What Is Ripley's Believe It or Not!?

C. K. Lanz

Ripley's believe it or not! has transcended its beginnings as a syndicated feature panel in newspapers to become a global franchise including museums, several television series, and other attractions. Robert Ripley was an American cartoonist, entrepreneur, and collector of oddities who created the Ripley’s believe it or not! newspaper panel series to highlight odd but true facts and stories from all over the world. The panel was immediately successful in part because Ripley published items his readers sent him, including strangely shaped vegetables and other oddities. The concept then grew to encompass museums, merchandise, and other media despite Ripley’s death in 1949.

There are Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums in communities all over the world, including Niagara Falls, New York.
There are Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums in communities all over the world, including Niagara Falls, New York.

The Ripley’s believe it or not! brand is based on sharing sensational and odd facts and stories from around the world. Many items and events can be so bizarre or strange as to seem impossible. Ripley featured everything from multi-headed animals to unexplained disappearances, sea monster sightings, and people with extraordinary talents or hobbies. He also included stories that seemed incredible, such as a ship being hit by a meteor at sea. Ripley left it to the reader to believe if what he featured was true, though he employed many researchers over the years to locate and substantiate what he printed.

The panel began in December 1918. At the height of its popularity, it is estimated that it had more than 80 million readers worldwide and Ripley was receiving millions of letters informing him of new odd items or events. By 1930, Ripley brought Ripley's believe it or not! to radio and later to film and television. About 24 short films were made for Warner Brothers in the early 1930s, and four television series, including one animated series for children, were produced in 1949, 1982, 1999, and 2000.

Ripley first began displaying his collection of oddities to the public in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair. The exhibition’s success led to a touring show, and the first permanent Ripley’s believe it or not! museum, or Odditorium, as he called it, opened in 1950 in St. Augustine, Florida. There are approximately 32 Ripley’s believe it or not! museums operating around the world, from the Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin to the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Asia.

Every Ripley’s believe it or not! museum is different. Some include theaters and haunted houses or mazes or are constructed in a unique way. For example, the museum in Orlando, Florida was built to appear as though it were sinking into the ground, while the Niagara Falls building is shaped like the Empire State Building and features King Kong on top. The Mexico City museum is housed inside a replica medieval castle.

Each museum contains unique curiosities. Shrunken heads, celebrity death masks, and taxidermy of deformed animals are on display with magic mirrors and other illusions. Other features include mummified animals, amazing sculpture, and a collection of tombstones with odd engravings. Visitors to the museum in Australia, for example, are greeted by a band of animatronic human oddities, including a three-legged banjo player and an Egyptian dwarf playing trumpet in a bird cage. All were real people.

The original Ripley's believe it or not! panel survives in book format and syndication, but the empire continues to expand. Aquariums, wax museums, and 3D moving theaters also bear Ripley’s name. Tourists all the over world can experience firsthand the strange but true tales and items that once fascinated Ripley.

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