Who, you ask? A third or fourth leg of Swiss-Austrian descent? A shrunken head schooled in Krakow? A Friday night cranial hopper? If you collect junk long enough…. (“get rid of the junk or get rid of me,” said Beatrice Roberts after two months of connubial stress. An evening gown competition winner in the Miss America pageant, Beatrice went on to star as Azura, Queen of Magic in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and had a fling with Louis Mayer of MGM, gravitating from one set of junk to another. She was a different kind of human cork, the dime a dozen kind, female corks who cling to moguls like Mayer in order to stay afloat in their own mediocrity. Bah! Enough of a studio actress who died alone in her North Hollywood bungalow with no greater distinction than having been a villainess and Robert Leroy Ripley’s wife for less than nine embryonic weeks. The junk stayed and she ventured on.)
What is the Mark of Cain?
Answer Next Sunday
Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the King Features Syndicate
June 10, 1945
As Mr. Ripley’s Astounding! Supernal! Ghostly Appendage, I can, with authority, compare him to Stambaugh’s great ball of string:
A recluse named S.S. Stambaugh for several years collected eight inch lengths of string from a local flour mill in Tulare, California, and by knotting and winding the pieces was able to build a three-foot-diameter twine ball in less than two years. Upon seeing the huge creation, a friendly visitor calculated that Stambaugh had tied 463,040 knots in nearly 132 miles of twine to make the 320 pound ball. (March 22, 1938)
That was Ripley to a “t.” He couldn’t roll into a room without rolling back out again covered with the shortest lengths of ideas and the tightest knots of objects in there. Beyond Beatrice, he wouldn’t let go of a thing. Including me.
If an Appendage may be allowed an opinion, here is mine:
Given an era of less anxiety and more discretion, take away the Great Depression and two World Wars, and Ripley might have been your run of the mill suburban crackpot. A plastic bag sorter, hoarder of stoppers and snaps, jam jars, jawbreakers, broken ping pong paddles, push mowers, racially inspired lawn ornaments, waffle irons. He was simply a man at ease with bizarre objects, weird bibelots, fantastic freaks of nature who made him feel, by association, less odd. He would turn antsy, visibly peeved around “joes and janes,” the people, he complained, who lacked verve. He reddened and chafed under the constraints of circumstance and possessed a genius for malleability, a gumby-like elasticity always bending him in the direction of Fame, that disco ball of collective Yearning.
Watch the bashful ones. The stutterers, the stammerers, the timorous and whey-faced. The ones whose dreams (in this case, to be a world-class ball player,) collapse early on. Watch the prune-lipped wallflower, the school dropout, the amateur sketcher with a knack for cartooning upside down. Stand back for the homely ones! Mr. Ripley was no looker. Melon-headed, with no more hair than the tines on an oyster fork, bucktoothed, (his overbite part fang, part awning), he gained glorious ground wearing bat-winged polka dot ties, knickerbocker pants, argyle socks, two-toned spats, pith helmets and Panama hats, natty togs in lurid, eye-stabbing colors. At the pinnacle of his celebrity, he sported maroon silk Chinese robes and multi-tasseled monkey caps around BION*, his 28 room mansion in Mamaroneck, New York—retreating on occasion to his favorite “curioddity,” Mon-Lei, a Chinese junque fitted out with twin diesel engines at cross purposes with its billowing, painted sails, so that Ripley was often forced to bob around the harbor outside his home or just sort of spin in a lazy figure eight out there, sipping gin from a Buddhist monk’s yellowed brain pan, part of his human skull collection.
This was a kid from Santa Rosa, California who loathed himself early on, called himself freak-o, fats-o and dunce-o. Who feared being called fail-o. Deserting his first job as a tomb-polisher, he catapulted from San Francisco to New York, went from “Champs and Chumps” to “Believe it or Not,” from Leroy to Robert, from poverty to the gilt patronage of William Randolph Hearst who underwrote Ripley’s globe-trotting excursions in search of the fantastic, the grotesque, the terrifying. With each boiled Amazonian head he dangled like a key chain before his hungry public, each Nuremburg Iron Maiden he ghoulishly invited rubbernecks to step into the spiked embrace of, with each giant, man-eating clam he posed beside for snapshots, with such infinite stores of plundered oddities, Ripley grew whole, hale, greased with the oil of self-adulation. His obsessions were serenely democratic. They entertained, quasi-educated, helped people thrill to the world again. Ripley opened the spigot on the American penchant for useless ingenuity on a staggering scale. Ripley was Walt Whitman’s mud show.
* BION: acronym for Believe It or Not
No one had the faintest idea who was behind all of this. Who made it happen. I’ll tell you who: The Astounding! Supernal! Ghostly Appendage. Otherwise known as the fact checker.
How Old Was Moses When Pharaoh’s Daughter Found Him in a Basket?
Answer Next Sunday
Eighty million yawning, sad Americans rattled open their newspapers every morning to read about: Liu Ch’ung, the double-eyed man of China!, or the long-tailed shrew, smallest mammal in the world, breathing 800 times a minute!, or Kuda Bux, the man who walked on fire through a 20 foot long bed of charcoal without a single burn on his feet!, or “Three Ball Charlie,” who could put three balls in his mouth and whistle at the same time!, or a seventy-five-year-old petrified apple! or Laurello, the only man in the world with a revolving head, who could walk forward while looking backward! – all this set Ripley fans agog, agog enough to forget there were no jobs, dough had dried up and a wholesale slaughter called war was taking place on a never-before-seen scale…. forget it, readers could marvel at The Human Slate, the Human Flag, the Human Belt, the Human Pincushion, the Human Cork, the Human Autograph Album, glimpse wider possibilities for themselves in the ice sitters, the one-legged lawn mower hoisters, the upside down writers and readers, the waitress from Clayton’s Café in Tyler, Texas, who could carry twenty-five cups of hot coffee in one hand or Johnny “Cigars” Connors of Roxbury, Massachusetts who rolled a peanut with his nose from Boston to Worcester…. if you were unemployed, wearing week old newspapers for your shoe soles, if you were tempted to drown yourself in a teaspoon of something awful, you could always try stacking quarters in your ears, playing the piano with the tip of your nose, knick-knack-paddy-whack your mutt-dog into telling time while puffing a cheroot, remove nails with your teeth, lift your sister on your chin, be like Dr. A. Boinker, jumping backwards from a train going 20 miles an hour, or outdo James Weir of Weirton, West Virginia, who could hold a half dollar in his eye, a pencil between his upper lip and nose, another pencil between his lower lip and chin and a cigar between his teeth all while moving his scalp back and forth and singing. This was no time to die.
Under the reign of Ripley, America became more wonderstruck than beautiful, and in 1929, when his Believe It or Not column in the New York Post declared that America had no national anthem, the consequent uproar resulted in the official adoption of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner” (Francis Scott Key penning the words to an old English tavern ballad during the 1812 siege of Fort McHenry,) as the nation’s paean to itself. Rip-o-mania kept people awake nights, kept folks writing letters, millions upon millions, 3,000 a week, the envelopes addressed in Braille, wigwag, semaphore, Morse code, upside down and backwards or sometimes with just a single rippley line. America’s hunger for whimsy, for petty invention and pointless stunts, the vanity of the human mammal, that “mute creature of the breast,” performing feats of repetitive idiocy; Ripley had struck upon it like a bottomless seam of black gold pluming skyward, a geyser coating him and everyone else with slick tomfoolery and genuine amazement. Life was fun again.
Believe It or Not.
I have had as many as 50 different pins and needles stuck in my body at the same time without causing any pain. And it is no trick.
600 Hook st.
Would it interest you to know I have a young lady living with me that can lap her tongue over at the tip about an inch and it will remain there. Try yours, see if you can do it.
Elise M. Buck
c/o The Nook Lunch Room
Mr. Robert L. Ripley, New York City
Dear Sir, I am sending 3 of my Pictures. There is one of them showing me lifting a 12 lbs. Hammer by my Nose. I have lifted as much as 25 lbs. that way. But I thought the Hammer would make a good Picture. I can also lift 10 lbs by my Earrings. The one Picture showing me lifting a Granite Rock was taken up on the Summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The weight of the Rock is 115 lbs.
Angels’ Camp, Ca.
Feb 5, 1938
May 11, 1932
“Tex” a part bulldog and part birddog, weighs 120 pounds. He is only 22 in. high and is 44 in. around his body. Everyone that see “Tex” considers him the fattest dog they have ever seen. “Tex” will not go to his bed at night without a bag of cookies. He is owned by A.A. Forek of Hockley, Texas.
I am enclosing a snapshot of “Tex” as proof. He is holding a box of lemon snaps, his favorite food.
(Miss) Irma Jane Forek
How old was Adam when he died?
Answer Next Sunday
The Human Fact Checker
FACT: In 1923, a wispy, unassuming man from Tarnow, Austria, educated in Krakow, master of 14 languages, was hired by Robert Ripley and the King (newspaper) Syndicate to research facts for Believe It or Not. For the next 52 years, Norbert Pearlroth toiled at the New York Public Library, 10 hours a day, six days a week. Eighty million readers demanded that Believe It or Not’s outlandish claims and hyperbolic statements be backed up by facts, making an odd duck like Pearlroth an indispensable appendage.
Norbert treated his wife, in fifty years of marriage, to one vacation in 1933, to the Chicago World’s Fair, the Century of Progress as it was billed, to attend the opening of Ripley’s first Odditorium, an occasion marked by 2 million visitors, hundreds of whom fainted dead away, hit the ground, stiff as planks, at the sight of the two-headed baby, the corkscrew man, and little Betty Lou Williams, a four year old with a parasitic sibling consisting of two legs, one tiny arm-like appendage, a more developed arm with three working fingers, and the head of her twin embedded deep in her abdomen. Mr. and Mrs. Pearlroth were also present when the FIJI ISLAND MERMAID, purchased by Ripley from P.T. Barnum, was publically declared a hoax, not a half woman half fish at all, but the blackened head of a one year old Rhesus monkey crudely sewn onto the preserved body of a swordfish.
If Robert Ripley was, as the Duke of Windsor unimaginatively dubbed him, a Modern Marco Polo, traveling over 24,000 miles and two continents, Norbert, who nobody knew, was the Marco Polo of the New York Public Library, circumnavigating 7,000 books per year, 364,000 books in 52 years, in his hunt for hard boiled, irrefutable facts. While Mr. Ripley trotted the globe by boat, plane, donkey, camel, train, elephant and rickshaw, visiting over 200 countries, the names of which most Americans had never heard of, hauling back souvenirs of the terrible, the thrilling and the bizarre, wearing his signature pith helmet and knee socks, complaining about his “bum dogs,” Mr. Pearlroth sat rabbinically at desk number 3, chair number 3, in the Rose Reading Room, beneath ceiling murals of azure skies and gold-limned clouds, a Maxfield Parrish heaven, with his wax-papered sandwich of liverwurst and lingonberry jelly on dark rye, sitting so long he received the same carbuncles, the same ass stigmata, as Karl Marx. Charting infinite stacks of reference books, bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes and monographs, rowing through oceans of milky white pages with his slim pencil-oar, wearing a boiled wool cardigan, rumpled shirt, limp dungarees and leather slippers the color of fossilized camel dung, he uncovered and confirmed such facts as Charles Dickens’ cat alerting Dickens to his bedtime by snuffing out the candle on his desk, or Rajah, the sacred ox from Katmandu, born with an arm, hand and fingers attached to its left shoulder. (This was how Pearlroth first conceived of himself as a similar appendage to the body of Ripley, an arm, hand and fingers paid to nail down facts. He called it Rip-Li.) The world’s most invisible man labored anonymously for the world’s greatest celebrity, a Believe It or Not character attracting absolutely nobody’s attention. Norbert Pearlroth rode on the subway from his home on Newkirk and 16th Ave., Brooklyn, to Manhattan every morning at the exact same hour, wore the same lumpen clothing, ate the same liverwurst and lingonberry jam sandwich, sat on his blazing rump at the same burnished oak table beneath the epiphanic light of the same bronze lamp, a biblio-badger, scarcely moving except to turn pages with whiskered, pursey sounds, jotting notes dry, dark and wizened as ferret droppings. Over decades, in true Ripley fashion, Norbert Pearlroth, Appendage, turned square, silent, deep-shelved: half man/half book.
Routine was Pearlroth’s ballast, habit his anchor. I repeat, he sat so many years on the same steel-hard oak chair, he grew mean, cauliflower-like boils on his buttocks. His wife of five decades said in the single five-minute interview she granted upon his death, that Norbert might as well have been paralyzed and mute for the little he moved or spoke in life. He was found deceased in his customary chair, his head on a biography of Nostradamus; the rubber-soled librarian had left him alone, presuming the man asleep, but by nightfall, when he was found, unmoved and alone in the two-block room with its hundreds of long polished tables and gleaming bronze lamps, it was confirmed he was no cat-napper but, (in fact!!) a corpse, his blue, ink-grimed fingernail pointing to his final fact-checked article: Ripleymania hits Luverne, Alabama! “The Friendliest Town in the World,” on May 3, 1933, when an unprecedented number of townsfolk turned up in City Hall to compete for Believe It or Not contest prizes. One farmer showed off his four foot eleven inch snake cucumber, another a hand-shaped Danvers carrot, another gentleman owned a horned rooster named “El Diablo,” and a woman a footless Peking duck, an elementary school math teacher named Mr. Bubb, demonstrated holding a pencil under his ear, the painter’s wife held a one gallon varnish can between her shoulder blades. Presiding over the melee was Miss Annie Rainer Shine, banana plant grower, locally famous for having been mentioned in a special Believe It or Not column devoted to unusual names. Wearing a handmade, homegrown skirt stitched entirely of banana leaves, Miss Annie Rainer Shine awarded First Prize to a Miss E.E. Smith for growing her own hat, an Easter bonnet crocheted out of hair from her own head. Second Prize went to Mr. Waldo Rasmussen who ate and regurgitated a live albino mouse patriotically named FDR.
Slow as a snail, dun and small, Pearlroth tracked a wavery but resolute pearl-slime through 364,000 books. Listen: if you put your head down and turn your right or left ear against the very spot where Norbert perished, against the residue of his finger oil, hair oil and scalp drift, you may hear, much like the sound of the ocean surf inside of a conch shell, the whisper of bizarre facts, odd facts, terrifying truths, that never found their way into the public newspapers as grist for the American maw with its naïve, carnival appetites. The truth was: Norbert censored, withheld, pulled out, refused to disseminate. He had come to know truly terrible things about the human race, about the future and believed it his sacred duty to tell no one.
DISCOVERED IN MR. PEARLROTH’S BRIEFCASE FOLLOWING THE APPENDAGE’S DEMISE IN THE ROSE READING ROOM OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY: presumed notes for his alter–ego Rip-Li’s autobiography.
1. Proclaim: The Human SlateTheHumanCorkTheHumanBeltTheHumanFlagThe HumanAutographBookTheHumanPincushionTheHumanUnicornTheHumanMusical Chair (a three-legged Sicilian mandolin player) – put the word HUMAN in front of anything and people are spellbound. Ditto the world’s largest broom, frying pan, tallest man, etc.
2. Train an animal to ape humans, produce a time-telling horse, a cigarette smoking duck, a roller-skating Chihuahua, a typewriting rooster, a fat, pie-guzzling dog….and you have the country’s ear.
3. Seek out feats involving time: world champion chicken picker “Buck” Fulford of Port Arthur, Texas, who could kill, pick clean, cut up, cook and eat a chicken in one minute and fifty seconds.
4. Ferret out the improbable tinged with the pathetic: World’s Busiest Man: a one armed paper hangar with hives
5. Unveil the Shocking and Horrific Stunt: El Gran Lazaro, El Indio de Baracoa of Havana, sticks a needle in his eye socket and pulls it out of his mouth.
6. Deliver up the Born-Odds: the extra-limbed or no-limbed, the hole-headed, the quadruple jointed, the dual sexed, the gleeful midgets and glum giants, the one-eyed and triple-tongued, the albino, the bearded, the conjoined, the parasitic, these cause the self-haters, self-loathers, self-cringers and self-abusers of the world to pluck up, to perk up, put a spring in their step, hey, at least I’m not YOU.
7. In a singular category, proclaim: “El Fusilado,” The Executed One, who faced a firing squad, received eight bullets through the head and body—and the coup de grace—yet LIVED!
Was Nostradamus Right?
Are we in the end days?
My employer, Mr. Ripley, to whom I was deeply attached, invisibly appended, would not talk on the telephone for fear of electrocution. He owned boats by the score, his bathing costume consisted of a pith helmet, droopy swim trunks and dog-eared bathrobe, but he refused to immerse himself in water. He owned the world’s largest fleet of cars, but refused to drive. He rotated harems of beautiful women but beyond Beatrice, never married. He kept a 28-foot pet boa constrictor in his mansion, BION, on instruction it be granted one milk-fed mouse per day, dangled from washed fingertips by its rubbery, ballerina pink tail.
As Mr. Robert Leroy Ripley beheld the scope of the earth, its vast peculiarities, its human epic of horrors, its animal, mineral and vegetable incredulities, his own little worm of self-hatred shrank, shriveled, gave up the ghost. This is my opinion only.
I never met Mr. Ripley in my life. It would have been a superfluous gesture.
“The world is all a fleeting show, for man’s illusion given.”
For every navigator, a compass. For every farmer a seed. For every doctor, a symptom. For every actor, a play. For every charlatan, a fool. For the body of Robert Ripley, there is his supernal appendage, Mr. Pearlroth of the carbuncled bottom, here now, talking to you.
Mark of Cain: Some scholars say God gave Cain a dog for protection. Others say God gave him a disease such as leprosy. No one knows the factual answer.
Age of Moses: 3 months
Age of Adam: 930 years
Nostradamus, End Days, Apocalypse: See Miles Stair’s Survival Shop, Urban Suvivalists or Frugal Squirrels.