Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about two discoveries she made relating to Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, and invites readers to join her in breaking through a brick wall in Ripley’s family history.

There is a wealth of discovery waiting to be found in historic newspapers. For one thing, old newspapers provide the stories that help you understand your ancestors and get to know them as real people.

For another thing, while researching your family history in a newspaper archive you occasionally stumble across interesting discoveries that have nothing to do with your family, things you never knew before—like what I found out about Robert L. Ripley and the origins of his “Believe It or Not!” publishing/radio/television/museum empire, and his involvement with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In this article I want to talk about my Ripley discoveries, and then ask for your help in breaking through a brick wall I’ve hit in exploring his genealogy.

photo of Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article, 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Ripley’s First “Believe It or Not” Newspaper Cartoon

One day while looking through old newspapers I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this tantalizing treasure, explaining how Robert L. Ripley drew his first “Believe It or Not” cartoon.

On 19 December 1918, Ripley—a 27-year-old cartoonist for the New York Globe newspaper—was sitting in front of his drawing board with no new ideas. He was under deadline pressure to produce a cartoon for the next day’s paper, so “in desperation” he put together an assortment of odd sports occurrences to make a cartoon. He published it under the caption, “Believe It or Not.” He was interviewed on the subject of the cartoon’s origin years later, and his recollection was published in the New York Daily Mirror.

When Robert Ripley died in 1949 at the age of 58, his obituary reprinted that first cartoon recollection:

obituary for Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Here is one of Robert Ripley’s early “Believe It or Not” cartoons with a sports theme:

Ripley's "Believe It or Not," State newspaper cartoon 22 October 1919

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 22 October 1919, page 8

How astonishing it is, that from a single case of writer’s block developed an empire of over 90 world-wide attractions, including wondrous museums and amazing aquariums!

Robert Ripley & “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Here’s another Ripley tidbit I uncovered while browsing through old newspapers, of historical importance: Ripley had a role in making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem.

The lyrics come from a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Key wrote his poem after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. Key’s poem was set to the tune of a popular British song, “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven”) and the resulting song came to be known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Although officially used by the Navy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t the country’s national anthem at that time. Nonetheless, crowds caught up in patriotic fever would rise and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

"The Star-Spangled Banner," Daily Register-Gazette newspaper article 2 January 1930

Daily Register-Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 2 January 1930, page 2

And then one day, Robert L. Ripley started a national conversation about its use with this comment, noting that the U.S. “has no official national anthem”:

Ripley at Music Box, Oregonian newspaper article 5 November 1930

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 5 November 1930, page 10

The discussion about the country’s lack of a national anthem gained momentum. Several months later, President Herbert Hoover signed the act that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem, on 3 March 1931.

"Star Spangled Banner" Is Now National Anthem though Pacifists Object, Springfield Republican newspaper article 5 March 1931

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 5 March 1931, page 1

And for you curiosity-seekers, you can read the first publication of Francis Scott Key’s poem by searching the newspapers in GenealogyBank. It was published in the Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland) on 20 September 1814. No, I’m not going to republish it in this blog—you can have the joy of looking up this amazing discovery yourself.

But readers, I need some help with Robert Ripley, whose ancestry is as elusive as spotting a shooting star on a cloudy night.

Help Me Uncover Robert Ripley’s Family Tree!

I can’t seem to crack the brick wall in his genealogy. He left no descendants and was only married briefly to actress Beatrice Roberts. I can’t discover his family history any further back than his maternal grandmother.

Here are the clues I’ve been able to find, if any of you determined genealogists want to take up the challenge and break through the Ripley genealogy brick wall:

  • See one of Findagrave.com’s earliest memorials, #1399, from Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery in Santa Rosa, California
  • His parents, Isaac Davis Ripley (1854-1904) and Lillie Belle Yocka or Yocke (1868-1915), are also buried there; they married on 3 October 1889 in Sonoma, CA (California, County Marriages, 1850-1952 Database at familysearch.org)
  • Isaac was a carpenter born in Ohio (various California directories)
  • In 1870, a census reports that Isaac was possibly residing in the household of Jason and Phelia A. Stubs or Stutes in Belpre, Washington, OH, and attending school, age 16 (see http://ohgen.net/ohwashin/OMP-2.htm — Ohio Historical Society, Newspaper Microfilm Reel # 38487 — marriage license for Jason Stubbs and Phelia A. Hunter of Belpre on 8 May 1865)
  • Lillie was the daughter of Nancy Yocke (1828-?) and an unknown father from Germany (1880 Analy, Sonoma, CA, census)
  • Ripley’s siblings were Douglas and Ethel or Effie Ripley (obituary); it is unclear if they ever married, but are seen on a passenger list traveling together

We look forward to seeing who can crack this ancestry brick wall first, and promise to publish your results in the GenealogyBank blog! Please post your Ripley genealogy finds on GenealogyBank’s Facebook or blog pages as comments, or email us using our blog contact form at: http://blog.genealogybank.com/contact.

Ancestry Believe It or Not: Genealogy Scams, Fakes & Forgers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about genealogical fakes and frauds, and cautions readers to be careful in documenting their family history.

You can’t always believe what you read—or can you?

Genealogy, when done right, is a pursuit requiring patience, with family relationships being carefully established and well documented. But be wary when constructing your family tree; examine each piece of evidence with a critical eye.

Exaggerations abound in genealogy, many of which can be categorized under the “Believe It or Not” phrase made famous by Robert. L. Ripley (1890-1949).

In order to “prove” more impressive ancestry than they actually have, scoundrels and frauds sometimes doctor documents, create fictitious Bible records, and even sell services to unsuspecting family researchers.

Some of the more notorious genealogy fakes and forgers were Gustave Anjou, Harriet de Salis and Horatio Gates Somerby.

Gustave Anjou (1863-1942), a.k.a. Swedish native Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg

Anjou immigrated to America from Sweden, after being released from incarceration in 1886, reportedly on a forgery charge. He became active in genealogical societies in the New Jersey and New York areas, and proceeded to sell his services as a researcher to wealthy citizens. His specialty was fabricating descent from royal lineages.

Some of his more infamous works included supposed lineages for the families of Andrews, Dent, Duff, Grant, Houston, Hurd, Longyear, Shapleigh, Wyckoff, and many more genealogical frauds. He also published a reference on the Ulster Country, New York, Probate Records. For a more thorough list of his junk genealogies, conduct a search in WorldCat or Google Books.

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Even Anjou’s name is a sham or half-truth. His passport application of 1924 reported his father as “Charles Gustave Marie Anjou” and that he was born in Paris, France. This fabrication was derived from his parents’ names, Carl Gustaf Jungberg and housekeeper, Maria Lovia Hapberg, along with the Anjou reference from his fiancée (later wife), Anna Maria Anjou. The passport application noted he was naturalized in 1918 and that he was following the occupation of genealogist.

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

References to Anjou’s association with genealogy can be found in New York City records:

  • The New York City Directory of 1910 reported: “British-Am Record Soc, 116 Nassau R [Residence] 1116—C. Percy Hurditch, Pres; Gustave Anjou, Sec.”
  • The New York City Directory of 1912 reported: “Am Genealogical Soc., 116 Nassau R 1117—Gustave Anjou, Sec.”

In the following historical newspaper article, we can see the ripple effect of Anjou’s fraudulent genealogy work. A New Orleans newspaper’s Genealogical Department ran a feature called “Who’s Who and Their Forbears,” and innocently quoted Anjou’s work assuming it was authentic.

Who’s Who and Their Forbears, Times-Picayune newspaper article 11 August 1912

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 11 August 1912, page 34

Mrs. Harriet de Salis, nee Bainbridge

De Salis was a noted cookbook author. The title of one of her publications, Tempting Dishes for Small Incomes published in 1903, seems to hold a “secret message” about her second career: junk genealogy. Her culinary skills apparently didn’t generate enough income, so she turned to providing a fraudulent genealogy service, much like Anjou.

Some of her noted counterfeits were submitted by her eager clients to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) . Unfortunately for de Salis, NEHGR researchers typically investigate exuberant ancestral claims, as seen in this 1943 response pointedly remarking on de Salis’s “vivid imagination”:

“The wills of ‘Edward’ and ‘Valentine’ [Woodman] appear to have been the offspring of Harriet de Salis’ vivid imagination—at least no such wills can now be found. After this auspicious beginning she proceeded to construct a wondrous pedigree making Nicholas the ancestor of the two New England progenitors and deducing his descent from all the ancient and gentle family of Woodman of Surrey.”

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 97, p. 282 (1943).

Little mention of de Salis appears in GenealogyBank. Her death date and obituary were not located in its vast historical newspaper archives. Interestingly, however, there is a mention of de Salis in GenealogyBank’s United States Congressional Serial Set archives, referring to her 1888 oyster cookbook.

mention of Harriet De Salis's 1888 oyster cookbook in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Part XVIII. Report of the Commissioner for the year ending June 30, 1892. Date: Monday, January 1, 1894. Publication: Serial Set Vol. No.3264; Report: H.Misc.Doc. 209.

Horatio Gates “H. G.” Somerby (1805-1872)

Somerby, a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, moved to England, where he fabricated genealogies for Americans wishing to establish English origins.

WorldCat and Google Books report a variety of publications on families that feature suspect genealogical work done by Somerby, such as The Blakes of Somerset, John Cotton of Boston, The Searstan Family of Colchester, Pedigree of Lawrence, A Sketch of the Family of Dumaresq, and Notices of the Sears Family.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers report that a man by the name of “Horatio B. Somerby” was a witness at a forgery trial. Although the middle initial is incorrect, it may be a typo. One has to wonder about the association with a noted forger, especially one with New England connections, and suspect this is really Horatio G. Somerby.

forgery trial report, Boston Herald newspaper article 13 October 1848

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 October 1848, page 2

GenealogyBank has a brief notice of his death in London, but this death notice makes no mention of his background in fraudulent genealogy.

Horatio Somerby death notice, Salem Register newspaper article 5 December 1872

Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 5 December 1872, page 2

There are numerous examples of scammers, frauds, fakes and forgers in genealogical research, so remember the famous words of Ripley: “Believe It or Not,” and be careful documenting your family history to keep it real!