The foundation of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! exhibit collection was set by Robert L. Ripley, a cartoonist, explorer, reporter, adventurer and collector, who travelled to 201 countries in 35 years, seeking the odd, unusual and the unexplained. Robert Ripley opened seven ‘Odditoriums’ to house his huge collection and in 1933 over 2 million visited his first ‘Odditorium’ at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
We see a statue of the world’s most unusual woman. Maria Jose Cristerna used to be a lawyer but now she is a tattoo artist and almost 100% of her body is covered in tattoos. After being abused as a teenager she ‘reinvented’ herself as a vampire; a sign of her newfound inner strength. Maria has titanium implanted horns around her head, across her chest and down her forearms, implanted fangs, dozens of body piercings and two small, metal horns that can screw into the centre of her forehead.
By Maria is the world’s most unusual man, Erik Sprague a.k.a. The Lizard Man. Erik has his whole body tattooed with green scales. He also has surgical teflon implants in his forehead and has had his tongue split in two, in his effort to become the world’s only ‘Lizard Man’. Apparently he is now contemplating having a tail grafted onto his spine.
Nearby, the Crocodile Man wears dentures made from crocodile teeth and next to him is the Blue Faced Man, who was born with a blue face and white hair, although the rest of his body was normal.
On our way to the stairs we pass the jaws of a megalodon – a 50 foot long, 52 ton prehistoric shark that ruled the seas 1.6 million years ago.
Heading up the stairs to the second level we pass three beautiful statues. The first is a Balinese wood carving that depicts Garuda, an idol that appears in both Hindu and and Buddist mythology. Garuda’s face resembles a dragon baring its teeth and flaring its nostrils. A brown snake (the animals that Garuda exclusively feeds on) is wrapped around his shoulders and dangling down the front.
Next is the god Ganesh, a deity worshipped in the Hindu pantheon. Ganesh is best identified by his elephant head and is revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom.
The last statue is Bodhisattva, traditionally an ordinary person who takes spiritual vows to progress on the path toward Buddhahood.
We reach the top of the steps and find Walter Hudson, the 1,400 pound man (or at least a waxwork model of him)! After spending nearly 27 years trapped inside his bedroom he shed 600 pounds and opened a mail-order business selling clothes for extra-large women. When he died in 1991, at the age of 47, he weighed 1,027 pounds and a forklift truck was required to remove him from his house.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask is on display nearby. Before photography death masks were cast from corpses to preserve the likeness of important figures. This one was made from wax and plaster by Napoleon’s personal physician. We learn that Napoleon’s army always marched on the right side of the road, forcing most of Europe to do the same and, despite his defeat, motorists in most countries still use the right side.
A model of a lady wearing neck rings sits on a couch at the entrance to the next room. Neck rings are not only an expression of feminine beauty but also a symbol of status and wealth. Starting with just a few rings at the age of five, the Padaung women of Burma gradually elongate their necks by adding a ring each year until they reach a total of 25. While their 15 inch necks appear to have been elongated, in reality, the 20 pounds of brass coils have forced down their collarbones and deformed their rib cages!
We head downstairs, past the commemorative 1956 Don Larson NY Yankees #jersey signed by Larsen, the only pitcher to have thrown a perfect game in the World Series, and ten other pitchers who all threw perfect games.
As we make our way down the stairs we see the Wall Dressed Up by Tats Crew, a New York based collective of graffiti gurus. The crew is famous across the world for its aerosol skills and this particular piece shows the Yankee Stadium, the Statue of Liberty and everything in between.
We come across a Vanuatu Ancestor Skull – on the Vanuatu Islands widows wear the skulls of their deceased husbands around their necks. Some of the skulls are covered with clay and painted to demonstrate devotion. Next to it is a Dyak Engraved Human Skull, etched with the totem symbol of a frog. These are carved trophy skulls that were worn as necklaces by headhunting warriors in Borneo. They are extremely rare today although in some remote parts of Borneo the practice may still exist. The Dyaks believe that beheading is the only way to truly kill the spirit of an enemy.
The next room looks like some sort of torture chamber. An iron gibbet sits in the corner. In the Middle Ages, those convicted of serious crimes were locked in cages called gibbets, hung from the sides of castles, and left to die. Exposed to the elements and picked at by birds, prisoners wouldn’t last long but their skeletal remains were left on display for weeks to deter other would-be criminals.
Next to the gibbet is a chastity belt. The scary-looking device was originally designed as a ‘safety-device’ to protect both a lady’s virtue and a man’s interest while he was at war. By the 1600s it had evolved into an instrument of torture used to punish unfaithful women.
A spiked collar is next. This would be used with a leash to transport criminals and slaves. Generally it would cause only mild discomfort however if a captive was to resist, the slightest pull or twist of the head would rip the flesh from his throat. Nearby a waxwork model is tied to a hellfire torture chimney. In China, circa 1200 BC, lying was considered a capital crime. As punishment, convicted liars were stripped, chained to a metal stack and slow-roasted until their were just short of death.
Above us is a pig snout brank. This 17th century device was used to publicly humiliate women whose husbands felt they gossiped too much. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing and effective as it deterred idle talk by minimizing credibility and maximizing shame.
Having seen enough torture devices we decide it is time to move on. We pass a bookshelf full of fake (I hope!) pickled heads and continue on our way.
We are pleased to find something a little less sombre when we come across the Lincoln Penny Lincoln Portrait, made of 2,400 Lincoln pennies created by Lionel Pelkowitz.
A 3,197 pound meteorite sits in the corner of the next room. It was found in Nantan, China in 1958 and is believed to have fallen to Earth during the Ming Dynasty on June 11th 1592. Official historical documents report “stars as bright as lightening falling to earth moving like snakes and dragons”. Composed of 92% iron, the rock was first discovered when farmers tried and failed to melt it down to make steel.
We find ourselves back in the land of gory things as we reach the world’s largest collection of authentic shrunken heads. The Jivaro Indians of Ecuador claimed their enemies’ heads as symbols of bravery and displayed them, reduced to fist size, as war trophies. To shrink a head the Jivaros would slit the back of the neck and peel the skin away from the skull. Once the skull was removed, they sewed the head, including the eyes and mouth, back together. Hot stones and sand were poured into the vacant cavity and the head was boiled in a broth of secret herbs. Finally, the miniaturised head was cured over an open fire to give it a distinctive, leathery texture and then decorated. To contain the avenging spirit within, the eyes and lips were sewn shut, pitch and cotton were stuffed in the nostrils and the skin was smoothed and blackened with charcoal.
The first belongs to an African man who is thought to have been taken to Ecuador by the Spanish. The next is a white head, adorned with parrot feathers. It is thought that his head was taken for profit. News of the Jivaro heads reached Europe and the US in 1860, prompting a wave of adventurers to seek the heads for prestige and profit. A white man with reddish hair and a beard reportedly entered the jungle to obtain a shrunken head and was never seen again. Months after the man disappeared, a shrunken head with red hair and a beard emerged.
To stop killing and grave robbing for profit, shrinking and exporting heads was outlawed in 1911 by most South American governments.
It has been an interesting (although slightly gory) afternoon at Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Times Square but it is time to head back to the Yotel. We enjoy a glass of wine in East & West at Club Lounge before retiring to our upgraded Executive City View cabin where the panoramic windows display a wonderful view of NYC!
- Information provided by Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Times Square