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From The Pages of Circus History

 Ringling Brothers' Descendants (and Relatives) Battle for Circus Control  

John Ringling North

Edith Ringling

John Ringling North    Robert Ringling     Aubrey Ringling Haley

In 1939, John Ringling, most flamboyant and the last of the original Ringling Brothers, Ringling Brothersdied. Years earlier he had written a will leaving  a sizable sum and total control of the circus to his sister, Ida Ringling North, and her sons, John and Henry. John Ringling North and Ida were designated executor of  the will. In a later dispute, John amended his will; leaving only $5,000 to Ida, and disinheriting her sons entirely. However, he never changed executors, however, and John Ringling North used this advantage to gain control of the circus. He was opposed in this by Edith Ringling (Charles Ringling's widow) and her son Robert. Edith found an ally in Aubrey Ringling Haley, daughter-in-law of the late Alf Ringling. The entered into a legal agreement ,called the women's pact, that they would vote the same on major issues at stockholder meetings.

This led, in 1944, to John Ringling North's  resignation as president of the corporation and Robert Ringling took charge of the Greatest Show On Earth. Robert was an opera singer, with no circus experience whatsoever. He changed several things that North had instituted, but on the whole, the circus remained the same. His control was temporary, though, largely due to the aftermath of the tragic Hartford Fire.

Robert was not in Hartford at the time; having given James Haley (Aubrey's husband) charge of the operation. Thus he escaped prosecution for negligence when charges were brought against James Haley and several other circus management persons, resulting in prison terms for some of these key persons.

When James was released from prison, his whole attitude had changed. He became allied with John Ringling North and in 1946, at the next stockholders meeting, he voted his and his wife's shares (she was absent at the time) to elect himself president and John Ringling North as vice-president of the corporation. This was a direct violation of the women's pact, and Edith immediately filed a lawsuit in the Delaware court system. The courts moved slowly then, too, so it was a year before a judgment was made; in the meantime, John Ringling North was back in charge. The court did reverse the vote, but John and James regained control legally a few weeks after that. The following summer, Robert suffered a stroke and was no longer able or willing to fight for control of the circus.

John and James fought regularly after that control battle; each wanting to run the circus his own way. James and Aubrey had the controlling shares, so John switched allegiances again. He had filed a dereliction of duty lawsuit against Robert Ringling, but agreed to drop it if Robert would help him regain control. Robert voted his shares with John and took the presidency away from James Haley. James and Aubrey, fed up with the fight, sold their shares and got out of the circus business. John Ringling North purchased a controlling 51% of the shares, and secured his hold on the circus until 1968 when, in the ancient Roman Coloseum (he was still a showman, after all), John officially retired from circus life and sold total ownership of the Greatest Show on Earth to the coporation consisting of Irvin Feld, Israel Feld, and Judge Roy Hofheinz.


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     This Page was updated on: 07/27/2004