credulous trivia roundup

Rounding up curious stories of true belief…

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1. Robert Ripley, born in 1890, was a failed semi-pro baseball player hired as a sports cartoonist—which used to be a real job. In 1918, grasping at straws for cartoon ideas, he compiled and illustrated a series of miscellaneous sports feats and firsts—including the world record for jumping backwards—and called it “Champs or Chumps.” Apparently at a loss for ideas, he revisited the concept 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, Mr. Ripley and I share not only a fondness for esoterica, but a real love for alliteration.

ripley_sandwichCombining pen-and-ink illustrations with easily digestible factoids, the cartoons were a massive success. In practice, they were a mixed bag of dad humor (“The Sandwich Islands were discovered by a Cook” or “I slept with a Dutch wife,” a type of pillow), extreme pedantry (“a june bug is not technically a bug”), and stultifying mundanity (“a lightbulb in New York has been used for 30 years”). Many relied on a sort of deeply incurious ethnocentrism: “cows are sacred in India” passes as oddity; one profile suggested that for Ripley, “the foreign is weird and the weird foreign.”  The technicalities also had a tendency to piss 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. He promised to provide proof to whoever sent him a letter, but as far as anyone knows the mountains of mail were never responded to.

In 1929 Ripley got really famous when Simon & Schuster published the first Believe it or Not! book, kicking off a rocket ride to transnational fame and a master class in multimedia branding. After the book, Hearst hired him, they began showing Ripley movie shorts, he got a radio show, and opened his first “odditorium” museum, filled with what he alternately called queeriosities or curioddities.


Planning an article about this mysterious marketer of minutiae, a reporter read some of his cartoons and made this note: “There follows a query: HOW?” How is the essence of Ripley. Ethnocentrism and pedantic obsession with technicalities are second-order character traits; what’s most fundamental to his character is a determined superficiality. For Ripley, curiosity ends at the water’s edge—the existence of a “fact” is itself the intrigue, the “how” or the “why” are irrelevant. He made millions peddling curiosities, and seemed legitimately intrigued by them all, yet was somehow fundamentally incurious; a man who visited 200 countries in his life but refused to learn a foreign language. As this New Yorker article puts it, he was both cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time.

Ripley died in 1949, with books continuing to be published well after his death—a brand so strong it survived the death of its host. But let’s remember the man behind the curtain: Norbert Pearlroth, hired as Ripley’s researcher in 1923. Pearlroth spoke 11 languages and spent his days reading foreign newspapers and old books in the New York Public Library, toiling in the fact mines to unearth nuggets of trivia for Ripley to deploy. Pearlroth kept this job until 1975 (!!!), when the company that owned the Ripley brand fired him. Because he was technically a freelancer, he received no royalties from 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.

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2. A few days ago, three people, including an aide to California’s AG, were arrested for impersonating police officers. Were they running scams on unsuspecting citizens, or abusing police powers for personal gain? No no—they were…meeting with local police departments while claiming to be members of the “Masonic Fraternal Police Department.” According to the group’s website, the MFPD a) is comprised of descendants of the knights templar; b) has existed for 3000 years (the ‘World’s’ oldest police force, quotes theirs, the implication unclear), and c) has jurisdiction in 33 states and Mexico City (but not Europe, apparently?).  The badge definitely checks out as original templar gear. Hacking through their vague language heavy on borrowed phrases, they seem to imagine themselves a sort of personal security force for masons, like those guys protecting the grail in Last Crusade, but with more hawaiian shirts and Mainway-brand “Johnny Police Officer” costumes, and fewer pinstripe suits.

brotherhood of the cruciform sword
brotherhood of the cruciform sword

I am not a historian, 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…” Although…hmmmm…that rather conveniently does not specify BCE or AD. Could it be the knights templar date to a thousand years before the birth of christ? I’m not saying one way or the other, but prove the negative, sheeple.

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. This is possible, given the bizarre collection of secret society shibboleths they’ve cobbled together into a sub-Dan-Brownian cosplay mytharc. Until proven otherwise, I will go on assuming (a) they are part of a global conspiracy involving 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 that pierced 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, your spouse is dead after a prolonged illness, and you are now wealthy. What do you do?

a) After a socially acceptable mourning period and the support of friends and family, emerge from depression and grief and enjoy your remaining years, never forgetting your first love even if you find new romantic partners

b) Pour the trauma 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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