Thursday, April 2, 2020

Haunted Circus Mini-Series, Ep. 3 - Ringlings in Wisconsin

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Baraboo, Wisconsin was home for the Ringling family and it would become the winter quarters for the circus that the Ringling brothers would found. The Ringling Bros. Circus would start as a basic dog-and-pony show and grow into the most famous circus in the world. The eldest brother that lead the family down this path was Albert and he built his gorgeous mansion in Baraboo that is now a museum, bed & breakfast and brewery. The mansion is not only home to some former members of the circus, but there are reputedly several ghosts here. Join us as we explore the remnants of the circus still in Baraboo and the Al Ringling Mansion as we are joined by the current owners of the mansion, Joe and Carmen Colossa and Don Horowitz.

August Frederick Rungeling was a German immigrant. He and his wife, Marie Salome Juliar, decided to Americanize their name to Ringling and they had eight children, Albert born in 1952; Augustus born in 1852; Otto born in 1858; Alfred was born 1861; Charles was born in 1863; John was born in 1866; Henry was born in 1869 and Ida was born in 1874. The Ringlings had come from Germany to Canada, then moved down to Milwaukee and on to Chicago and then finally to Baraboo, Wisconsin. August worked as a saddler, but eventually had to leave Baraboo after the hop crash and relocated to McGregor, Iowa. It would be here that the Ringling children would see their first circus as it unloaded from a steamboat at the McGregor, Iowa, docks.  They were immediately enthralled. At least five of the brothers were.

The boys would host circus parades and put on their performances for the local children, charging a pin for admission and then moving up to toys and trinkets and then to a penny and finally they moved up to five cents. They had so much success with this that they dreamed of having their own real circus one day. The brothers all played musical instruments and started hosting a show called "Ringling Brothers' Classic and Comic Concert Company, an Entertainment of Mirth and Music." They would play music, sing, dance, juggle and do comedic sketches. The money they earned from this gave them enough to start their circus and they bought into the Yankee Robinson Circus. They opened their first circus show in Baraboo on May 19, 1884 with 600 people in attendance. Robinson passed away before the circus season was over. The Ringlings continued on and added horses, animals and performers. Henry, Gus and Ida were not in the circus business, but Henry and Gus eventually joined and the circus changed its name to "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals." Talk about a mouthful!

Each Ringling brother had a specialty with the circus. Al was the boss of sorts, hiring performers and leading them in rehearsals and planning the show. He also was the equestrian director. Everybody called him Uncle Al. Otto took care of the bookkeeping, Charles produced the show, John supervised the transporting of the circus and Henry attended each performance. As the Ringlings got more popular, they found themselves in competition with Barnum & Bailey and the two circuses agreed to divide the U.S. so as not to compete head to head. The Ringlings changed the name of their circus several times and added the John Robinson show to their circus in 1898. In 1904, they bought a partial interest in the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus and bought it out entirely in 1906. And then they captured the big one, the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907 after James Bailey died. They would manage each circus separately until World War I kept audience attendance down and many of their workers and performers went to fight in the war. The two combined for good and John would add the American Circus Corporation in 1929. As we talked about in Episode 1, the Ringling family eventually sold the circus to the Feld family in 1967.

Baraboo, Wisconsin had been the winter quarters for the Ringling Bros. Circus for thirty-four years. The winter weather would prove to be harsh for the animals and they moved south to Florida in 1918. But Baraboo would still be rooted in the circus. The Circus World Museum is here now and features memorabilia from the golden age of the circus, like clown props, circus posters and sideshow banners, fliers, 19th and 20th century circus wagons and much more. The museum was founded by the Gollmar Family, who were cousins of the Ringlings, and the Ringling's attorney John M. Kelley. They incorporated the museum in 1954 and officially opened on July 1, 1959. It was then deeded to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Charles Phillip “Chappie” Fox became director in 1960. Circus World features a one-ring circus with two shows a day during the summer. The site here was the original grounds of the Ringling's winter quarters. Ten of the original buildings are still here. We haven't heard of any hauntings at Circus World, but how could this place not have ghost stories?

One place that is definitely haunted is the Al Ringling Mansion. This was the home of the man who really started it all, Albert Ringling. He had the true circus spirit and he survived them all, Adam Forepaugh, P.T. Barnum and James Bailey. Albert married Eliza Morris on November 18, 1890. He called her Lou and that is how we will refer to her as well. He found his perfect match in Lou and she was an amazing woman who loved the circus as much as he did. She worked within the circus for twenty-five years starting in the sideshow as a snake charmer! She did the equestrian act and rode in parades and was in charge of the circus wardrobe.

Al hired a Chicago architect to build the Al Ringling Theater that still stands today. He spent $100,000 on that and then he contributed to the building of the St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baraboo. Al and Lou had their mansion built in 1905. They hired architects Kees and Colburn to design the Romanesque Revival red stone mansion and it was built by Carl and George Isenberg. The interior had hand-carved woodwork, ornate murals, hand-painted ceilings and Tiffany glass. Al died in his mansion on January 1, 1916. Before that, he commissioned a gorgeous $25,000 marble mausoleum with the names Al and Lou Ringling etched above the door in the Baraboo Cemetery. Ida Ringling North, Al's little sister, moved into the mansion after his death.

The Elks acquired the property in 1936 and held onto it until 2013 when two circus professionals and a businessman bought it and began its extensive renovations. Those circus professionals are Joe and Carmen Colossa and they live in the mansion with their children. We had the chance to talk to them about the mansion and they share their numerous experiences with the spirits that share the mansion with them. (Colossa Interview)

Don Horowitz is a New Yorker from Long Island and like us, he loves the circus and its history. We talked to him several weeks ago, so this is before Covid-19 and he tells us how he came to co-own the Al Ringling Mansion and then he shares his personal paranormal experiences in the house and the last one is a big one. Enough that it turned him from skeptic to believer. (Don Interview)

The Al Ringling Mansion is an amazing home, so full of history and memorabilia. Could it be that this historic home is also full of ghosts? Is the Al Ringling Mansion haunted? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
A Standard History of Sauk County, Wisconsin, Volume 2 edited by Harry Ellsworth Cole, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1918

Hops Crash:

Mansion Tours and such:

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