We make the pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia every year, old friends from high school, plus our respective husbands and kids. Our mission: to spend as much time as possible on the beach and with each other, toasting s’mores, reminiscing about old times. We all agree that beaches are better than amusement parks, but this year there is one thing the children won’t stop talking about: Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. The children have been obsessed with popular Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books all year, and they just have to check out Ripley’s IRL (In Real Life).
And this is how we find ourselves, sand in our hair, bathing suits still damp from the beautiful brown sand and bath-temperature water at Cavendish Beach, staring at a larger than life portrait of Ellen Degeneres made from coffee beans, four hunks of concrete from the Berlin Wall, and a video about funeral rites in Ghana – just a selection of the many weird and wonderful oddities that we will see over the next 45 minutes.
The Beginning: Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Cartoons
Robert Ripley was a cartoonist, and made his first sport-themed Believe It or Not! cartoon in 1918…but as an adventurous spirit, there was no way he could stay bound to his desk. In 1922, the creative explorer, like many privileged men at the time, donned his safari helmet and embarked on a trip around the globe, bringing back a journal full of tales from foreign lands, and souvenirs: oddities that included such gory items as shrunken human heads.
The oddities and facts he collected would inform Ripley’s cartoons, each one featuring two or three “unbelievable” facts. Every fact documented in his cartoons, claimed Ripley, could be proven. In 1923, Ripley hired a full-time researcher to assist him with this promise.
Ripley’s concept was insanely popular, and the first Believe It or Not! book was published in 1929 – much earlier than the first Guinness Book of World Records published 26 years later, in 1955.
After his death in 1949, the Ripley’s brand continued in print and television. In 2004, Ripley’s publishing was formed, producing the popular Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books en masse. These are the books my kids devour.
The cartoon strip – the longest continually running cartoon in the world – continues to this day as a syndicate, employing a single cartoonist, and a single researcher.
But there was more to Ripley than cartoons. Ripley had to find a way to store and display his treasures – so he created his own exhibition space. The first Ripley’s Odditorium – much larger and grander than this one in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island – was opened in 1933 at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
The world’s fair theme that year was “A Century of Progress,” but amidst the modern technological exhibits, it is said that many visitors were equally, if not enraptured by popular entertainment, like the Ripley’s display.
It strikes me, as I walk through the Odditorium in Prince Edward Island – one of 30 such “museums” worldwide (although there are over 100 other attractions including Ripley’s Aquariums in places such as Toronto and Myrtle Beach) that Ripley was ahead of his time in understanding what makes us tick.
It’s human nature to be curious, and Ripley knew this well.
Indeed, from 5 years old to 45 years old, our family group on this sunny day in Prince Edward Island is delighted by the exhibits of taxidermy animals, optical illusions, fun facts and aberrations of nature. We gawk at crafts made by prisoners; we marvel at the world’s tallest, smallest, and fattest. We are fascinated, entertained and utterly hooked.
What About Those Heads?
But the trip around the Odditorium made me uncomfortable, and not because of the sand in my flip flops
By ogling at boxes made from elephant’s feet and statues of the ill-fated world’s tallest man (he died at the age of 22), was I being voyeuristic? At what point does curiosity cross the line of decency?
And what about those shrunken heads? The Cavendish Odditorium has one only: a single black leathery doll-sized skull, hair attached, allegedly a product of tribal warfare by the Jivaro tribe in Ecuador.
These days, the display of such artifacts would be called cultural thievery. According to a 2019 article by The Art Newspaper, a monthly international print publication, The Pitt Rivers Museum in the United Kingdom, which also holds a collection of shrunken heads, called tsantsas, admitted that their acquisition probably “involved violent and criminal behaviour by collectors who were responding to the appetites of museums.” According to guidance from the UK government, the museum is reconsidering their inclusion of human remains in the exhibit.
Likewise, a recent video by the US-based Smithsonian channel revealed that some of the shrunken heads in their collection were DNA tested and proved inauthentic, created by tribes only to “satisfy the Victorian demand for morbid curios.”
Does Ripley’s Hold a Secret?
With the image of the small, prune-like skull in my mind, I move on to something in a large frame: an original Ripley’ cartoon, dated Sunday, April 1st, 1934, displaying quite an astonishing fact: “On her next voyage – after bringing the Pilgrims, the Mayflower brought a cargo of slaves from Africa.”
The famous Mayflower as a slave ship? When I returned home, I checked Google, which had nothing to say –and Google knows everything, doesn’t it?
Coincidentally, two weeks earlier, I had visited the city of Plymouth, England, where, exactly 399 years ago, the Mayflower sailed on its most historic journey. I checked my notes. In a museum dedicated to the Mayflower, there was no record of the Mayflower being a slave ship.
Could Ripley have held the truth – a truth that in 1934 was either ignored or concealed? Back in the day, who would dare to tarnish the Mayflower story, even if Ripley’s researcher had dug up the dirt, and published it in a cartoon – a cartoon that now sits framed on the wall of a small Odditorium in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island.
As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
A Unique Experience
Manager Karen Stewart has worked at Ripley’s for 23 years and says that the experience is different for every visitor, and she’s right. During my short visit, I was shocked, surprised and captivated in ways I didn’t expect.
I was astonished at how quickly my five-year son old raced through the one-way system and disappointed to learn that once you go through the one-way system of exhibits, you can’t go back a second time. I was also surprised at the price. As a “Double Play” (with the adjacent wax museum included) a trip to the Odditorium cost a family of five over $80.00 – that’s a fair chunk of cash for an hour or so of entertainment.
But overall, I was taken with how valuable the experience was. Despite these weird artifacts having been in the same location at Cavendish for a quarter of a century, I felt like an explorer, discovering something new. Combined with the help of modern research (thank you, Google!), I definitely learned a few new things.
And the kids? Well, kids love strange things, don’t they? They thought Ripley’s Odditorium was totally awesome – just as good as the books, and almost as good as the beach.
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based writer. Her family was a guest of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which did not review or approve this article.