credulous trivia roundup

Rounding up curious stories of true belief…

•     •     •

1. Robert Ripley was born as Leroy Ripley in 1890, in Santa Rosa, California. Following a brief semi-pro baseball career, he was hired as a sports cartoonist, which is a job that existed in 1909. Then he moved to New York. In 1918, grasping at straws for sports cartoon ideas, he illustrated a series of miscellaneous sports feats and firsts—including the world record for jumping backwards—and called it “Champs or Chumps.” He revisited the idea a year later, this time calling it “Believe it Or Not!” Always with an exclamation point.

The idea really took off in 1922, when his editors, hoping to branch out from sports, sent him on an around the world voyage. He sent back to them dispatches called “Ripley’s Rambles ‘Round the World; clearly me and Mr. Ripley share a love for alliteration. And that’s how he got famous.

ripley_sandwich“Believe-it-or-not” cartoons were a mixed bag. Some were dad humor (“The Sandwich Islands were discovered by a Cook”; “I slept with a Dutch wife”—it’s a type of pillow), some were technicalities (“a june bug is not technically a bug”), and some were just mundane (“a lightbulb in New York has been used for 30 years”). Many relied on nothing more than deeply incurious ethnocentrism (“cows are sacred in India” passes as oddity, and as one profile put it, “the foreign is weird and the weird is foreign” to Ripley). He also had a knack for pissing people off, like when he claimed that Lindbergh was in fact the 67th person to make the transatlantic journey—everyone else had forgotten about dirigibles. And though he promised to provide proof to whomever sent him a letter, as far as anyone knows those mountains of mail were never responded to.

Then in 1929 he got really famous when Simon & Schuster published the first Believe it or Not! book. Then Hearst hired him, then they began showing Ripley movie shorts, then he got a radio show, and then he opened his first “odditorium” museum, filled with what he alternately called queeriosities or curioddities.


A reporter, planning an article about this mysterious marketer of minutiae, read one of his cartoons and wrote this in his notebook: “There follows a query: “HOW?” That, really, is the essence of Ripley. The ethnocentrism and fondness for technicalities are obvious, but there’s something more fundamental about his determined superficiality. Curiosity ends at the water’s edge for Ripley. The existence of a fact is in and of itself the intrigue; the “how” or “why” is irrelevant. He was a man who peddled curiosities yet was somehow fundamentally incurious—he visited more than 200 countries in his lifetime but never learned a foreign language. As this New Yorker article puts it, he managed to be both cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time.

Ripley died in 1949, after a few episodes of his TV show had been produced. But let us not forget the man behind the curtain: Norbert Pearlroth, who Ripley hired as a researcher in 1923. Pearlroth spoke 11 languages and spent his weeks reading foreign newspapers and old books in the New York Public Library, toiling in the fact mines to unearth nuggets of trivia that Ripley could deploy as needed. He kept this job until 1975 (!!!) when he was fired, and because he was a freelancer he received no royalties from the immense book sales. During this time he also had a weekly column called Your Name, which was about the origins of Jewish surnames and sounds way more interesting than Ripley’s.

Further reading [1], [2], and PBS documentary here.

•     •     •

2. A few days ago, three people (one an aide to the attorney general of California) were arrested for impersonating police officers. This came after their claim to be members of the “Masonic Fraternal Police Department,” which, according to the group’s website, claims a) to consist of descendants of the knights templar; b) to have existed for 3000 years (they’re the ‘World’s’ oldest police force, quotes theirs, though I’m not sure what it implies. Also the world’s least actually-existing police force). The badge definitely checks out as original templar gear; c) to have jurisdiction in 33 states and Mexico City (the knights have no jurisdiction in Europe?), and d) hacking through their vague language, think themselves some kind of personal security force for 33rd degree masons. They sound like those guys who protect the grail in Last Crusade, really, but less nattily attired.

brotherhood of the cruciform sword
brotherhood of the cruciform sword

I am not a Dan Brown-level historical scholar, but templars can’t possibly have been around for 3000 years. It says so right on wikipedia: “Officially endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church around 1129…” Wait a minute! That suspiciously does not specify BCE or AD…isn’t it just possible the knights templar were formed and sanctioned by the church a thousand years before the birth of christ? I’m not saying they were or they weren’t, but just examine the evidence. Keep an open mind.

I have no idea what to make of this story, although a trivia roundup anonymous source suggests “too much Assassin’s Creed” as the explanation. Which seems plausible, given the gallimaufry of secret society shibboleths they’ve haphazardly cobbled together into a sub-Dan-Brownian mytharc. That said, my backstory includes the following assumptions about the MFPD: a) they are part of a global conspiracy including the Vatican and the Rothschilds that controls everything, including the newspapers; b) meetings are called to order using a gavel made from a ram’s femur, pieces of the holy lance used to pierce jesus’s side as he was crucified, and dirt from the field of dreams; c) their tripartite godhead includes Steve Guttenberg, Kojak, and Cagney from Cagney & Lacey; and d) they meet triannually in a heavily fortified mountain bunker originally intended as Richard Nixon’s post-nuclear-apocalypse driving range. The chief is determined by pillow fight, whence the winning pillow is burned to release white smoke from the chimney.

•     •     •

3. It’s 1929. You’re 46, and your spouse dies after a lengthy illness. Your combined family money leaves you quite wealthy. What do you do?

a) After a socially acceptable mourning period and the support of friends and family, you emerge from your despair, perhaps take on a lover, and enjoy your remaining years while never forgetting your first love.

b) Pour the despair of love lost into a highly-regarded but especially depressing collection of poetry; also adopt a kitten.


d) Get deep into spiritualism. Deep. Believe you are the conduit through which god or some other omniscient cosmic being communicates with humanity. Found a sect / cult called the School of Truth; start a commune in a desolate region of Utah at a place foretold to you as the lone safe haven from which to ride out the apocalypse. Call it the Home of Truth, and place the “Inner Portal” along what you claim is the center of the earth’s axis. Ignore that the earth is spheroid and this phrase has no meaning; the inner portal is where you teach and write. Buy a local newspaper and give yourself a platform for your claims to metaphysical truth. Become Utah’s preeminent cosmic thinkfluencer.

Enforce a teetotaling vegetarian diet despite living on unirrigated land inhospitable to agriculture. Try to buy nearby farmland not with money but with a promise of eternal life; get rejected. Call yourself the reincarnated Virgin Mary. Make initiates pledge obedience to the “word,” which is whatever the cosmos channel through you. Recruit nearly 100 people to the group.

Overplay your hand and recruit a follower by promising to cure her cancer. Fail to cure it; claim she will be brought back to life and order your minions to “purify” her corpse with a daily salt bath. Continue to wait for the body’s reanimation for two years while your followers leave, spurred in part by claims of “occult” actions in newspapers not owned by you. Your spiritual community is deserted. Make do by giving piano lessons. The contents of your Inner Portal are auctioned off two years after your death.

If you chose (d), you are Marie Ogden and you’ve been dead since 1975, why are you reading this? Further reading [1], [2], [3].

entrance to the inner portal
entrance to the inner portal

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