The rise and fall of the 'Greatest Show on Earth' and the Ringling family's circus empire
- The Ringling Bros. founded their circus in the late 1800s and later combined it with the Barnum & Bailey Circus to form the "Greatest Show on Earth."
- The seven Ringling brothers and one sister would later amass a considerable fortune, earning them the title of one of the richest families in America.
- Here's the fascinating story behind the Ringling empire's rapid ascension and ultimate fall.
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The circus no longer comes to town - and gone with it is the Ringling family fortune that helped build "The Greatest Show on Earth."
The rise and fall of the Ringling empire follows seven brothers and one sister through the heyday of the Roaring Twenties to financial downfall during the Great Depression. 'Circus King' John Ringling - formerly ranked among the wealthiest people in the world - died with just $311 in his bank account. His estate, including a Venetian palazzo and expansive art collection, was appraised at $23.5 million.
Once one of the richest families in America, the Ringling Brothers - Albert, Augustus, Otto, Alfred, Charles, John, and Henry - started their circus as a five-cent show in rural Iowa. This soon became a traveling railroad production, and merged with Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1909. The only Ringling sister's children helped restore much of the family's wealth before they sold the company to the Feld family in 1967 for $22.8 million. After many more decades of performances, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed on May 21, 2017.
While not all of the original founders lived long enough to enjoy the massive fortune, several - especially John and Charles - were able to spend their riches on large homes, yachts, and luxury vehicles.
As this year marked the second summer without the circus, few fragments of the deceased American past-time remain. Keep reading for a look at the family's rise to prominence, spending, and business roles.
Note: Some information is pulled from "Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story," a memoir by Henry Ringling North and Arlen Hatch. Ringling North was the son of Ida Ringling, the founders' only sister. The afterword, which provides context for historical happenings after the book's 1960 publication, is written by circus historian Fred Dahlinger, Jr.