Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall (Part II)

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary follows up on an article she wrote back in January 2013 and, thanks to helpful suggestions from some of her readers, tries to uncover more of the Robert Ripley genealogy mystery.

Early in 2013, the GenealogyBank Blog published my article on Robert L. Ripley (see Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall), and – believe it or not – we’re still working on his ancestry. Knowing that Ripley’s family history was a mystery, in that 2013 article I asked readers to help break through a brick wall in the Ripley family tree. Their answers were informative, although much of his ancestry continues to be elusive.

What I want to do now is provide an update to this genealogical quest to uncover Ripley’s family history. First, I suggest you click on the link to read my previous Ripley article, to see what clues I could present to my readers at that time. Next, read the comments several readers left at the end of that article, providing additional clues. Let’s look at some of those follow-up clues now, to make what progress we can in smashing through this Ripley brick wall.

photo of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, c. 1940
Photo: Robert Ripley, c. 1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ripley Brick Wall

As I explained in my 2013 article about the Ripley genealogy mystery:

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.

Prefers “Robert” to “Leroy”

Leroy Robert Ripley (c.1890-1949), (who went by “Robert” or “Robert L.”), did many things in his career, including work as a cartoonist, a sportswriter and amateur anthropologist.

article by Robert Ripley about Honus Wagner and Larry Lajoie, Evening Star newspaper article 18 October 1914
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 October 1914, page 64

Conflicting Birth Dates

Ripley’s World War I draft registration reports that he resided at 136 W. 65 Street in New York. He was 25 and recorded his birth on the registration form as 15 February 1892 in Santa Rosa, California. What is interesting about this is that, at other times, he reported his birth date as 25 December 1890 and 26 December 1890 (thought by some genealogists to be his real date of birth). Wikipedia reports Ripley’s birth date as 22 February 1890.


Ripley described himself as an artist, writer and cartoonist working for associated newspapers at 170 Broadway. As his mother had died several years earlier, he reported that he supported a brother and was single. He signed his name as Robert LeRoy Ripley. Although recording errors are common, it would be interesting to find his birth record to confirm the actual day and year on which he was born.

article about Robert Ripley, Oregonian newspaper article 29 November 1936
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 29 November 1936, page 62

No Descendants

Ripley was married briefly to Beatrice Roberts in 1919. She was only 14 at the time of their marriage, and the couple separated after just three months. They finally divorced in 1926, and had no children. Ripley never remarried, and died childless.

obituary for Robert Ripley, San Diego Union newspaper article 28 May 1949
San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 28 May 1949, page 1

Ripley’s Parents

Robert Ripley was the son of Isaac Davis Ripley (1854-1904) and Lillie Belle Yoka, Yocka or Yocke (1868-1915). His parents married on 3 October 1889 in Sonoma, California (California County Marriages 1850-1952, database at and are buried at Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery in Santa Rosa, California (see

Ripley’s Father

In 1870, the Belpre (Washington County) Ohio Census reports that Isaac was possibly residing in the household of Jason and Phelia A. Stubs (or Stubbs or Stutes). Isaac was 16 at that time and attended school. (See, Ohio Historical Society, Newspaper Microfilm Reel # 38487 – marriage license for Jason Stubbs and Phelia A. Hunter of Belpre on 8 May 1865.)

Once he reached California, various Great Registers (see report that Isaac Davis Ripley worked as a carpenter. His birth place is consistently reported as Ohio, which is confirmed by the 1900 Santa Rosa (California) Census reporting him being born in Ohio in September of 1854.

His Mother and Maternal Grandparents

Lillie Belle was the daughter of Nancy Yocke (1828-?) and an unknown father from Germany.

In 1880, Lillie lived with her widowed mother, according to the Analy (Sonoma County) California Census. Her mother was listed as a housekeeper. She had been born in Tennessee and her parents were both from North Carolina. Lillie was the only child in the household. Her birth was shown as Missouri and her parents as having been born in Tennessee and Germany.

At the time of Lillie’s marriage to Isaac Davis Ripley in 1889, he was 35 and she was 20.

One of the readers of my 2013 article, Donna Bailey, wrote:

Well, this article [Miami News (Miami, Florida), 13 May 1962, from Google News Archives] helps explain a little. It states that Lillie Belle was born on the Santa Fe Trail in a covered wagon on the way to California. And Isaac ran away from home at age 14, which explains why he is at the Stutes home in 1870 already on his way to California, which he does show up in voter lists in Yuba in 1874.

Donna later wrote again, adding more information:

Some more clues. There is a marriage record for a Phillip Yoka and a Nancy A. Card, married in Washington Township, Johnson County, MO, on 4 Dec. 1870. According to her grave at Find a grave [Sebastapol Memorial Lawn Cemetery], Nancy’s middle name was Ann, so this could be our Nancy.

I checked the marriage record and it seems consistent with other records. It does note that the officiant was Justice of the Peace William Fisher, so it is unlikely that a church record exists. I also checked the Miami News article. It gives us the clue that Isaac Davis Ripley was born of old American stock in West Virginia, which differs from records reporting Ohio. Perhaps his roots were from that state.

His Two Siblings

When Robert Ripley died on 27 May 1949, he left the bulk of his estate in trust to his two siblings, Douglas and Ethel “Effie” Ripley. Effie (1885-1965) married Fred Marion Davis (1884-1957) and is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Francisco next to her husband, who was a veteran of World War II. We still have not located the final resting place of Douglas.


His Sister

Another reader named Mallory wrote:

Ethel (Effie) Davis was married to Fred Davis – she was alive in 1947 and apparently in 1949 when she and her husband flew back to NY from the funeral of her brother [Robert Ripley]. She and her other brother Douglas inherited the majority of the estate. Effie was dead before 1971. The family home still exists… Ethel was born in 1893, her brother Douglas in 1904. The father Isaac died in 1905. Robert (Leroy) had to work to help support his mom and sister. There are two nephews named Robert and Douglas (not sure who their parents were) – they show up in local newspaper clippings.

The Renewed Ripley Brick Wall Challenge

So readers, there you have it.

With the genealogy research we’ve done since my 2013 article was posted, we have learned that Robert Ripley’s father, Isaac Davis Ripley, ran away from home – and we have learned the probable identity of his Yocke grandfather, a German named Philip.

But that’s about it – so I am opening up the Ripley brick wall challenge again. Can any of our readers help us get back further on Ripley’s family tree?

Related Article:


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5 thoughts on “Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall (Part II)

  1. It appears that Phelia Stubbs was first married to a George T. Hunter.

    1860 U.S. Census, Belpre Township, Washington County, Ohio
    Gender Age Birthplace
    George Hunter M 37 Pennsylvania
    Phelia A Hunter F 35 Ohio
    Isaac Davis Hunter M 7 Ohio

    “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” index and images, FamilySearch ,(
    Geo. T. Hunter to Filey Ann Thompson, 16 Mar 1846, Washington Co., Ohio

  2. I saw your posting on Find-A-Grave for Lottie Bolstridge. I’ve been researching a side line to my family through Elwood hubbs and Martha Benner. Martha was the sister of my 3rd great grandfather Thomas Benner. Martha and Elwood Hubbs had 5 children (4 of which lived to be adults, if you include charles who died in a southern interment camp as a prisoner of war). Martha died in 1849 giving birth to Elwood Hubbs Jr., who also died. Elwood then married Charlotte Klinger, about 1851 (Charlotte had been previously married (spouse unk) and had 3 children, William, Charlotte and Charles). Elwood and Charlotte has a son, Edward. Edward married Emma Stout. Charlotte’s daughter Charlotte married James Bolestridge. Charlotte and James (from England) had 2 children; Amy and Louisa. Louisa died as an infant and Amy married Arthur Tilley Jr. Amy died in childbirth, as did Martha Benner and so many other women in that particular time. Would like to share info if interested.

  3. Not sure I can add too much more, but strange that no one just reached out to us/me at the headquarters of Ripley Entertainment Inc. in Orlando. All of this material is in our archives — no surprises to me here… I guess I can add that Doug and Robert are both still alive in Larchmont, NY, outside of Mamaroneck. They are the children of Doug Ripley, who I am sure is buried there. Note they also have children, and Robert’s grand niece Rebecca, now living in Ohio, also has a next generation. Not sure if her brother also has children.

    I’m pretty sure you have Beatrice’s age wrong. An age of 18 or 19 is correct, not 14… and they were divorced in 1923, not 1926. Interesting to note that he kept in contact with her at least up until 1940 and probably longer. Beatrice had relatives still alive in 2015 who donated wedding pictures and other memorabilia to the Ripley Archives via a meeting with myself in New York City.

    FYI: Derek Copperthwaite, who built the Ripley Memorial Museum in Santa Rosa in 1971, though frail, is still alive in Ontario, Canada, just outside of Toronto. Several pieces in that collection (now part of our archives) were donated by sister Ethel. I suspect the date of her death is more likely 1969 than 1965 as stated above. Not sure if Derek personally met her, but he might have. Charles Thielen (deceased), who was our long-time museum manager in San Francisco, knew her well in the 60s. The long-time manager of the Santa Rosa Ripley Museum, John Hacku, is still alive and near Santa Rosa. He might also have personal remembrances of Ethel.

    It may sound odd, but we at Ripley’s were never very interested in the siblings — just Robert. We have a few details related to their brother in our archives, but not much more than can be found by looking at Neal Thompson’s biography of Ripley called “A Curious Man.”

    Edward Meyer — Ripley archivist for the last 40 years, recently retired.

  4. Edward,

    Thank you for your input. Always good to have someone take a fresh look at the data.


  5. The obituary for John C. F. Ripley published in The Daily Times (New Philadelphia, Ohio), 1 July 1946, states that he is the “uncle of Bob (Believe-it-or-not) Ripley, internationally famous cartoonist.” It lists John’s parents as Wilbur and Elmira Ripley. I have been unable to find documentation on either of them.

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