Al Ringling Mansion
By Tobias Wayland
There is no more clichéd introduction to a ghost story than to say it began on a dark and stormy night, but in this case I’m willing to risk it, since that’s what happened.
Dark clouds hang ominously low over Baraboo, Wisconsin when Emily and I arrive in the quaint vacation town. I park our old Pontiac just off of the historic town square, and we hustle to The Vintage Port Café, hoping to beat the rain. We haven’t come all the way to Baraboo to drink coffee, though, we’re here at the invitation of our friends in the Spirit Quest Syndicate to investigate the Al Ringling mansion. The mansion, made out of red clay brick from the nearby Baraboo River, was constructed in 1905 at the height of the world famous Ringling Bros Circus’ popularity by C. August Albrecht Ringling, the eldest Ringling brother. Al lived in the mansion from its construction until he passed away in an upstairs bathtub on New Year’s Day, 1916. Not surprisingly for a home its age, and with its history, the mansion is reputedly haunted—and so Emily and I purchase our coffees and meet the people accompanying us on the tour.
Rick and Melissa comprise Spirit Quest Syndicate, a local ghost investigation team, and it is at their invitation we are here. Their friend Chad works at the mansion, and he will be guiding our private tour. Chad’s associate Pinkerton is a circus man himself, and so his interest in the site is self-evident. And finally we have Julie, who is also a friend of Spirit Quest Syndicate, and curious about the mansion’s haunted reputation.
We sip our drinks and make good-natured supernatural small talk for about an hour before we exit the café. The sky has darkened even more, and a few flashes of lightning give warning to what’s coming. The mansion is a block away from the café, so only the first few drops of the night’s storm strike us before we arrive. We are led up the stairs of the building’s large covered porch and into a warm, welcoming foyer, as the sky opens behind us and releases its torrent of rain.
The greeting room of the Al Ringling mansion is decorated with ornate golden trim, comfortable-looking couches, an antique piano, and portraits of Al's wife Eliza “Lou” Ringling’s three miscarried children painted on the ceiling. The children are portrayed as cherubs, and the somber, heartfelt memorial prominently displayed in one of the home’s most highly visited rooms speaks volumes on the tragedy of their brief existence. It is in this room that Emily’s camera flash begins to malfunction. She changes the batteries, but it still refuses to consistently comply with her demands, and occasionally goes off seemingly of its own accord. These strange inconsistencies continue into Al’s office.
Al Ringling was known for spending a great deal of time in his office, as is not unusual for such an enterprising entrepreneur, and thus it is no surprise that this room seems to hold much of the mansion’s odd energy. The room’s furnishings are carved almost entirely out of wood, and seem simple in contrast to the opulence of the greeting room. In Al’s office sits an ancient wooden chair gifted to him by his fellow freemasons, and it’s said to possess a strange aura. Legend has it that sitting in the chair will make a man powerful, and a woman ill; and it’s even rumored to have once cured a man of cancer. But a miraculous chair isn’t the oddest anomaly one can witness in Al Ringling’s office. According to Joe, the mansion’s current owner, a full-body apparition was seen just outside of the weird workspace. Joe was giving a guest a tour of the mansion, and as he stood in the office doorway he noticed a man in a high-collared shirt walking behind him reflected in the large mirror adorning the opposite wall. At the same time, he was asked by his guest if anyone else should be present, since she just saw a man in vintage period dress cross the open space to Joe’s rear. No-one else should have been present at that time, and the sighting remains unexplained to this day.
The last area of interest on the ground floor is the billiard's room. It is carved of what looks to be the same dark, masculine wood as Al's office, and is decorated with shelves of elephant statues donated by the Elephant Museum of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The centerpiece of this area is a large snooker table. Emily's flash continues to malfunction in this room, and we later learn that Joe has seen one of the lights in this room vibrate inexplicably. We also discover that Melissa's flash has been misbehaving just as Emily's has in those rooms. I'm not certain what exactly the nature of the phenomena is in the mansion, but its effect on electronics appears undeniable.
We head upstairs after a brief tour of the mansion's expansive theater. The upper floor and attic are hot and humid—a direct result of the home's windows being closed against the pounding rain. Emily's camera returns to its normal usefulness, and we travel slowly from room to room. We walk reverently from Al's bedroom—directly off of which is the bathroom in which he died—and through the small walk-in closet that doubles as a hallway into Lou's quarters. There is a green room dedicated to Otto Ringling, and a bedroom touchingly dedicated to Al and Lou's miscarried children. Through the servant's quarters are the stairs to attic. The attic is even warmer than the level beneath it, and is in the process of being converted into an apartment. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the vintage circus accoutrements, and the modern children's toys spread across the floor that emphasizes the mansion's duality as both an historic landmark and current family home.
The upper levels of the mansion are filled with a vast array of interesting and unique circus memorabilia. The thoughtfulness and dedication put into restoring the home are apparent, and I can't help but wonder if the energy applied to the task might be partially responsible for the reported phenomena. Joe joins us for this portion of the tour and gives us an overview of notable items, of which there are too many for me to list in their entirety. However, here are two notable examples: on the second floor you'll find the recovered bedroom set that once belonged to Lou Ringling, that has been lovingly inserted into its original setting; and in the attic is kept the tiger chute responsible for herding over a hundred people to their deaths in the famous Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. Both items must have borne witness to intense, albeit very different, emotions in their time. If any two items are likely to be haunted, it is they.
And as our examination of the upper levels ends, so does our tour. We retire briefly to the porch after our delightful evening of ghost hunting, and I am able to speak to Joe a bit more about what he and his family have witnessed in their haunted mansion. He talks about how his family once came home from a shopping trip to find all of the upper cabinets in their kitchen wide open; the residual footsteps they hear traversing the stairs of the grand staircase; and how the scent of Lou's perfume still lingers in her favorite areas—a scent confirmed as hers when a friend presented them with a bottle of the exact type preferred by the circus wife. By this time the rain has subsided, and we use the break in the storm to head into the night, unaccosted by the stalled tempest. Before we do, though, we make promises to return—there is still much to explore in the haunted Al Ringling mansion.