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Found In The Archives

Photos: Believe It Or Not, Ripley's Rich History

At the height of its popularity during the Depression, "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" daily cartoons were read by more than 80 million people, in 17 languages, in more than 300 newspapers. Robert Ripley's feature generated 3,500 letters a day, giving him the distinction of receiving more mail than any other person in history — at least according to legend.

Many of these avid correspondents were people submitting their own obscure talents for consideration. Most included a photograph, as it was Ripley's preferred method of proof. It was also necessary to Ripley's illustration technique: rubbing the back of a photo with a graphite pencil, laying it on a piece of paper, and tracing the outline of the subject.

"Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" started as a cartoon feature drawn by Robert Ripley. The Ripley Archive hide caption

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The Ripley Archive

"Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" started as a cartoon feature drawn by Robert Ripley.

The Ripley Archive

Now housed in the Ripley Archives in Florida, these images tell an overlooked version of the American experience. They are a blend of the extreme and the mundane, the circumstances of birth and the sought-after distinction, the virtuosos and the folk artists.

Or as Mark Sloan, Roger Manley and Michelle Van Parys described it in Dear Mr. Ripley, their excellent book on the archives, the collection is "a realm of outlandish frontiers and alternate realities that had been discovered in otherwise ordinary neighborhoods and farms scattered across the continent."

Ripley's cartoons are usually understood from the reader's point of view — as spectacle. These photographs shift the attention to the thousands of individuals who hoped to be in Ripley's column. They speak to the universal desire to be special.

This is the sort of collection where, after a while, the subject becomes transparent, and the photos are a lens to a larger view of social history. The triple view of Gardner Taylor lifting an anvil with his ears is not remarkable just for that, but also because he is a veteran and a pheasant hunter, and because this is something that happened in Winner, S.D. Through this exceptionalism, one begins to get a real sense of the flavor of a time and a national character.

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William T. Washington poses with a "hand tailored," 850-pound ball of string, 1933. The ball was six feet in diameter. The Ripley Archives hide caption

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The Ripley Archives

When it comes right down to it, is there anything more American than a world record-aspiring ball of string? Or the sincerity in the presentation of the man who created it?

These images also demonstrate a terrific understanding of showmanship. There's an old street performers adage that says you can be the greatest Shakespearean actor in the world, and no one on the street will care. But if they think you might blow up in the next five minutes, they'll throw you a quarter.

If you can lift a couple hundred pounds, that's OK, but if you want an audience, it's better if that weight is in the form of your sisters. If you want the crowd to really get into it, have them playing ukuleles. Oh yeah, if you do it on ice skates, that's a nice touch.

Physical instructor Charles Russell demonstrates his strength, May 18, 1939. The Ripley Archives hide caption

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The Ripley Archives

Physical instructor Charles Russell demonstrates his strength, May 18, 1939.

The Ripley Archives

Even in the lies and stretchers — the fish caught wearing glasses — we get a peek into an era's senses of humor, the subconscious and the absurd.

Each outrageous claim has a varying degree of truth, sometimes substantial, other times a mere fig leaf of justification. Remember, one of the options is "or not."

Like photos of sideshow freaks, these images are about the exceptional. But unlike photos of freaks, they don't serve to remind the viewer that we are normal. They remind us that each of us, even the most ordinary, has the ability to be extraordinary.

Thanks to Angela Johnson and the Ripley Archives. For further reading, see Mark Sloan, Roger Manley and Michelle Van Parys' Dear Mr. Ripley: A Compendium of Currioddites from the Believe It or Not! Archives (Bullfinch, 1993).


Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.