A 2010 panel from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is on exhibit at the Ripley’s Odditorium in Baltimore. In its heyday the cartoon was printed in 38 countries in 17 languages. (Marylou Tousignant)

A model of the White House built with 100,000 toothpicks. A portrait of Justin Bieber with licorice hair and skin made from gummy bears. Shrunken heads from South America. A video of the world’s tallest man (Robert Wadlow, 8 feet and 11 inches) and a statue of the thinnest (Edward Hagner, less than 50 pounds). An X-ray of a yellow rat snake that ate a golf ball.

All this and more can be seen at Ripley’s museum in Baltimore.

Weird? You bet. That’s the point.

People worldwide flock to the many attractions in the Ripley entertainment empire, including its Odditoriums in Baltimore and elsewhere, to be amazed, amused or shocked — and sometimes all three at once.

A life-size model of Robert Ripley, ready to set off on one of his foreign adventures, is at the Odditorium in Baltimore. (Marylou Tousignant)

We have Robert Ripley to thank. A newspaper cartoonist, he traveled the world collecting strange objects, odd facts and bizarre legends. It began 100 years ago Wednesday with a sports cartoon called “Champs and Chumps.” The name was soon changed to “Believe It or Not!” — no doubt because many of the things Ripley highlighted were, in fact, hard to believe.

The man, the legend

Ripley was, by most accounts, an odd child. Growing up in Santa Rosa, California, at the turn of the 20th century, he was teased by other kids for his looks and habits. He wasn’t much of a student, but he sure could draw. At 16, he got his first job drawing cartoons and pictures for newspapers, which didn’t have photo staffs back then.

Ripley loved visiting exotic lands. He became fascinated with creepy tales, unusual objects, and freakish animals and people.

His “Believe It or Not!” drawings, many of them based on his discoveries, were a huge hit. At their peak, several hundred newspapers here and abroad published them. Books, short movies, radio and TV shows followed.

As a radio personality, Ripley broadcast from thrilling sites, including the floor of the Grand Canyon, underground in Carlsbad Caverns, underwater in a shark tank and from a pit filled with 500 deadly snakes.

In 1931, he took credit for making the “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. In a cartoon two years earlier, Ripley noted that the anthem, sung to an old English drinking tune, was unofficial. “AMERICA HAS NO NATIONAL ANTHEM!” he thundered. More than 5 million people signed a petition for Congress to fix this. A 1931 law did.

Five years later, newspaper readers voted Ripley the most popular man in America, topping even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Believe it . . . or not.

Some of the many items at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Baltimore include the model of the Sydney Opera House made of toothpicks. There also are versions of the Taj Mahal and the White House. (Marylou Tousignant)
Ripley, by the numbers
201 Countries he claimed to have visited in 35 years
of travel
3,000 Average number of letters he received each day for 20 years
25,000-plus Objects in his one-of-a-kind collection
14 million Annual visitors to Ripley attractions worldwide
80 million Estimated peak readership of his cartoons

These wooden eggs at Ripley’s in Baltimore were hand-painted using a needle. The collection has 636 eggs, and no two are alike. (Marylou Tousignant)
If You Go

What: “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

Where: 301 Light Street, Baltimore.

When: Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

How much: $8.99-$21.99 for ages 3 to 11, $12.99-$29.99 for 12 and older, depending on the attraction.

Where else: There are dozens of Ripley attractions, including aquariums and wax museums, around the world. Some have
4-D theaters, mirror mazes, mini golf and other features. Prices vary. More information is available at www.ripleys.com/attractions.