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Johan Nicholas Ringling (Rüngeling)

Birthplace: McGregor, Clayton County, Iowa, United States
Death: December 02, 1936 (70)
Manhattan, New York, New York County, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Sarasota, Sarasota County, Florida, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of August Friedrich Rüngeling and Marie Salome Juliar
Husband of Mable Burton Ringling; Mable Ringling and Emily Haag Ringling
Brother of Albert Charles Ringling; Augustus Gustave Ringling; Otto Ringling; Charles Edward Ringling; Alfred Theodore Ringling and 10 others

Occupation: Circus Owner
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About John Ringling

Entertainer. Born Johann Nicholas Rüngeling, one of seven sons of German immigrant and harness maker, August Rüngeling, in McGregor, Iowa. After moving to Baraboo, Wisconsin, the brothers Ringling created and performed a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, on November 27, 1882. John played the clown. Two years later, the Ringling Brothers were able to open their first circus. By 1887, the growing Ringling brothers' show was called Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals. By 1900, Ringling Brothers had one of the largest shows in the country and began absorbing other circuses. In 1907, the Ringlings purchased their largest competitor, Barnum & Bailey Circus; The Greatest Show on Earth became the Ringlings' show for $400,000. He was an early settler and developer of Sarasota Florida. He owned and planned the Ringling Isles subdivision that included St. Armands Key, Bird Key, Coon Key, Wolf Key, and 2,000 acres on Longboat Key. He had built the Ringling Causeway and bridge to St. Armand Key and then donated it to the city. John was listed as one of the richest men in the world in 1925. In 1927, he moved the winter quarters of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to Sarasota. In 1929, he bought the American Circus Corporation for $2 million. With that purchase, the last surviving Ringling brother owned virtually every traveling circus in America. Shortly after the acquisition, he lost in short order his wife, Mabel, and much of his fortune. Ringling was voted out of control of his business in 1932. At his death, he willed his house, his museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida. (bio by: Iola)

John Nicholas Ringling (May 31, 1866 – December 2, 1936) now is the most well-known of the seven Ringling brothers, five of whom merged the Barnum & Bailey Circus with their own Ringling Brothers Circus to create a virtual monopoly of traveling circuses and helped shape the circus into what it is today.

Early circus life

John was born in McGregor, Iowa, the fifth of seven sons and a daughter of German immigrants, Marie Salomé Juliar and August Ringling, who was a farmer and harness maker. The original family name was "Ruengling". Five of those sons worked together to build a circus empire.

The Ringlings started their first show in 1870 as the "The Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals", charging a penny for admission. In 1882, it was known as "The Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company". In 1884, they formed the "Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Circus", the only time they accepted second billing.

By 1889 the circus was large enough to travel on railroad cars, rather than animal-drawn wagons. Admission rose to 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.

In 1905, John married Mable Burton. In 1907, the brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus for $400,000 and ran the two circuses as separate entities for a few years. John worked the circus with his brothers, declaring "We divided the work; but stood together." John took the advance position, traveling ahead and booking the appearances and Charles was the operating manager. The Ringling Brothers Circus was renowned for its honesty and fair-dealing

Building the circus empire

His brother Otto died unexpectedly in 1911 and Al died in 1916. It soon was apparent that running two circuses was more than the remaining brothers could handle. So on March 29, 1919, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Brothers World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions!!"

Alfred T. Ringling died in 1919 and Charles took over the management and brought the circus to winter quarters in Sarasota and seven years later, Charles Ringling died in 1926, leaving John to manage the empire.

In 1927 Ringling moved the winter headquarters to Sarasota, Florida, where he and his wife, Mable, had been spending winters since 1909. Property was bought from the city government and shows were put on during the winter for the first time. Mable and John bought bay front property from Mary Louise and Charles N. Thompson, another circus manager who interested all of the Ringlings in land investments at Sarasota. A 30-room mansion inspired by the Venetian Gothic palaces, was designed by New York architect Dwight James Baum, built by Owen Burns, and completed in 1926. It was named, Ca' d'Zan, "The House of John" in Venetian dialect. Later a museum was built for their art collection. He and his brother, Charles, were instrumental in the modern development of Sarasota. John soon became one of the richest men in the world. His circus travels took him all over Europe, and he established a collection of Baroque art. He also acquired a large collection of work by Peter Paul Rubens, called cartoons.

In 1929, John Ringling bought the American Circus Corporation, which consisted of the Sells-Floto Circus, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the John Robinson Circus, the Sparks Circus, the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the Al G. Barnes Circus from its owners, Jerry Mugivan, Bert Bowers, and Ed Ballard, for $1.7 million. With that acquisition, Ringling owned every traveling circus in America.

Other businesses and activities

Ringling was involved in many businesses, including; railroads in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas; oil in Oklahoma; real estate in Florida.

Chatham and Phoenix National Bank of New York, director and shareholder.
Eastland, Wichita Falls and Gulf Railroad, from Mangum to Breckwalker.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, founder, Sarasota, Florida.
John Ringling Real Estate Company, president, Sarasota.
Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad Company, director.
Madison Square Garden Corporation, vice-president, and chairman of the board.
Madison Square Garden Sporting Company, president.
Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Pacific Railway (nicknamed the Ringling Railroad); president and financier. Charted January 8, 1913, sold to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) in 1927. Jake L. Hamon was the operator and Ringling's business agent for the railroad.
Ringling and Oil Field Railway Company, president. Chartered November 23, 1916, leased to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in July, 1925, and sold to the AT&SF in 1926.
White Sulphur Springs and Yellowstone Park Railway, president.


Ringling, Montana was named for John Ringling, who at one time was president of the White Sulphur Springs and Yellowstone Park Railway. John Ringling had a family summer home in White Sulphur Springs and purchased the hot springs there with the intent of building a resort spa and $1 million dollar 220-room hotel.
Ringling, Oklahoma, also named for Ringling, when the Oklahoma, New Mexico and Pacific Railway created the town.

Decline in later life

Ringling’s health soon began to fail and the Great Depression (which gripped the nation almost as soon as he acquired the American Circus Corporation) dealt a severe financial blow to the John Ringling empire. He lost virtually his entire fortune, but was able to retain his home, the museum, and his extensive art collection. His wife, Mable, died in June 1929 and he remarried on June 19, 1930 to Emily Haag Buck in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Ringling was voted out of control of the business in 1932 by its board of directors and Sam Gumpertz was placed in corporation.

John and Emily Haag Buck divorced on July 6, 1936.


John Ringling died on December 2, 1936 in New York City Once one of the world's wealthiest men, he died with only $311 in the bank. At his death, he willed his Sarasota mansion, the museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida. The house, Cà d'Zan, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offer visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s and a renowned art collection. Another of John’s legacies is the Ringling College of Art and Design, which asked to adopt his name because of the cultural influence of the museum and its collection. A museum devoted to the Ringling Brothers Circus has been established on the estate also.

After his death, the circus was operated by his nephew, John Ringling North, who sold the circus to the Feld family in 1967.

The Ringling family

There were seven Ringling brothers and one sister (Ida), four of them (Alf, Al, Charles, and Otto) worked with John in the circus:

Albert Charles "Al" Ringling (1852–1916)
Augustus Gustav "Gus" Ringling, Jr. (1854–1907); also listed as Charles August (Gus)
William Henry Otto "Otto" Ringling (1858–1911)
Alfred Theodore "Alf" Ringling (1861–1919)
Charles Edward "Charley" Ringling (1863–1926); also listed birth year 1864
John Nicholas Ringling (1866–1936)
Henry William George Ringling (1868–1918)
Ida Loraina Wilhelmina Ringling (1874–1950)
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John Ringling's Timeline

May 31, 1866
McGregor, Clayton County, Iowa, United States
December 2, 1936
Age 70
New York, New York County, New York, United States
Sarasota, Sarasota County, Florida, United States