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Edith Ringling was a Force Behind the Circus

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Edith Ringling was a Force Behind the Circus photo

When, as a teenager, she met Charles Ringling in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Edith Conway had never been to a circus.

By the time she died in 1953, she had become such a fixture at the big top that the press often called her the "Queen" or "Mother" of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

With her marriage to Charles in 1890, Edith Ringling became part of the circus. She took tickets when the circus had three elephants and the show was small enough to be performed in a neighborhood. She traveled with the show nearly every year until 1950, except for a period after Charles' death in 1926. By the time a Christian Science Monitor reporter interviewed her in 1932, she was "running the show" for a week in John Ringling North's absence; the show then included 40 elephants, 30 tents, 1,600 people and required 100 railroad cars to move it.

Edith and Charles Ringling, along with Mable and John Ringling, visited Sarasota in 1911 at the behest of business acquaintances. The following year, the two couples purchased adjoining properties along Sarasota Bay. In 1924, work began on Charles Ringlings' Italian Renaissance mansion. Veneered in pink Etowah marble from Georgia, the two-story U-shaped home surrounded a terrace open to the bay.

The 20 rooms included a large music room, a billiard room, office space, servants' quarters and a basement. Musicians themselves - Edith played the cello and Charles, the violin - the Ringlings installed an Aeolian-Skinner organ in the music room. For the sienna-colored marble floor of the 58-foot-by-30-foot formal living room, Edith designed a rug that was made in France. Adjacent to their home and connected by an arcade, the Ringlings built a home for their daughter, Hester Ringling Sanford.

The Ringlings' grandson, Charles Lancaster, later remembered features of his grandparents' estate, where Edith lived until her death. The entrance to the property was through an Italian Renaissance-style arched gateway. Just inside were cattle guards across the driveway to prevent the cows that pastured nearby from leaving, a cow shed, warehouse with hay loft, mule shed, leather shop, woodworking shop, garage with residential quarters on the second floor, and a caretaker's house dotted the property to the north of the drive. A swimming pool, bowling alley, tennis courts and a small golf course offered recreational opportunities. A truck garden, and later an orange grove, provided some of the household produce.

With Charles' death, Edith Ringling inherited her husband's business interests. She made a name for herself when she used personal savings to repay the depositors of the Ringling Bank and Trust Company, when it closed during the Depression. As one-third owner of the circus enterprise, she was pulled into its operations. By the early 1930s, she became concerned about the leadership style of John Ringling, the last of the five brothers who had started the circus. Resuming her travels with the circus, "Mrs. Charlie" could be seen at nearly every performance and, between performances, reading, knitting or doing needlework outside a small tent near the big top. Between locations, she traveled in a private railroad car on the circus train.

Tarnishing the joy she felt in the midst of the circus performance, Edith Ringling became embroiled in family conflicts over the operation of the circus. These continued after her death in 1953, and spilled over into disputes related to the disposition of her estate. Today, the New College campus includes the Edith and Charles Ringling Mansion, an ongoing legacy of the woman who, without fanfare, helped shape the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.