Albert Ringling portrait

Albert Ringling portrait

Albert C. Ringling


The eldest of the seven Ringling brothers, Albert (Al) C. Ringling was the founder and leader of the Ringling Bros. Circus, which grew from a small overland show into the country’s largest and most celebrated touring circus.


The eldest of the seven Ringling brothers, Albert (Al) C. Ringling (born December 13, 1852 in Chicago, IL; died January 1, 1916 in Baraboo, WI) was the founder and leader of the Ringling Bros. Circus, which grew from a small overland show into the country’s largest and most celebrated touring circus. A second generation German-American, Al grew up in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and McGregor, Iowa, two towns with a significant German-American element and a rich circus heritage. After a well-known circus visited McGregor in 1867, Al and his younger brothers apparently decided to start their own show. While still a youth, Al honed his skills as a juggler and a balancer, eventually becoming known for his ability to balance a plow on his chin. During the early days of the Ringling brothers’ show, when resources were scarce, Al doubled as both organizer and performer. As the circus became more established, he slowly relinquished the latter role. Over the years, the Ringling Bros. Circus grew through its sound managerial practices and skillful acquisition of competitors – namely the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which it purchased in 1907. The circus struggled a bit in the 1910s and 1920s, as the five founders – Al, Alfred, Charles, Otto, and John Ringling – died, one by one, making it increasingly apparent that the organization lacked a sensible succession plan. Nonetheless, it managed to recover in the 1930s under the leadership of the second generation, represented by John Ringling North, the nephew of the five founders. Today, nearly a century after Al’s death, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues to delight audiences and is still known as “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

The Ringling Family, Culture and Ancestry

Biographical facts concerning the family and forebears of Al and the other Ringling[1] brothers are only partially established. Their paternal grandfather Friedrich Rüngeling (also known as Heinrich or Henry)[2] was born in Dankelshausen, in the Kingdom of Hanover, in 1795.[3] In Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, a romantic and colorful family history written by Al’s brother Alfred, Friedrich Rüngeling emerges as a former soldier who fought under the Duke of Wellington with the German Hanoverians at Waterloo, a university educated scholar, and a chemist who became wealthy through the invention of potato bread during a grain famine.[4] Friedrich Rüngeling married Rosina Baurmann, and the couple had two children: a daughter, Wilhelmina, and a son, Heinrich Friedrich August (known as August) Rüngeling, who would eventually go on to father Al, Alfred (Alf), and the remaining Ringling siblings. August Ringling was born on November 24, 1826, in Dankelshausen; he was educated in keeping with the family means and received practical training as a saddler.[5]

According to most accounts, the entire Rüngeling family (Friedrich, Rosina, August, and Wilhelmina) left Dankelshausen around 1847 and sojourned in Canada, perhaps for as long as a year, before arriving in Milwaukee. Presumably, the Rüngelings left their homeland in order to improve their economic circumstances, but the reasons for their emigration are ultimately unclear.[6] Likewise, little is known about the route they took through Canada, where they might have lived, or why they eventually settled in Wisconsin. In any event, the Rüngelings must have Americanized their family name relatively soon after their arrival, for they are listed under the name Ringling in the U.S. Census of 1850. At the time, they were living together in Milwaukee’s First Ward; Friedrich (listed as Henry) was identified as a basket-maker and August as a saddler.[7] Sadly, a cholera outbreak claimed Friedrich’s life later that year; Rosina, heartbroken and in poor health herself, outlived him by only a few months.[8]

During his early years in Milwaukee, August Ringling met Marie Salomé Juliar (b. 1833), a young woman of French-German ancestry who had immigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings in 1845 and settled on a farm near Milwaukee.[9] Born in the village of Ostheim, in Alsace-Lorraine, Marie had spent her childhood in the French controlled Haut-Rhin region. Her father, Nicholas Juliar (b. 1797), had been a weaver and vintner in Ostheim. In Alfred Ringling’s family history, Nicholas Juliar is portrayed as an idealistic character: an “ardent admirer of democratic institutions” who hoped that France might one day become a republic.[10]

August Ringling and Marie Juliar were married in Milwaukee on February 16, 1852. Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to Chicago, where their first son, Al, was born on December 13, 1852. The following year, they returned to Milwaukee, where August seems to have found work in a harness factory that had previously employed him.[11] During their stay in Milwaukee, the Ringlings’ second son, August (Gus), was born on July 20, 1854. The following year, the young family moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin, a town whose history, over time, would become inextricably linked with that of the Ringlings. The family’s move to Baraboo may have been prompted by the presence of Marie’s older sister, Mrs. G. G. Gollmar, who had been living there since 1851.[12]

After settling in Baraboo, August opened his own business, a “One Horse Harness Shop” that he advertised in the Baraboo Republic from June 1855 until July 1856. It seems that business went well, for in 1857, he described his establishment as a “Double Horse concern.”[13] While in Baraboo, Marie gave birth to two more boys: George (b. 1856), who died in infancy, and Otto (b. 1858). As the 1850s came to a close, August’s business began to flounder, and by 1860 the family had relocated to McGregor, Iowa, a bustling Mississippi River town about 100 miles southwest of Baraboo. They would remain there for the next twelve years.

Shortly after the Ringlings’ move to McGregor, the Civil War erupted. Socio-politically, many of the German-American families in the area were in tune with the professed humanism of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party and the anti-slavery movement. Unfortunately, no information can be found on August Ringling’s political views or party affiliation. Although August was of the appropriate age and was apparently fit for duty, he did not serve in the war. It is likely that the river towns of McGregor and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, were heavily involved in the Union supply chain, and that August (or the shops for which he sometimes worked) may have contributed to the war effort by supplying harnesses or other pieces of equipment to the army.

During their initial years in McGregor, August Ringling ran his own harness shop, first in the Arnold’s corner neighborhood of Baraboo, and then at a “new building two doors below Walter and Brother.”[14] By 1863, however, he had sold the shop, and was one of six men employed by harness maker William Koss.[15] The following year, 1864, the Ringlings purchased a house in McGregor to accommodate their expanding family.[16] In 1863, they had welcomed son Alfred (Alf), and in 1864, Marie gave birth to yet another boy, Charles.

By that time, the Ringlings’ older boys were school-aged: Al was twelve, Gus was ten, and Otto was six. As members of a German-speaking immigrant family in the nineteenth-century Midwest, the Ringlings would not have found themselves disadvantaged – either legally or socially. Legally, of course, the Ringling boys were American citizens by birth. At the time, McGregor, Iowa, and other cities of the Upper Mississippi River Valley were attractive destinations for newly arrived immigrants from the German lands, and the educational offerings at the local public schools reflected that fact. Given the ethnic makeup of McGregor and its surroundings, it is highly possible – and perhaps even extremely likely – that the Ringling boys attended a school where German was either taught or was the actual language of instruction. Reminiscing about her own childhood in a little community near McGregor in the 1860s, Amanda Murdock [Murdoch] Wing recalled the following:

The Lutheran church and its schoolhouse were built before my recollection. Helmuth Brandt, a tall, fine looking man, was teacher of German for many years. Before we ever attended the English school, my sister, Marion, and I were sent by our father to this German school. We had many German neighbors and father was anxious to get us started early in that language.[17]

Given that August Ringling had become a charter member of a Lutheran church in McGregor in 1862,[18] it is relatively easy to imagine the Ringling boys attending a school like the one described above.

At this juncture, it is interesting to ponder whether German would have been spoken at the Ringling home. German, of course, was August Ringling’s native language. According to Alf Ringling’s memoirs, however, his father had learned a good bit of English at school and from English-speaking associates in Kassel, where he had served as an apprentice.[19] In any event, by the time the boys were young, he surely would have been fluent in English, even if he lived in a predominantly German-American community. Marie Ringling had spent her childhood in Ostheim; and while the town had a rich German heritage, it was located in the French controlled Haut-Rhin region of Alsace. Thus, there is some uncertainty about Marie’s native language. In the absence of letters and other family documents, historical evidence must be invoked. In Alsace, French was the language of high society and ambitious university students.[20] During Marie’s childhood, it was taught from the early grades forward, along with formal German, in the primary schools. Still, it appears that only a small percentage of the Alsatian population actually spoke French as the preferred daily language; the majority spoke a German dialect as the common mode of communication.[21] This being the case, it is likely that Marie, who also had immediate German ancestors, grew up speaking German at home, even if she spoke French at school. If this conjecture is indeed correct, then both Ringling parents spoke German, and it is highly likely that the boys grew up at least understanding a bit of that language.

Regardless of the language of their home or schooling, the Ringling boys identified with their European heritage, and their parents’ foreign origins played an important role in their self-perception and, eventually, in their family mythology. For instance, in Alf Ringling’s Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, the chapter devoted to the boys’ ancestry is entitled: “CHAPTER V: SHOWING THE STURDY STOCK FROM WHICH THE FIVE BROTHERS INHERITED THEIR ENERGY AND DETERMINATION, AND POINTING OUT HOW GENIUS DESCENDED TO THEM FROM THEIR HUGUENOT ANCESTORS.” This alone makes clear that their European heritage was viewed as a formative influence and even as one source of their later success.[22]

The Ringling Brothers’ Youth and their Circus Beginnings

As the 1860s wore on, the Ringling boys continued to pursue their education, while August Ringling worked to provide for his family, which had grown, once again, after the birth of son John in 1866. The Ringling’s youngest son, Henry, was born two years later, in 1868. August was employed by the William Koss shop until 1867, at which point he opened up his own harness shop near the family home. According to historian J. J. Schlicher, “Ringling’s chief reason for setting up his own shop in this neighborhood may have been that his two oldest sons [Al and Gus] were approaching the age when they would be apprenticed to some master to learn a trade.”[23] And, in fact, as Schlicher points out, the Census of 1870 shows that Al and Gus, then seventeen and fifteen, were indeed employed in their father’s shop, where they learned both harness making and carriage trimming.[24] But if the shop was the boys’ day job, their passion laid elsewhere.

Circus historians Fred Dahlinger, Jr., and Stuart Thayer date the Ringling boys’ fascination with the circus to September 7, 1869, when John Stowe & Co.’s Western Circus appeared in their hometown of McGregor.[25] The significance of this event is confirmed by Alf Ringling’s family chronicle, which offers a dramatic retelling of the arrival of Stowe’s traveling circus in Chapter I, “IN WHICH THE AMBITIONS OF THE FIVE BROTHERS ARE AWAKENED BY THE SIGHT OF A CIRCUS BOAT COMING UP THE OLD MISSISSIPPI.” As it turned out, one of the performers in the circus was McGregor resident Andrew Gaffney, a strongman and cannon ball juggler who brought a piece of his equipment – a belt and socket – to August Ringling for repairs. After August refused payment for his services, Gaffney, so the story goes, gave him a family pass to the circus.[26] The six oldest Ringling boys, who then ranged in age from sixteen (Al) to three (John) attended the circus and were apparently mesmerized. (Presumably, baby Henry, then only one, stayed at home.) As Alf recalled, “It was an old-fashioned one-ring show. It had none of the glory of the modern circus and none of its immensity, but it lacked nothing in grandeur in the eyes of the boys that day, and to the Ringling youngsters it stood out then, and stands out today, as the greatest show, the brightest and most delightful that was ever given [ . . . ].”[27]

According to Alf, in the days and months that followed, the Ringling brothers, led by the two eldest, Al and Gus, began entertaining neighborhood children with scenes from a literary panorama, and then moved on to successively bigger ventures involving a makeshift tent, a goat, a wagon, and a parade. While Al’s account was surely embellished or even wholly fictionalized in places, it shows that there was some connection between the boys’ childhood activities and the beginnings of their circus career – or as he put it rather more boldly, “These first attempts at public entertainment were the stepping stones to their future greatness.”[28]

Another thing that emerges from Al’s narrative is the support the boys received from their parents, especially their father. Although August Ringling was not particularly eager to encourage his sons’ circus activities – and would have been pleased if at least one of them had entered the ministry – he was not going to put obstacles in their way either.[29] As Alf noted of his father, “Mr. Ringling believed in his boys” and had “full confidence in their ability to work out their own best course in life.”[30] It is quite possible that August even offered his sons some modest financial support for their endeavors early on. One wonders, for example, how the boys had been able to acquire a set of parallel bars and a thirty-five foot tent for their first show in McGregor in c. 1870.[31] Details about that show are difficult to come by. In his family history, The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story, Henry Ringling North, the nephew of the Ringling brothers, states that this first circus was held in “a ‘mammoth pavilion’ made of scraps of canvas, old carpets, and moth-eaten army blankets.”[32] According to North, the company consisted of the brothers and a few friends, and the price for admission was one cent. A professed attendee at that first performance made the following observation: “The [Ringling] firm was composed of quiet young fellows of apparently mediocre business ability, and the last fellows on earth one would suspect of being afflicted, not with the hook worm, but with the show worm. But they were, nevertheless [ . . . ].”[33]

The attendee, whose name was not given, appears to have remembered the Ringlings as a firm of harness makers turned showmen. Of course, the harness firm belonged to August Ringling, not to his sons, meaning that the “mediocre business ability” would have been his, not theirs. To be fair, it is unclear whether this rather uncharitable assessment of August’s business ability was entirely warranted. During the years in which he plied his trade, machinery began to do the sort of leather work once carried out solely by skilled craftsmen, and many independent harness makers in McGregor began to close up their shops, yielding to harness firms that sold goods produced by machinery in big cities.[34] Like other harness makers, August would have seen modern machinery and the encroaching Industrial Revolution bring his working usefulness down from a fast trot to a slow walk. Added to this was the strain of various financial crises, including the panics of 1857 and 1873.

An assessment of August Ringling’s skills as an entrepreneur, in the narrow sense, lies beyond the scope of this essay. One can say, however, that he was entrepreneurial in the larger sense, for, when viewed in a certain light, the very act of immigrating to a foreign land was “entrepreneurial” insofar as it involved taking risks for a better life. Immigration exposed August to danger (nineteenth-century sea travel), expense (passage to America), challenges (mastering a new language, setting up a business), and uncertainty (possibility of failure) – all things that his boys would face in establishing their circus. August Ringling may have not passed business acumen onto his sons, but they surely benefitted from the larger example of his entrepreneurial spirit.

On the one hand, August Ringling’s struggles as a harness maker and independent shop owner surely taught the boys much about persistence and tenacity; on the other hand, they also made for a peripatetic existence, which must have been difficult at times. In 1872, the family moved to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, which was located just four miles from McGregor, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. As J.J. Schlicher surmised, August Ringling and his oldest son, Al, were attracted to Prairie du Chien by the prospect of employment in the Traner Carriage Works Factory, which had opened there in 1871. Indeed, after moving there, both found work at the factory and the Ringling family moved into a farmhouse.[35]

Unfortunately, this period of prosperity was short-lived: in September of 1873, Jay Cooke and Company failed, triggering the temporary closure of the New York Stock Exchange and an ensuing depression that would last for years. Two months later, the Traner factory burned down, leaving both August and Al out of work. Given the economic situation, there was no chance of any swift rebuilding of the factory.[36] At the time, Marie was pregnant with the Ringling’s last child – and only daughter – Ida, who was born in early 1874. Without employment, August did what he had done so often in the past: he moved his family, first to Stillwater, Minnesota, where the Ringlings remained only briefly, and then back to Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they had resided once before.[37]

While this unfortunate stretch in Prairie du Chien was surely hard on August, it may have actually benefitted Al. Put differently, it may have been the impetus that he needed to give up the relative comfort of his occupation and finally pursue the path that would eventually make him famous. As J.J. Schlicher noted, “It was probably in the fall of 1873 that Al Ringling, who was twenty-one …, struck out for himself in the career in which traveling with small shows alternated with work as a carriage trimmer, and which led ultimately to the Ringling Brothers combination and the circus.”[38]

Unfortunately, a satisfactory account of Al’s early circus career has yet to be written. At the time, Wisconsin was the “incubator of the American circus” and, as such, it was home to a number of influential circuses, including those founded by the Mabie Brothers, the Holland and Buckley families, and Dan Castello and William C. Coup, to name but a few.[39] Presumably, opportunities for circus work and training would have abounded. Nonetheless, Al Ringling did not apprentice with an established circus;[40] rather, he seems to have developed his expertise as a manager and entertainer through practical experience at smaller circuses and concert companies and through a certain amount of autodidactic talent.

Known for the juggling and balancing skills he had cultivated as a teenager, Al apparently got his professional start as a performer – more specifically, as a juggler and a tight-rope walker – in Frederick White’s puppet show, “The Babes in the Woods,” circa 1878. By the end of the 1870s, he had become the manager of two small shows in which he also performed, in each case with two others. One show, which performed in Bloomington, Wisconsin, in or around 1878, was reviewed in the Bloomington Record; the other show performed in Prairie du Chien from July 30 to August 30, 1880, and earned generous praise in the local newspaper, the Union.[41]

At the time, Al was living in Brodhead, Wisconsin, about 80 miles southeast of Baraboo, where his family resided. In those instances when he struggled to make ends meet in the circus business, Al fell back on his old trade as a carriage trimmer.[42] Back in Baraboo, August Ringling was running his own harness shop on the corner of Third and Broadway, and the family lived above it on the second floor.[43] Alf and Charles Ringling were helping out in the shop, but, as J.J. Schlicher noted, both were “musically gifted and naturally got more comfort from playing their instruments than from sewing tugs.” Music, it seems, had long played a part in the Ringling boys’ youth, and the brothers knew how to play various musical instruments: Alf played the cornet, a small brass instrument similar to the trumpet; Charles learned the trombone and the violin; John played the alto horn, and Al studied the bass drum.[44] As it turns out, the Ringling boys’ musical talents served them well in the early days of their circus.

The summer of 1882, as J.J. Schlicher explains, was the time in which crucial decisions were made about the formation of the Ringlings’ circus. The June 10, 1882, edition of the Sauk County Democrat contained a notice that read: “Albert Ringling is at home on a several days’ vacation with his parents.” Schlicher surmises that the purpose of Al’s visit was to discuss his plans for the Ringling Brothers’ Concert Company, which was the forerunner of the circus. As Schlicher explains, “August Ringling may privately have shaken his head at such a departure from the trained artisan’s loyalty to his craft, but after listening to the arguments and considering the situation he would have yielded. For it was an old rule of the craftsman also that, when the time came, he left the parental roof and made his way in the world depending on his own ability.”[45]

One can agree with Schlicher that Al’s visit home prompted some crucial decision-making within the family, for shortly thereafter Alf and Charles left August’s shop (and home) and joined their older brother in committing themselves permanently to the entrepreneurship of the entertainment world. One would like to think that August Ringling remained supportive throughout this planned upheaval, especially since the history of the family conveys an impression of tolerance and inter-generational solidarity. If August did in fact give his support, then it was surely of a non-material nature, for his finances must not have been promising at the time. Indeed, in Alf Ringling’s account of the founding of the Ringing Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company, he states that “ambition” was the only capital that the Ringling brothers’ possessed, and he explains that they initially made up for this lack by casting themselves as performers.[46] Despite Alfred’s assertions, which are typical of any rags-to-riches story, it is probable that Al had amassed some sort of savings, which he poured into the brothers’ new endeavor.

On November 27, 1882, approximately six months after Al’s visit to Baraboo, the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company made its debut performance in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, before an audience of about fifty people. In the beginning, the show consisted of Al, Alf, and Charles Ringling, and four other performers. (John Ringling first joined his brothers in December 1882, and Otto joined in the spring of 1883.[47]) It was a hall show (i.e. a type of show performed in town halls, schoolhouses, and small-town opera houses), and it featured instrumental music, comedy, and acrobatics.[48] According to Alf’s account of the evening, the young amateurs suffered terrible stage fright and delivered a shaky performance.[49] Despite this, the show continued, travelling to a variety of small venues in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The initial tour ended in Vioqua, Wisconsin, on February 27, 1883, but the brothers gave additional performances in the spring, bringing their first season to an official close in May of that year.[50]

After regrouping during the summer, the Ringlings launched their second season with a new show, “Ringling Bros. Grand Carnival of Fun,” on August 30, 1883. A few weeks later, they performed in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, the town to which their parents and younger siblings Henry and Ida had recently moved. In his family history, John Ringling North describes the occasion in a manner that emphasizes the importance of the brothers’ German cultural heritage:

On September 22 they played Rice Lake and held a family reunion. Their deep German sentimentality and strong family ties had survived transplanting to the New World as it was to survive the harder pressures of great wealth and diverse interests. [ . . . ] So one can easily imagine what a gemütlich time they had that night in Rice Lake, with their parents, their baby sister, and Henry [ . . . ]. One can also envisage the meal that Grandmamma cooked for them of rich, heavy German dishes, and how wonderful it tasted after the slops that were served on the fly-specked tables of hotel dining rooms.[51]

The performance in Rice Lake was likely one of the highlights of the season. Another highlight, at least for Al Ringling, was his marriage to Eliza “Lou” Morris on December 19, 1883. During the early years of the circus, Lou performed a variety of tasks, from performing as a snake charmer, to supervising the wardrobe department, which grew to twenty girls under her direction.[52]

Developing the “World’s Greatest Show”

The Ringling brothers continued touring with their hall shows until the spring of 1884, by which time they had collected $10,000-$12,000 ($229,000-$275,000 in 2010[53]) and decided to start a bona fide circus.[54] In contrast to P.T. Barnum’s circus, which, as circus historians Fred Dahlinger and Stuart Thayer explain, “literally emerged full-grown by the combination of money and astute business acumen,” the Ringling brothers’ circus “achieved success one step at a time, growing from a tiny hall show to a great enterprise.”[55] In 1884, the brothers used the profits from their touring show to acquire the equipment of the Parson-Roy wagon show, with which Al had performed one summer.[56] They also approached established circus master “Yankee” Robinson (1818-1884), of the Yankee Brothers Circus, and persuaded him to participate in a joint venture called “Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Great Double Shows.” Robinson served as manager of the show, which historian Ayres Davies described as “a wagon train of broken-down circus chariots and renovated hayracks.”[57]

At this early juncture, the Ringling brothers settled upon a division of tasks: Al Ringling served as equestrian manager, which meant that he was responsible for the program and the hiring of performers; Otto Ringling served as treasurer; Charles Ringling, the most musical of the brothers, signed on as orchestra leader; Alfred Ringling, who played a number of musical instruments, worked as band leader (later, Alf, the most literary member of the family, would become more involved in publicity); and John Ringling served as a clown.[58] The division of tasks would change over the years – Charles, for instance, later took charge of circus advertising, and John, who was a mere teenager when he joined the circus, did not spend his career as clown – but despite these shifts, this basic model of organization, whereby each brother was responsible for a certain aspect of the show, remained firmly in place throughout the development of the circus. Over time, this model became one of the hallmarks of the Ringling brothers’ success – as one journalist put it years later, “the brothers have been associated from the beginning [ . . . ] and each is responsible for a distinct department of work, which has served to make the Ringling Bros.’ circus a remarkable institution of American success.”[59]

These five brothers – Al, Otto, Charles, Alf, and John – would eventually go on to become the five partners in the Ringling Bros. Circus. As Dahlinger and Thayer explain, “there was never a written contract between them and they shared equally in the profits.” They continue, “A clerk in their Baraboo bank said that an express company delivered the cash from the show to the bank every day, and it was divided into five portions, one to each brother’s account.”[60] Although Henry and Gus joined the circus later (Henry in 1886 and Gus in 1890) neither was admitted on a partnership basis. Like the others, each had clearly delineated tasks within the circus: Henry was responsible for travelling ahead of the show and mapping out the parade route, and he was eventually put in charge of directing circus concerts; Gus headed the “advance brigade,” meaning that he, too, travelled ahead of the show, in his case to post circus advertisements.[61]

The Ringling brothers’ collaboration with “Yankee” Robinson was brief, for he died in New Jefferson, Iowa, on September 5, 1884.[62] The tour ended a few weeks later, and the show was known thereafter as the Ringling Bros. Circus. During 1884, the brothers’ wagon show spent sixty percent of its season in Iowa, the most populous state in the region; the following year, they spent eighty percent of the season there, with the remaining portion spent in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois.[63] As a wagon (or overland) show, the Ringling circus was forced to remain relatively close to its home base in Baraboo, where the brothers eventually established their winter headquarters in 1886. That year, the Ringlings opened their season in Baraboo on May 15. By then, they had a ninety-foot round top tent; eighteen wagons, a caged animal display consisting of a hyena, a bear, monkeys, and an eagle; additionally, they were in the process of developing a menagerie of exotic animals.[64] In 1888, the Ringling brothers purchased their first elephants – a major step for any circus.[65]

Another milestone came in the fall of 1889, when Otto and John Ringling traveled to Philadelphia, where they purchased eleven railroad cars from circus owner Adam Forepaugh, who was retiring and dissolving his operation.[66] The following year, the Ringling brothers transformed their circus from a wagon show into a railroad show. “By 1890,” as Ayres Davies notes, the circus “boasted two elephants and traveled on its own railroad cars under the modest title, ‘Ringling Brothers’ United Monster Railroad Shows, Great Triple Circus, Museum, Menagerie, Roman Hippodrome, and Universal World’s Exposition.”[67]

First and foremost, the move to railroad cars meant expanding the circus’ geographical reach – in 1890, the Ringlings went as far east as Pennsylvania – but it also meant performing in larger population centers. Both changes thrust the Ringlings into their competitors’ territory, and problems ensued. At the time, the harsh competition for circus audiences prompted circus owners to engage in unscrupulous practices, such as defaming their competitors, tearing down their competitors’ signs, and even shortchanging their own customers to ensure greater profits. The Ringling brothers, however, quickly developed a reputation for eschewing such dishonest and unethical tactics. Integrity soon became a key component of their business model. By 1894, for example, the press was calling the Ringling Bros. Circus a “Sunday School Show,” a reference, no doubt, to the brothers’ code of behavior, but also to their prohibition of profanity on circus grounds.[68] In 1895, an article in The Boston Globe praised the Ringling brothers for their truthful advertising, explaining “The Ringling Brothers Never Promise More Than They Exhibit.”[69]

The Boston Globe notice is interesting insofar as it suggests that the Ringlings had developed a reputation for honesty at a relatively early point in their careers. As importantly, however, it also shows that, by 1895, their circus was travelling far into the northeastern corner of the United States. The Ringling brothers’ Boston debut in June 1895 was the subject of lively and detailed coverage in the local press: in one article, the show, described as a combination of “rare animals, clever actors, swift horses, and symphony music,” was deemed a “substantial hit” and “the best circus ever organized in this country.”[70] The same article noted that “over 200,000 persons gathered on the curb” to witness the Ringling Bros. Circus parade and to gaze at the “pomp and splendor of uniformed men and beplumed horses.” Another Boston Globe article published the same month discussed the history of the Ringling brothers’ endeavor, or “How the Ringling Brothers Began and How Their Business Has Grown to Mammoth Proportions.”[71] The article quoted an unnamed “old circus man,” who apparently said, “Well, well, how things change. I can remember when Ringling Brothers’ circus was a little overland affair and the entire outfit wasn’t worth $500. Nowadays I expect their daily expenses are 10 times that, and they own and operate four long railroad trains. It only shows what push and good business management can do.”[72]

To be precise, that year the Ringling brothers played 201 shows, with average daily receipts of $2,685 ($71,900 in 2010); the season’s gross income was $539,753 ($14.5 million in 2010).[73] Thus, in judging the worth of the circus, the “old circus man” was off by a few factors of ten. Nonetheless, he hit upon something essential in his assessment of the source of the Ringling brothers’ success, which, as he correctly pointed out, derived not from flash and innovation but rather from solid and conservative management. For this, the circus had Al to thank, and Al, in turn, most likely had his father to thank, for August Ringling, the traditional German tradesman, had surely instilled in Al – and in all of his sons – the virtues of discipline, conservatism, and thrift. On a practical note, it is likely that Al also learned some basic managerial skills during his employment in August’s harness shop.

In 1896, the worldwide depression that had followed in the wake of the Panic of 1873 finally lifted. Interestingly, just as the panic may have ultimately benefitted Al (by giving him the push he needed to follow his passion for the circus), the depression may have actually helped the Ringling Bros. Circus become established and achieve success. One often reads, for example, that entertainment thrives in times of financial crisis by providing a welcome distraction from the misery of poverty. Thus, timing may have played a part in the rise of the Ringling venture.

By the turn of the century, the Ringling Bros. Circus was performing on both coasts, from Boston to California, where they made their debut in 1900.[74] The Los Angeles Times ran an enthusiastic article about the circus shortly after its arrival there. Entitled “How Ringling Took the Town,” the article began as follows, “Los Angeles has seen many circuses, good and poor; but it has remained for Ringling Bros. to cap the pyramid with a great three-ringed, up-to-date, sixty-five car show, which is worthy of being called the circus of circuses.” The article continued, “Their ‘monster aggregation of aerial artists and hippodromic specialities’ is complete in every detail – and more, too. They have all they advertise and more besides. Their horses are among the finest ever seen in this city, and everything else is in keeping with these nonpareil steeds of white and dabble gray.”[75]

Becoming a Modern Business Establishment

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Ringling Bros. Circus had steadily expanded its geographical reach, and by 1900, it could proudly call itself, “The only circus in the world covering the entire continent in one season.”[76] In the first decade of the twentieth century, the circus focused on growth through different means, namely through the acquisition of competitors. According to a 1918 article in The Christian Science Monitor, “Ringling Brothers, being a modern business establishment, quickly fell in with modern business ways. It took over as many as it could purchase, from time to time, of the smaller circuses that were dividing the territory, and, when it prospered by monopolizing great areas of unoccupied territory, it began to pay attention to larger enterprises.”[77]

The Ringlings’ first major acquisition was of half of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus of Columbus, Ohio. In January 1905, it was announced that Forepaugh-Sells would be sold at auction; James A. Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey, the Ringlings’ stiffest competitor, already owned one-quarter of the show and bought the remaining portion for $150,000 ($3.83 million in 2010).[78] Bailey then sold half of the show to the Ringlings. The sale meant that Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers, erstwhile competitors, were now co-owners of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus, which, as the two parties decided, would continue to operate under the same name. As Jerry Apps points out, the partnership was a good deal for both parties: Barnum & Bailey, which was already in decline, could rest assured that the Ringlings would take an active role in managing Forepaugh-Sells, while the Ringlings welcomed the opportunity for continued growth.[79] Henry Ringling was put in charge of managing Forepaugh-Sells on the Ringling side, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey devised a plan to protect the interests of all three circuses. Each was assigned a particular geographical area: the Barnum circus was given the West, the Ringlings the East, and Forepaugh-Sells the North and South.[80]

In April 1906, after Bailey’s death, the Ringlings bought the other half of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus from his widow for $100,000 ($2.5 million in 2010).[81] The following year, they took an even bigger step, and purchased the entire Barnum & Bailey Circus, of which Otto and John Ringling became managers. As Dahlinger and Thayer conclude, the acquisition made the Ringlings “the circus kings of America.”[82] According to a 1907 article in Billboard magazine, the Ringlings had paid $410,000 ($9.81 million in 2010) for the Barnum & Bailey show, which included “all livestock, both horses and wild animals, and all real estate and buildings in this country and in England, owned by the company for show purposes.”[83] They also paid an unnamed amount for the use of the Barnum & Bailey name.[84] In order to finance the acquisition, the brothers had taken out a $360,000 loan from a New York banker.[85]

Later, in November 1907, the Ringling Brothers celebrated the 25th anniversary of their circus. Shortly thereafter, however, they marked a much less happy occasion: the death of Gus (or Augustus) Ringling at age fifty-five on December 18. The first of the brothers to pass away, Gus died in New Orleans of “a complication of diseases.”[86]

In 1908, the Ringling Brothers operated two large shows for the first time (that year, in order to devote more attention to the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the brothers took the Forepaugh-Sells show off the road). The Ringlings relied on scheduling to prevent the two circuses from competing – that meant that no one city ever hosted both circuses in a given year. In 1908, as was customary, the Barnum & Bailey circus opened its season in New York City’s Madison Square Garden; in 1909, the Ringling Bros. Circus performed in that venue for the very first time. While their Madison Square Garden show was something of a milestone for the brothers, the performance itself was poorly received by the New York audience, which seemed to prefer the Barnum & Bailey show. According to circus historian Richard J. Reynolds III, “New Yorkers proved skeptical of the offering by these brothers out of bucolic Baraboo. The 1909 date at Madison Square Garden was a flop at the gate. It seems the finicky metropolitans preferred Barnum & Bailey for their Madison Square Garden.”[87] Perhaps New Yorkers felt some sort of regional affinity with Barnum & Bailey, which was headquartered in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Ringlings’ reception in New York may have been poor, but their profits for the year were anything but: in 1909, they cleared $1 million ($24.7 million in 2010), which they split five ways, according to custom.[88]

By the 1910s, the introduction of new technologies had begun to affect Americans’ leisure-time and entertainment preferences, making it more difficult for circus owners to attract audiences. Hand-cranked record players made music more available to the masses, and silent movies were drawing audiences into theaters. Moreover, automobiles were appearing on city streets, making it difficult to mount elaborate circus parades.[89] Still, the Ringling Bros. Circus continued to flourish, despite these challenges as well as others of a more personal nature. On March 31, 1911, Otto Ringling died in New York. Insofar as he was a partner in the enterprise (unlike Gus) and the financial genius of the operation, his death was a serious blow to the circus. As his New York Times obituary pointed out, “Otto Ringling was recognized by his brothers as distinctively the financier of the family.”[90] Otto, who had never married, left his one-fifth share in the circus to Henry, the only surviving brother who was not a partner. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, he also left behind an estate valued at $479,242 ($11.3 million in 2010).[91] It is likely that Otto’s death prompted the remaining Ringling brothers to put the Forepaugh-Sells Circus up for sale later that fall; unfortunately, a promising scheduled sale fell through and the circus was sold piecemeal.[92]

By the time of Otto’s death, the surviving Ringling brothers – Al, Alf, Charles, John, and Henry – were firmly entrenched in middle age and beginning to step back from the daily grind of the circus. As Dahlinger and Thayer put it, “the brothers were financially secure and as interested in investing and spending their fortunes as they were in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the empire they had created.”[93]

In August of 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, and while the United States stayed out of the war until 1917, the hostilities posed problems for the Ringling enterprise, namely regarding the procurement of circus animals. One long-term supplier, the Hagenbeck firm of Germany, depended heavily on shipments of animals from Germany’s African colonies. With the start of the war, that source was cut off, and, as a result, the Ringling brothers and other established customers were unable to purchase wild animals from Hagenbeck.[94] Although the outbreak of war saw the rise of anti-German hostility at home, the Ringlings do not appear to have suffered from it. Their shows continued to attract large audiences, and in 1915, they grossed $1,347,452 ($30.2 million in 2010).[95] Interestingly, one of the show’s main attractions that year was the German-born aerialist Lillian Leitzel, who dazzled audiences with her artistry and athleticism.[96] Leitzel continued to perform with the Ringling Bros. Circus throughout the war years.

The year 1916 opened on a tragic note, with the death of Al Ringling on New Year’s Day. As the New York Times reported, “Another break was made today in the famous quintet of veteran circus men by the death of Al Ringling of Ringling Brothers.”[97] He died at age sixty-six of Bright’s disease, a kidney condition. As the eldest of the brothers, Al had always served as the family leader, and as the original driving force behind the circus, he was the one who had always kept things moving forward. For those outside of the family, he was the public face of the Ringling brothers’ operation, the one who “was always before the public – in the performance, in the parade, and on the show grounds.”[98] Within the entertainment industry, Al Ringling’s death was significant enough to prompt one reporter to muse about the “good old days of the circus” and to reflect on the changes that had occurred over the years.[99]

For the four surviving brothers – Alf, Charles, John, and Henry – Al’s death marked the beginning of a period that saw major changes to their enterprise. In the following year, 1917, the U.S. joined the war effort, and the effects of American involvement quickly reverberated throughout the nation. The institution of the draft meant that able-bodied men were in short supply, and the Ringlings, like many other employers, found it difficult to find staff. Additionally, certain foodstuffs, including flour, were subject to strict government control, and the Ringlings could not obtain all flour they needed to make the paste required to post their advertisements.[100] In 1918, the Ringling family sustained another loss – the death of Henry, the youngest of the brothers, on October 10, 1918. To make matters worse, at about the same time, the influenza pandemic forced the Ringlings to close their show early.

The year 1918 also witnessed the U.S. government’s move to take control of the railroads.[101] During the summer of 1918, the government apparently notified the Ringlings that they would only be able to use four locomotives, as opposed to their customary eight, during their upcoming season. That year, in response to various pressures, the surviving brothers made two major decisions: first, they decided that both of their circuses – the Ringling Bros. Circus and Barnum & Bailey – would be headquartered (or wintered) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This decision signaled the end of the Ringlings long and storied history in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Second, they decided to combine their two circuses into one, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, the Greatest Show on Earth. [102]

By the time the two shows merged in 1919, Alfred Ringling was in ill health and had little involvement in the circus. He died on October 21, 1919, at his estate in New Jersey. He left his share in the circus to his wife, Edith.[103] Over the years, Alf had developed a reputation as the family historian and raconteur, and his New York Times obituary featured one of his most beloved summations of the Ringling brothers’ journey: “we had a little money and a lot of gall, and made good.”[104] Sadly, by then, the halcyon days of the brothers’ partnership had long since passed: Charles and John, the surviving brothers, did not get along particularly well, and while the circus continued to expand, their relations became increasingly strained.[105]

After Charles’ death on December 3, 1926, John, as the sole surviving Ringling brother, took charge of the operation. In 1927, John decided to move the circus’ headquarters from Connecticut to Sarasota, Florida, where he and his wife had built a palatial home a few years earlier. In the fall of 1929, John Ringling made the bold but ill-advised move of purchasing the American Circus Corporation, a consortium of five circus companies, for $2 million ($25.5 million in 2010). It was apparently the largest circus deal ever made.[106] John Ringling had personally guaranteed the note, planning to charter a corporation and sell shares to the public, but the crash of October 29, 1929 put an end to his plan. [107] Moreover, the crash and subsequent depression led to a decline in circus attendance; as a result, revenues plummeted and John was unable to meet his financial obligations. At a 1932 meeting of circus creditors and partners (i.e. Edith Ringling and Aubrey Ringling[108]), he was voted out of control of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.[109] In 1933, outsider Sam Gumpertz took control of the management of the circus. At the time of his ouster, John was ill, having already suffered two strokes; he died four years later, on December 2, 1936. John Ringling North (1903-1985), the son of Ida Ringling North, the Ringling brothers’ only sister, eventually took over the management of the circus in 1938.

On the source of the Ringling brothers’ success, Richard Ringling, Charles’ son, once said, “Perhaps it wasn’t that the uncles were so smart, but that there were so damn many of them.”[110] Here, one wonders whether their very plentitude prevented them from establishing a sensible business succession plan – something that would have greatly benefitted their enterprise as it shifted from the first to the second generation. After John’s death, his estate spent ten years in probate as his affairs were untangled; and although his nephew John Ringling North served as executor of his estate, he was left out of his will, “setting off a long series of family squabbles in which North eventually gained the dominant share.”[111]

From 1938 until 1967, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus remained under both Ringling family ownership and management. In 1960, John’s younger brother Henry Ringling North (1909-1993) published The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story, a family history rivaling the one penned by his uncle Alfred at the turn of the century. In 1967, John Ringling North, who was nearing retirement age, sold the family circus to promoter Irvin Feld, who subsequently sold the circus to the Mattel Corporation in 1971 before buying it back in 1982. The circus continues to operate today under the ownership and management of Feld Entertainment.

Family and Social Status

It goes without saying that any account of Al Ringling and the Ringling Bros. Circus must put the subject of family front and center. From the very start, the circus defined itself as a family enterprise. Their advertising posters, which often featured the five partners’ profiles, frequently in overlapping positions, conveyed a sense of Ringling family unity – or even of eerie similarity, for it was often difficult to distinguish the five, dark-haired, bushy-browed, mustachioed brothers.[112] Family was a crucial part of the circus’ success on a purely practical level (e.g. the work of seven brothers allowed for an effective division of labor), but it also served the enterprise well from a public relations perspective. In the press, the Ringling family was perceived as unique, and, as one journalist commented, “It is doubtful if any other enterprise in the world was dominated by a family of brothers like this.”[113]

That the Ringling brothers were not just family, but also members of a German-American family seems to have played some role in both their self-perception and public image. As previously mentioned, their German – or at least European – roots were romanticized in Alf Ringling’s 1900 family history, and this gave them a slightly exotic air. It was not, however, the exotic Ringlings, but rather the earnest Lutheran Ringlings who emerged in the public arena, where their “Sunday school” reputation for honesty and decorum was linked to their religious upbringing. Tellingly, in John Ringling’s 1936 New York Times obituary, the Ringlings brothers’ very first show was viewed through that lens:

That first billing was an expression of the strict Lutheran training which their grandparents had brought from Germany with the original name of Ruengling, pronounced the way the family later spelled it. It was a training which made the grandsons explain proudly at the height of their success that their circuses never gave performances on Sunday, and were entirely of “good, clean fun.”[114]

While the relationship between the seven Ringling brothers was always paramount, quotes of this kind make clear that the older generation also had a strong influence on the development of their circus. In particular, August Ringling, the boys’ harness-maker father, seems to have instilled in them the values of discipline, skill, and craftsmanship.

In Baraboo, Wisconsin, the Ringlings were also part of a large extended family with ties to both the German-American and circus communities. Their maternal cousins the Gollmar Bros. established a relatively small but successful circus in Baraboo in 1890. Like the Ringlings, the Gollmars were a large family of boys – eight to be precise, five of whom were involved in the circus. They were the sons of Mary Gollmar, who was Marie Ringling’s sister.[115] Another set of Ringling maternal cousins, Henry and Corwin Moeller, made circus wagons for both the Ringling Bros. and the Gollmar Bros.[116]

Outside of the family, Al Ringling appears to have established good working relationships with colleagues and supporters in the Baraboo community. Al and his brothers, along with their father, were members of Baraboo’s Masonic Lodge, No. 34. Their Masonic membership facilitated their networking efforts, and the bond between the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Shriners (a Masonic extension founded in 1870) remained strong throughout the heyday of the circus. The Gollmar Bros. and the Moeller Bros. were also active in the Baraboo Masons.[117]

As circus historian Jerry Apps explains, the Ringling brothers’ relationship to Baraboo was complicated: “The Brothers were from Baraboo, but not of Baraboo.”[118] Since they spent so much time on the road, many local residents did not see them as major contributors to the community. As Apps notes, of all the brothers, “Al and his wife, Lou, seemed to have the strongest ties to the community and spent the most time there.”[119] The two, who remained childless, built a stately home in Baraboo in 1905 and spent most of their winters there. Today, the Al Ringling Theater, which was completed in 1915, stands as his greatest legacy to the community of Baraboo.[120] The theater, which originally seated 874, cost approximately $100,000 ($2.24 million in 2010) to build and was modeled after the opera house in the Palace of Versailles.[121] It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and continues to host performances and events today.

Among the Ringling Brothers, however, it was John who left the greatest and most enduring cultural legacy. In the 1920s, John Ringling joined the land boom in Florida and began developing land on the Sarasota Keys, with the intention of transforming Sarasota into a fashionable resort.[122] In 1924, he began construction on a palatial Mediterranean revival mansion in Sarasota; it was called “Ca’ d’Zan,” which means “House of John” in Venetian dialect. It was completed in late 1925 at a cost of $1.5 million ($18.7 million in 2010). By then, John and his first wife, Mabel (1875-1929) had amassed an enormous collection of Old Master paintings, and in 1927, they commenced construction on a museum to house their works of art. At the time of his death, John Ringling’s art collection was valued at more than $20 million ($315 million in 2010).[123] He bequeathed his entire collection, which was housed in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, to the state of Florida.


As the eldest of seven Ringling brothers (and eight siblings in total), Albert (Al) Ringling possessed the leadership skills that are often ascribed to the first born. Although all of the Ringling brothers played a crucial role in the development of the famous Ringling Bros. Circus, Al was widely acknowledged by his contemporaries as the “head of the family, the director general of the show, and the chief executive officer.”[124] Under his management, the circus grew from an amateur hall show in 1883 to a professional railroad show in 1890. As the Ringling Bros. Circus continued to expand, first by extending its geographical reach, and then by purchasing smaller circuses and competitors, Al kept a close watch on costs and administrative matters, and stayed true to the show’s original principles of family, honesty, and integrity. By the close of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Ringling Brothers had purchased their stiffest competitor, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and were successfully managing two gigantic shows. In 1918, the year in which the surviving brothers decided to merge the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses into one, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor noted, “The Ringling Brothers brought the circus to where it is today, a tremendous business enterprise, no doubt, made up of spectacles on a tremendous scale [ . . . ].”[125] While that particular writer may have yearned nostalgically for the simpler days of the one-ring circus, there was no denying the fact that the Ringlings had changed the American circus forever. Though no longer under Ringling family ownership or management, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues to tour and perform today. In Baraboo, Wisconsin, the former winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus is now the site of the Circus World Museum.


[1] Ringling was the Anglicized or Americanized version of Rüngeling; the family name also appears sometimes as Ringeling.

[2] Friedrich Rüngeling is occasionally referred to as Heinrich or Henry, which suggests that his full name may have been Heinrich Friedrich.

[3] Alfred Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers (Chicago, IL: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Co., 1900), 70.

[4] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, p. 65, 70-71. Ringling’s family history was written in the popular style of a typical boys’ adventure tale. Alfred’s story was based, in places, on fact, but some parts of it give the impression of popular fiction.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] Alfred Ringling’s family chronicle suggests that the Rüngelings left their homeland after Friedrich Rüngeling lost all of his money after age fifty. See Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, pp. 71-72. One presumes, at least, that the Rüngelings emigrated in order to better their chances in life. Arriving in North America in 1847, they would not have been political refuges of the Revolution of 1848. It is unclear whether religious belief played a part in their emigration: the Rüngelings were Lutheran (August later helped found a Lutheran church in McGregor, Iowa) and might have been caught up in the religious intolerances in Germany at the time. See Kate Levi, Geographical Origin of German Immigration to Wisconsin. Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. XIV (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1898): 343ff.

[7], Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. Census Place:Milwaukee Ward 1, Milwaukee, Wisconsin;Roll:M432_1003;Page:181B;Image:32.

[8] Jerry Apps, Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and their Stunning Circus Success (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005), 1.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 66.

[11] J. J. Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 26, no. 1 (September 1942): 9.

[12] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Advertisement in the North Iowa Times, December 10, 1862, quoted in Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Early Days in Clayton County,” Annals of Iowa, vol. XXVII, no. 4 (Des Moines, IA, 1946): 39-57.

[18] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 12. It is unclear whether the Ringlings had adhered to Lutheranism back at home in Germany. In America, the family attended Lutheran churches, first in McGregor, and then in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. “On May 30, 1864, the first Lutheran congregation of McGregor was founded, and a constitution was drawn and signed by ten voting members. Among those ten is the name of August Ringling, Sr., the father of the now famous Ringling Brothers of circus fame. Two sons were also members of this congregation,” from The Lutheran Witness, Iowa District East Edition, vol. 73, no. 22, October 26, 1954.

[19] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 72.

[20] By the 17th century, French had become the preferred language at many European courts, and by the 18th century it was the international language of diplomacy. See Robert Ostergren, The Europeans: A Geography of People, Culture, and Environment (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2011), 22.

[21] M. Sorgius, author and Strassburg school teacher writes: “Werner Wittich, Professor of Political Science at the Royal University, in his recently published work: Deutsche und französische Kultur im Elsass [German and French Culture in the Alsace], offers the following sentence: ‘Until the middle of the [19th] century, primary school instruction was entirely in German’ (Strassburg: Schlesier & Schweikhardt, 1900).” Sorgius disputes Wittich’s statement and remarks: “We are not in agreement with this assertion. There was indeed a French instruction book! With exception of the 35 primary schools whose headmasters had no brevet [guide], the school inspectors used French.” On page 65, Sorgius provides a chart of instruction for the Colmar primary schools, showing formal linguistic instruction in both German and French (Colmar is 6 miles from Ostheim, where Marie [Juliar] Ringling grew up). He admits, however, that theory (i.e. the “Reglement” issued by the government) and practice (what was possible to deliver) were often two very different things. Die Volksschulen im Elsass von 1789-1870 (Strassburg: Friedrich Bull, 1902), 64-68 [translation by David Montgomery].

[22] Interestingly, Alfred Ringling’s nephew, Henry Ringling North, wrote another family chronicle in which he stressed the Ringlings’ ties to the quintessentially American Clemens family, whose most famous member, Samuel Clemens (better known by his penname, Mark Twain) is considered the father of the “great American novel.” In The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story, Henry Ringling North wrote: “My grandmother bought a pleasant frame house in McGregor, and there the Ringling boys grew up in an environment almost identical to that of the most famous of all American boys, who lived in a similar river town, called Hannibal, Missouri. Incidentally, Grandfather Ringling's sister [Wilhelmina] was married to Samuel Clemens’ first cousin and my mother [Ida] often visited the Clemens family in Hannibal.” Henry Ringling North and Arlen Hatch, The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2008), 51.

[23] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 14.

[24] Ibid., 14, 16.

[25] Fred Dahlinger, Jr., and Stuart Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage. A publication of Circus World Museum (Madison, WI: Grote Publishing, 1998), 71.

[26] Ibid.; and Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 29-30.

[27] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 30.

[28] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 63.

[29] August may have also reminded himself of how hard his own career in America had been and how slim the boys’ chances for survival in his profession would likely be.

[30] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 76.

[31] History of Clayton County, Iowa, compiled and written by Realto E. Price (Chicago, IL: Robert O. Law, 1916), 233.

[32] North and Hatch, The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story, 55.

[33] Cited in History of Clayton County, Iowa, 233.

[34] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 14, 16.

[35] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 16.

[36] Ibid., 17.

[37] Ibid., 19.

[38] Ibid., 18.

[39] For more on Wisconsin’s rich circus history, see Ayres Davies, “Wisconsin, the Incubator of the American Circus,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 25, no. 3 (March 1942): 283-96, and Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage.

[40] In fact, no formalized system of master and apprentice existed in American show business ventures, as perhaps had existed in Europe – particularly in Germany, with its guild history.

[41] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 20, n. 16.

[42] Ibid., 20.

[43] Ibid., 19.

[44] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 80.

[45] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 21.

[46] Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, 80.

[47] Schlicher, “On the Trail of the Ringlings,” 21. Henry, the youngest of the Ringling brothers, was only fourteen when Al, Alf, and Charles started performing in 1882; he joined the circus four years later, in 1886. Gus, who as a boy had entertained with Al, continued to work in the carriage trimming business and first joined his brothers in 1890.

[48] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 72.

[49] See Ringling, Life Story of the Ringling Brothers, Chapter VII.

[50] North and Hatch, The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story, 66-70.

[51] Ibid., 71.

[52] Sauk County Historical Society, Images of America: Baraboo. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004, 57.

[53] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,”MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[54] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 72.

[55] Ibid., 71.

[56] Davies, “Wisconsin, Incubator of the American Circus,” 292.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 72-77.

[59] “All in the Family: Each of the Five Ringling Brothers Equally Interested in Circus,” Boston Daily Globe, May 4, 1990, 5.

[60] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 73.

[61] Ibid., 78-79.

[62] “Yankee Robinson Dead,” New York Times, September 5, 1884.

[63] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 82.

[64] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 27.

[65] Ibid., 37.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Davies, “Wisconsin, Incubator of the American Circus,” 293.

[68] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 81.

[69] “Truthful Advertising,” The Boston Globe, June 21, 1895, 2.

[70] “On the Town,” The Boston Globe, June 25, 1895, 2.

[71] “Their First Elephant,” The Boston Globe, June 12, 1895, 5.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 73.

[74] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 84.

[75] “How Ringling Took the Town,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1990, 17.

[76] Route Book: Ringling Bros.’ World’s Greatest Shows, Season 1900, quoted in Apps, Ringlingville USA, 88.

[77] “The Ringling Brothers,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 1918, 16.

[78] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 115.

[79] Ibid., 116.

[80] The Duluth Herald, quoted in Apps, Ringlingville USA, 116.

[81] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 127.

[82] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 85.

[83] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 139.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid., 138.

[86] “Augustus Ringling Dead,” The New York Times, December 19, 1907.

[87] Richard Reynolds III, quoted in Apps, Ringlingville USA, 157.

[88] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 157, 159.

[89] Ibid., 160.

[90] “Otto Ringling, Circus Man, Dies,” The New York Times, April 1, 1911, 13.

[91] “Otto Ringling Left $479,242,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 8, 1911, 15.

[92] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 172.

[93] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 85-86.

[94] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 191.

[95] Ibid., 193.

[96] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 192.

[97] “Al Ringling Dead,” The New York Times, January 2, 1916, 20.

[98] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 74.

[99] “Circus in ‘Good Old Days’: Death of Al Ringling Recalls Changes that Have Come in the Big Tent Shows,” The Washington Post, January 23, 1916, MS1.

[100] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 190-91.

[101] Ibid., 202.

[102] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 206-07.

[103] Ibid., 209.

[104] “Alfred T. Ringling Dies,” The New York Times, October 22, 1919, 17.

[105] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 208.

[106] Kathleen McDermott, review of Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911-1936, by David C. Weeks, The Business History Review, vol. 68, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 168.

[107] Ibid.

[108] Aubrey Ringling had inherited a share in the company from her deceased husband Richard Ringling, the son of Alfred Ringling.

[109] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 211.

[110] Richard Ringling, quoted in Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 73.

[111] McDermott, review of Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911-1936, p. 168, and Ron Briley, review of Big Top Brass: John Ringling North and the Circus, by David Lee Hammarstrom, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 77, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 227.

[112] “The Ringling Brothers,” 16.

[113] “All in the Family: Each of the Five Ringling Brothers Equally Interested in Circus,” 5.

[114] “John Ringling Dies of Pneumonia at 70,” The New York Times, December 2, 1936, 27.

[115] Dahlinger and Thayer, Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage, 87.

[116] Sauk County Historical Society, Images of America: Baraboo, 55.

[118] Apps, Ringlingville USA, 154.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid., 205.

[121] Ibid., 204.

[122]John and Mable Ringling,” The Ringling Museum.

[123] Ibid.

[124] “All in the Family: Each of the Five Ringling Brothers Equally Interested in Circus,” 5.

[125] “The Ringling Brothers,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 1918, 16.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Albert C. Ringling
  • Coverage 1852-1916
  • David Montgomery
  • Author Kelly McCullough
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date April 17, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018