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Community Sunday Favorites: The Ghosts of Ringling

The Ca d'Zan was built by John and Mable Ringling in the 1920s

SARASOTA -- Many visitors have heard of Sarasota’s most famous residents John and Mable Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Circus, however some people touring the Ringling Museum or Ca d’Zan (House of John) say that John, his wife, and other spirits still haunt the location today.

John Ringling was born in McGregor, Iowa, on May, 31 1866. He grew up in a large family of seven brothers and one sister. Five of the brothers joined together and started the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884. Although John was just 16 when he started his career, he moved up the ranks rapidly and began overseeing the circus route. It was John who persuaded his brothers to convert the show from wagons to rail in 1890, which expanded the circus to cross country with nearly 100 railcars each season.

Ringling marred Mable, a farm girl from Moons, Ohio. Various stories exist as to how the two met, but Mabel spent time with her family who visiting in Sarasota every year. In the 1920s, Ringling joined the Florida land boom, buying and developing land in Sarasota. The two purchased the sprawling Ringling estate, which now includes the Ca d'Zan (a waterfront mansion), Mable Ringling’s rose garden, which she started in 1913, as well as the beautifully landscaped acreage overlooking Sarasota Bay. John and Mable began accumulating a collection of Old Master paintings from auctions in New York that they displaying in their home. Then they built the John Ringling Museum of Art. 

Some say a priest haunts the circus museum on the Ringling grounds.

Mable died of pneumonia on June 8, 1929, at the age of fifty-four, but many say they still see her spirit on the terrace Ca d’Zan. People touring the building have claimed they felt a cold spot or a presence within the room when they were all alone at the mansion. In addition, some people have claimed to see the shadowy figure of a woman in the rose garden that disappears into thin air. Some think John still lurks around the premise too, but his spirit is not as well known as Mary’s, which can regularly also be spotted in one of many of the baconies. 

Many people roaming the Circus Museum, which houses the largest miniature circus in the word, have seen another more popular spirit: the sprit of a circus priest who worked for the Ringlings in the 1920s.

And then there is Mary. 

The story of Mary began when Keating Center at Ringling School or Art and Design was the former Bay Haven Hotel, built in 1925. Some say Mary, about 18 or 19 years old, was a prostitute who practiced her trade there. One night, she committed suicide by hanging herself, Some believe she was raped and murdered.

By 1931, the hotel was sold to John Ringling, who established an art school there. Students and faculty members have lived in the upper floors since then, and stories and reported sightings of Mary have continued.

Some say that Mary was a prostitute in the New Bay Haven Hotel, which is now part of Ringling College and Design.

In a 2004 Bradenton Herald Article, former student Christina Sicillano describes some of her encounters with the ghost. On one occasion, she saw Mary run across the room in a black night gown. Another time she was awakened by a bright light and the shattering of a vase, then a horrible scratching noise and a pale face just inches from her own staring at 

her. She always said, “Go to bed Mary,” and just like that, Mary would be gone. 

There have been numerous other reports about Mary knocking over furniture, scattering papers as well as unexplained footsteps and door knocks, and the stories continue. 

The next time you're touring Ringling, look a little more closely for Mable or Mary, and you might find you will get more than your money's worth. 


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