Robert Ripley was no ordinary guy. Born in 1890, he made a career—and ultimately an empire—out of finding things and people so strange that audiences just couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Ripley presented these wonders and curiosities from around the world in the form of cartoon panels, radio and TV shows, and in his “Odditoriums,” a tradition that lives on today in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums.
There are 32 such museums around the world, but the one in Times Square has a special place in the company’s history. It opened in 2007, re-establishing the Ripley’s name in the center of the city, not far from the location of the famed Times Square Ripley’s show that astonished Gotham back in 1939. At 18,000 square feet, New York’s is the second-biggest Ripley’s in the company’s history.
While Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California, it was from his adopted home of New York City that he turned his name into an international brand. At one point in his career, he was even voted the most popular man in the United States, receiving more mail than the president. Few people know that it was actually a cartoon by Ripley that prompted Congress to adopt the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1931. Before that, the United States didn’t have an official anthem. Believe it or not.
Today’s Ripley’s museums carry on the founder’s tradition of presenting artifacts and oddities from around the globe that make people say “wow.” No one knows more about the Ripley’s collection than Edward Meyer, the company’s vice president for exhibits and archives. He’s been with Ripley’s since he was a teenager—almost 35 years now—longer than Ripley himself. Meyer estimates that he has collected some 20,000 items for Ripley’s over the years.
“I definitely have one of the more unusual jobs in the world,” says Meyer, who confesses that he is a bit unconventional himself. I’m certainly not a doctor or lawyer,” he says. “I’m a little outside the box and a little eccentric.”
Meyer filled us in on the stories behind seven lesser-known treasures at Ripley’s in New York, exhibits you might walk right past on your way to the shrunken heads. Take your time, because some of this stuff is unbelievable.
British Columbia history mural, depicted entirely in stamps
This massive mural covers an entire wall in one of the exhibit rooms. From a distance, it is a beautiful, brightly colored depiction of the history and heritage of this lovely Canadian province. Look more closely and you will be astounded at how it was achieved. Alban Watkins (born in Wales, raised in British Columbia, now residing in Australia) created this massive work by piecing together 40,000 full stamps and 30,000 partials. The result is a truly impressive work of folk art that centers on a magnificent recreation of the parliament buildings in Victoria, with seagulls flying overhead and tiny human figures walking the streets.
A matchstick model of the defeat of the Spanish Armada
Inside a huge glass case that you can walk on top of is a 331-ship recreation of the historic 1588 sea battle in which Sir Francis Drake and the British held off the Spaniards and changed the course of European history. It took artist Len Hughes 250,000 matchsticks and approximately 16 hours per ship to recreate the epic scene. This is just one of many of Hughes’s models owned by Ripley’s, which discovered him in Maroochydore, Australia, in 1994 and bought enough of his work to fill three shipping containers. Hughes’s largest creation, a 17-foot long replica of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, is in the Atlantic City Ripley’s.
The “Last Supper” in spiderwebs; Frank Sinatra in butterflies
Enrique Ramos of Mexico isn’t content to work in the usual artistic media. “Ramos collects the spiderwebs himself and has developed a way of making a paper-paste from them in order to paint,” says Meyer. “He is a deeply religious man and has done several paintings of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” on everything from black beans, to spider webs, to coins, to grains of rice. Among his other religious works are Biblical stories painted on grains of rice oat seeds and black beans. He also works with butterflies, snake skins, bats and other insects.” Frank Sinatra is another subject favored by the artist, and this portrait of Ol’ Blue Eyes is probably the only image of the crooner fashioned entirely from butterfly wings.
Locks of hair from Lincoln, Washington, JFK, Elvis, Napoleon, and John Dillinger
Meyer says that all of these locks of hair were bought by Ripley at public auction and that all have been DNA-tested and verified. “The Washington and Elvis samples are amongst the biggest known,” he says. “Napoleon asked that his hair be shaved before he died so that friends could have a lock of it. The Lincoln hair was taken from his head surgery on his deathbed. And the Washington lock, with seal ring, was presented to a lifelong friend by Martha Washington.”
Lena Deeter display
This young lady, whose photo is on display in a hallway lined with pictures of more conventionally freakish humans, could write simultaneously with both hands in any direction—forward, upside down, backward, and upside down and backward. Of course, only two of those at a time. Thirty years after she became a Believe It or Not! phenom, at a 1976 reunion of Ripley’s veterans, Deeter proudly demonstrated to a reporter that she could still achieve the feat. “I guess I’m just ambidextrous,” she said.
Napoleon’s death mask
This eerie cast of the emperor’s face in death is a 19th-century clay casting from the original mask by sculptor Francesco Antomach (1789-1838). Even Ripley’s New York employees of long standing admit to being a little spooked by it.
Huge German beer stein, part of Ripley’s large personal stein collection
When Ripley bought a mansion in Mamaroneck, a Westchester County suburb not far from New York City, he wanted to stock its bar in style. So he went to the source, buying 200 steins from the Anheuser Busch family company in St. Louis. This fine example was at one time considered to be the world’s largest beer stein, a record that has since been surpassed. “All of his steins, including this one, were sold after his death at a public auction,” says Meyer. “This stein and many more were acquired by the Pabst Brewery of Milwaukee, and displayed at their brewery for years. Somehow over time they were taken off display and put in storage, their provenance forgotten. In May 2001 dozens of the original Ripley steins were auctioned with no mention of Ripley’s in the catalog. Ripley’s quietly bid on as many as we could photographically prove were part of the original Ripley collection. We ended up getting back over 100 steins.” After recovering this monster, says Meyer, company employees marked the occasion by filling it to capacity with 85 bottles of beer “and had a celebratory party using it as a communal pouring jug.”