Ripley: B’gosh, I’ll jest swan to Guinea!

A visit to the Ripley museum in St. Augustine, Florida, got the wheels turning a bit, and when I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal, I wanted to get a few thoughts down before they… squirrel!

Where was I? Oh, yeah. When I was a kid, I loved the Believe it or Not books. I remember poring over them with intense fascination… sort of like I would do today with Wikipedia or TVTropes (be warned, that’s a timesink!) Ripley was a source of the odd, the incredible, and the fascinating.

The largest Erector Set structure: a scale model Ferris wheel, two stories tall.

Ripley’s odditoria are full of intriguing things, and I enjoyed the visit to the one in St. Augustine, but it struck me that what passed for odd back in the day now seems a bit banal. With access to modern media and the shrinking of the world with speedy and effortless travel, the average American has probably become somewhat jaded; add to that the fact that as time passes, some of Ripley’s oddities (like the Iron Maiden, for example) have been called into question regarding their historical authenticity.

Ripley was a showman, but in my experience he never tried to deceive. Everything he reported on was legitimate, at least as he understood it in his day. And his daily cartoons must have been a source of wonder and amazement for people like Ma and Pa Ripley, living in their rattletrap cabin on the windswept Iowa plain (borrowing a riff from Hamlin Garland, here); folks who never got more than 100 miles from their farm in all their lives would scratch their heads in consternation at the thought of a Chinese guide with a candle in his head.

Small wonder that his cartoons were so popular.

Good thing they never caught sight of this gentleman:

Nowadays, 5 seconds with Google can find stuff in the real world that makes most of Ripley’s items seem as common as Wonder bread, and a lot of it absolutely redlines my Weird-o-Meter. But I still enjoy going through my old Believe it or Not books – it’s not hard to recapture the sense of wonder I had as a child as I read about the strange things one could find in the world.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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