Few things threaten my productivity like the annual anthology of bizarreness from “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” It’s a traffic accident in print: You simply cannot look away. Here in these pages, the 19th-century freak show is updated and glamorized in garish color — the crazy, the insanely determined, along with all manner of silliness natural and un-.
The hardest thing to believe about this venerable franchise is that it’s still publishing, still somehow competing with the boundless weirdness that is the Internet. But, in fact, the Web has been a boon to “Ripley’s,” which recently added new categories for Digital, Social Media and Popular Culture.
Anne Marshall, the publisher based in England, says, “When the first book was put together 12 years ago, we leaned more heavily on specialist authors, but as the years have gone by, we have been able to trawl the Internet, finding and checking the world’s most unbelievable facts. In a lot of ways, it has made it much easier, although we do a lot of original research, too.”
About a dozen people work on the annual volume (this year subtitled “Reality Shocks”), and many more freelancers and thousands of fans submit material from around the world.
Of course, you can see the fastest-shooting boogers or that guy who eats noodles out of his beard because how convenient is that?! But Marshall thinks the strangest new item this year is Larry Da Leopard, a tattoo artist from Austin, Tex. “He has covered his entire body in more than 1,000 spots to become half man, half leopard. In keeping with his character, he prowls the streets wearing little more than a Tarzan-like loincloth and a leopard-print jacket.”
Something to check out in Austin.
Marshall also draws our attention to Richard Gibson of Louisiana. “He’s been saving his fingernail and toenail clippings since 1978 and now has a six-inch tall jar full of them.”
“This is a question we ask ourselves repeatedly every day,” Marshall says. “I think it’s the human desire to excel in something — and sometimes that happens to be something very offbeat — believe it or not!”
You might assume that years of reviewing the strange items that arrive at Ripley’s headquarters would gradually inure the editors to humanity’s freakiness, but Marshall says they’re still caught off guard. “As a group, it’s interesting to note that we all have different sensitivities: One thing that shocks one person might not shock another. However, sometimes something comes our way that manages to shock the entire team!”
Some of that material — fortunately — doesn’t make it into print.
“The images go before a team to ensure they are true ‘Believe It or Nots’ and that they are truly ‘a celebration of the weird and wonderful,’” Marshall says. “There is also close discussion to ensure the item has integrity and does not cross any boundaries. A lot is turned down that doesn’t meet these standards, and so, yes, as much doesn’t get published as does.”
And you may not believe it, but everything in “Ripley’s” must be confirmed. Marshall says the editors’ greatest challenge this year involved finding the woman with the smallest waist. They had Cathie Jung on file as “today’s living smallest-waisted woman” — coming in at 15 inches, but they’d heard rumors about an English woman named Ethel Granger (1905-82). “Our researchers trawled through collection after collection,” Marshall says, “until they found a picture of her that verified that she did indeed have the smallest waist ever – an extraordinary 13 inches! She would sleep in a corset and gradually tighten the laces over the course of each day.”
Who knows what damage that practice did to her body and mind, but she’s made it into “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Congrats, Ethel.