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Sunday Favorites: A Worldly Purgatory for the Ringlings

John Ringling had big plans for his remains when he died; however, his wishes were never completed.

SARASOTA —Today one can visit the graves of John and Mable Ringling —and John’s sister Ida Ringling—on the grounds Ca’ d’Zan, surrounded by John’s treasured statues and Mable’s beloved roses. 

However, the trio wasn’t always buried on the plot overlooking John and Mable’s prized 36,000 square-foot mansion in Sarasota. 

In fact, it took more than 50 years for the bodies of the couple to be placed on the estate, and more than 40 years for family members to have Ida buried next to them. 

After all that time, one would think the bodies would have been placed in a crypt the Ringlings designed in the courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art

However, today the graves are located on the opposite end of the property, near the Ca’ d’Zan.

Early on, John had plans to build a museum on the grounds of the Ca’ d’Zan, or “House of John,” a Gatsby-like mansion located on Sarasota Bay. 

The house had been the dream home of John and Mable, inspired by their European travels.  

It was completed just in time for Christmas 1926, after two years of construction and $1.5 million in costs.

John had also built the Ringling Museum of Art to house his extensive art collection he purchased during his days as a circus tycoon, railroad barren and land developer.

He believed the museum would serve as a memorial for himself and Mable on the property adjacent to their home.

It was no surprise that the couple, which delighted in luxurious items, thought to construct a grand mausoleum under a statue of David just opposite the entrance of a museum, for their bodies to rest when they passed away. 

Mabel Ringling sits in one of her gardens near the Ca'd'Zan in Sarasota.

However, they did not expect their legacy to be cut short, or that their dream of being laid to rest in the extravagant tomb they had prepared would never come to fruition.

Only three years after the completion of the Ca’ d’Zan, Mable died from Addison’s disease and the complications of diabetes.

After Mable passed, John’s world fell apart.

Most of his colleagues and family turned on him, and his marriage to his second wife, Emily Haag Buck, was both tumultuous and traumatic.

“His second marriage…began in 1930 when he was 64," wrote author Jeff LaHurd in his book "The Hidden History of Sarasota." “It was an unimagined disaster ending in a drawn-out, acrimonious, tabloid-type divorce, with juicy claims and counterclaims played up in the press throughout the country.”

After a whirlwind of misfortune, John ended his life, cash-strapped, debt-ridden and hounded by creditors.

John died in New York Dec. 2, 1936 with his closest friend and his sister Ida by his side. 

His passing came one day before his estate and furnishings were to be sold for auction. The former multimillionaire had only $400 to his name at the time of his death. 

On Dec 3, the headline of the Sarasota Herald read: “Bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Ringling Will Rest in Art Museum Crypt.” 

John Ringling built a crypt for he and Mable under the David statue pictured above. The idea was they would be able to look over the visitors to their museum.

The headline could not have been more wrong.

John would rest in a temporary grave for more than 55 years before returning to the Ca’ d’Zan.

Instead of the mausoleum, John joined Mable in the receiving vault at the Brookside Cemetery in Englewood, New Jersey. Ida was “temporarily interred” with her favorite brother and sister-in-law in 1950.

Complications prevented their transfer to Sarasota.

When John Ringling died, he left his estate to the people of Florida, but litigation with creditors went on for a decade until the property finally passed unencumbered to the state. During this time, Ca’ d’Zan remained closed. 

The care of the grounds was largely neglected during the interim due to a lack of funds.

“By the late '90s, Ca’ d’Zan was in such a state of disrepair, it was used as the location for Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion in the 1996 Hollywood remake of Charles Dickens’ classic 'Great Expectations',” according to the Ringling website.

In 1957, another article in the Sarasota Herald pointed out that the crypt, meant to house the Ringling remains, was being used for museum storage. The writer, Lawrence Dame, described the Ringling’s desire to be buried near their art as “a little-known dream…. that has never been realized.”

After 50 years of lying in a temporary grave, the remains of John, Mable and John's sister Ida were moved to the Ringling grounds, but not placed in the crypt.

The bodies of the Ringlings were transferred to different vaults while trustees of the museum dealt with the quandary of where to put their remains. 

In the '60s, Joe McKennon went to the state with a proposal of a new mausoleum to be constructed on the property, but nothing came of his proposal.

In 1987, John Ringling North, Ida’s son, finally had the remains brought to the area. He decided to bury all three bodies near the Ca’ d’Zan, not inside the crypt. A board of museum trustees voted 8-1 to fund North’s request. 

A court battle ensued, involving other family members who wanted the trio buried elsewhere. 

Finally, on August 24, 1990, John, Mable and Ida were finally laid to rest on Ringling grounds in a “modest plot about as far away from their art museum as they could be and still be on Ringling property,” as LaHurd put it.

Simple marble headstones mark the graves that look upon the unforgettable Ca’ d’Zan. The graves were originally fenced in and locked with a steel gate, but have been landscaped with roses (Mable’s favorite), and statues (John’s favorite).

Are the Ringlings happy with their new home? All we can say is legend has it Mable still roams her rose garden on foggy nights. Perhaps moving her body to the vault she helped her husband create will finally put her restless spirit to cessation.


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