Believe it or not, Leroy Ripley was a ballplayer; he played semi-pro ball in Santa Rosa and tried out for the New York Giants while still a cartoonist. But he never made it to the bigs, so he had to fall back on every sport’s fan’s backup plan: a headful of trivia. Ripley was working as a sportswriter; his great contribution to the vernacular of his trade was to coin the phrase "Murderer’s Row", commemorating the potent bat of hard-luck Wally Pipp, the man who missed a game for a headache and saw an unknown rookie named Lou Gehrig take his space (believe it or not!). His cartoon, Champs and Chumps, arrived 1918, a few years after an injury had ended Ripley’s dream of being a professional baseball player. It featured sports trivia: the first strip, written and drawn as a spacefiller, contained items about backwards walkers and broad jumps on ice. Ripley soon abandoned the sports conceit and sloughed off the name, just as he had abandoned "Leroy" in favor of the more athletic-sounding "Bob". His new strip, Believe It or Not (originally drawn and researched by Ripley; eventually researched by a crack staff aided by the New York Public Library and drawn by assistants and freelancers, including an adolescent Sparky Schultz), was a modest success. And then Ripley took a jab at Charles Lindbergh. He claimed that the celebrated aviator, then at the pre-isolationist height of his popularity, was not the first or the second man to fly across the Atlantic, but the sixty-seventh. Outraged letters poured in by the tens of thousands, but Ripley was right — two airships had made the journey before — and Ripley’s next book sold hugely. From there, Ripley moved on to radio, television, and, of course, his Odditoriums. The Odditoriums are descendents of the dime museum and the carny sideshow; as any visitor will tell you, the wax figures and portraits in toast have a certain charm, but what I think really sold tickets was the shrunken heads. Jivaro’s shrunken heads may not be the Körperwelten, that Germanic corpseworld, industrial charnel house (link via Long story, short pier), but shrunken heads are plenty outlandish enough to put fannies in the chairs. The Mütter Museum has the Ripley-esque thrills of giant tumors, human horns, and monster babies, the Philippi Mummies are both creepy and unthreatening (with the appeal of the mysterious embalming fluid created to rival that of ancient Egypt), but the Jivaro heads (most originally from Ripley’s own collection) appeal to impulses that would have made Barnum proud. They allow tourists to think about hearts of darkness (no matter that they’re from South America) and the superiority of Orlando, Chicago, and other outposts of Ripleyana. They allow people to gape at freakish spectacle while masking it as mere anthropological interest. They invite the viewer to ask whether they’re real or fake, and, in either case, how they were made. And they are, in their own horrible way, iconic and even cute. Racing backwards and broad jumping couldn’t hold a candle (not even that of the Lighthouse Man) to a genuine artifact of oddity like a shrunken head. And with a showman’s insight that might have done Barnum proud, Ripley prospered, becoming the first cartoonist to make a million dollars, marrying a beauty queen, and devoting less and less time to his strip and more to his travels before dying young during the filming of the first season of his television show. It’s since been revived twice, and today the name, the still-running comic strip, and all forty-odd Odditoriums are owned by Jim Pattison, a Canadian billionaire. And if you read the story in the newspaper, you just might not believe it.