John Ringling and his brothers numbered too many (there were 7 in total) to take over their father’s small harness making business in a small Wisconsin town. Their future looked to be set as farmers when “Popcorn George’s Show,” a circus, wintered in their town.
The circus ordered 20 harnesses from John’s father and when two of his sons went to collect the money they returned with the idea for their own future in show business. The Ringling brothers gathered up some discarded instruments from Popcorn George’s and sold tickets for their own show at the local opera house.
After they recovered from their stage fright, the brothers realized they’d more than recouped their investment. Five of the brothers, including 15-year old John, were ready for more. They joined a troubadour group making the rounds in the Northwest.
Their first season on the road earned them $300 which they spent on “store clothes” and fancy 1880s hats…which convinced their German grandmother that they were going to hell.
Their second season featured a grander show. They hired their own wagons, Al juggled, John sang and clowned, Alfred and Charles played wind instruments and Otto played the drums. “The Ringling Brothers Comedy Concert Company” soon added a trick horse, bear and a contortionist.
When the contortionist began to bring in more people than any other act, the brothers shifted their focus to hiring performers instead of doing acts themselves. They added wild animals too like a hyena, a lion and a kangaroo.
Two years later they’d expanded enough to compete head-to-head with Barnum & Bailey. The two outfits peacefully agreed to divide the U.S. between them and though the Ringlings repeatedly asked to perform in New York, James Bailey denied the request until his death in 1906 when the Ringlings bought his circus from his widow.
The brothers continued to buy up other circuses and acts and called in their two brothers, who had not initially joined the venture, to come help. They all promised to retire by the time they were 50. Of course, none of them did.
As they grew older, the brothers became more conservative and less sensationalist. Ringling Bros. dropped the wild animal acts from their company because they thought it was too impressionable for children to see “Mabel Stark in a cage with fourteen snarling tigers and a black jaguar.”
They also chafed against the idea that wild animals were taught their tricks by cruel methods. Now the brothers were only interested in “playful animals such as seals, dogs, horses and elephants.”
As the circus hit its peak, the brothers numbers tumbled into a steep, tragic decline.
In 1907, just after celebrating their 25th anniversary, Augustus “Gus” Ringling died in New Orleans. He’d arrived in the South hoping the warmer climate would benefit his declining health which was only described in the newspapers as “a complication of diseases.” He was 55-years old.
A few years later in 1911, Otto died somewhat unexpectedly at the age of 52 from Bright’s disease. Bright’s disease struck the family again on New Year’s’ Day in 1916 when Albert died from the disease at the age of 66. He had declined quickly within a few weeks.
Henry, the youngest brother, passed in 1918 of “heart and other internal disorders” just as the flu epidemic began to spread and forced the surviving brothers to temporarily shutter the show.
The next year, Alfred, who had been ill for some time died too.
The shortage of manpower, materials, railroad restrictions and the 1918-9 flu pandemic led them to finally merge Ringling Bros with Barnum & Bailey. John and Charles moved their headquarters to Sarasota, Florida where they had successful real estate investments.
Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John”), John’s Venetian palace was built in 1926 but he and his wife Mable would only enjoy the house for three years. Mable died from Addison’s disease complicated by diabetes in 1929 at the age of 54. Not long after, his last surviving brother, Charles, became ill.
First Charles suffered a nervous breakdown and then a terrible, but seemingly innocuous, cold. The day he was pronounced out of danger by the doctors, he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. John was now the sole surviving brother.
John’s health declined and he suffered two strokes. In 1933, the circus board and its partners (the partners were now his brothers’ widows Edith and Aubrey Ringling) voted John out for his poor financial decisions.
The great Depression left John Ringling nearly penniless when he died in 1936 from pneumonia. Some reports claimed he had only $300 in the bank but his family fought over his estate in the courts for nearly 10 years.
A number of claims against it for taxes, debts and mortgages meant the size of the estate took some time to determine (actually $23.5 million in the end). A trust established with the state of Florida saved his home and art collection from creditors. In exchange for the estate, Florida paid John’s second wife (and ex-wife) Emily Haag Ringling $1.*
*We’ll talk about Mabel and Emily in the next post: “Three Ring Circus: John Ringling’s Love Life.”
The brother’s only sister, Ida, married a divorcée twice her age (who had a daughter the same age as Ida).
In John’s final years he broke off all contact with Ida and her children (she had three in total). Her son, John Ringling North, served as executor of John’s will despite being left out of the will himself.
Once the dust settled, North would gain most of the control over the estate and circus. He would preside over the family business until his retirement in 1967 when the circus was sold outside the family to Feld Entertainment. Feld will close the circus next month (May 2017) after 146 years.
“Perhaps it wasn’t that my uncles were so smart, but that there were so damn many of them.”
-Richard Ringling, Charles’ son