the first “Odditorium”, which was a physical manifestation of one of his columns that featured strange and unbelievable exhibits collected during his travels.