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Sunday Favorites: The Ghosts of Ringling

Published Sunday, October 28, 2012 12:04 am
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. 

Join the conversation post Facebook comments here or on our site at the bottom of article.


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Rape of an Estate by the late Joe McKennon is a book critical of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and I think that is important. I don't think Mr. Ringling's will has been followed as closely as he intended it to be. I know FSU and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art do not want to hear of this criticism, but it is wise to remember that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution codifies the freedom of speech as a constitutional right. The Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791 and it states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Posted by Roger Wilco on April 11, 2015

On Wednesday 1/20/10, while on duty working at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Henry (Hank) Vial said ?She looks really good in a short skirt? after female FSU student Katie Cunningham walked by. Then the next day, Thursday 1/21/10, he told one of his coworkers ?Imagine her legs wrapped tight around you? after she walked by him again. On one occasion he asked his coworker to describe exactly what she was wearing. He said that his fantasy of Katie Cunningham is something that no one can take away from him, not even Derek Ross (his direct security supervisor.) He said several times that when she wore a black skirt and black high heels he really found her very sexy, but that she was not particularly beautiful in the face.

On one occasion, FSU student Devereau Chumrau was walking away from him and Robert (Bob) Reyes and Mr. Vial asked Mr. Reyes if she was auditioning for Hair as she had ?the perfect body for it.? Mr. Vial added ?that play was done in the nude you know??

Both these female FSU students were also working with the Asolo Rep at the time too. It is hard to believe these men were security attendants who were being paid and trusted to protect these FSU students. Is this the way state employees should act and talk?

Believe it or not, this information was reported to FSU on Friday 6/18/10 and no action was taken against Henry (Hank) Vial for these comments.
Posted by Ray Flash on April 3, 2015

Mr. Henry (Hank) Vial complained to his coworkers about having to work with Glenda Fellows. He said that he thought she was going to come in with a gun one day and start shooting. He said, of all the people there, she was the one that probably had and carried a gun. He said that they got into arguments because he would order her what to do and that he would raise his voice at her when telling her what to do.

This was raised in a FSU hearing at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on Friday June 18, 2010 and instead of taking it seriously, Ringling Museum Director of Security-Russell (Russ) Lynn Pillifant interrupted the proceding by laughing out loud at the testimony.

Later in the same hearing, Mr. Pillifant made a point and testified that he was concerned about the safety of the employees at the museum. How concerned was he really, if he just laughed off things like this without investigating them?
Posted by Ray Flash on April 2, 2015

Robert (Bob) Reyes is a former employee of the John and Mable Ringling Musuem of Art/Florida State University, as is Henry (Hank) Vial.

Mr. Reyes often proudly told the story of a dead female body he once found. He was able to determine her name and she was a known prostitute. He transported her remains in his police car and found that some of it had stained his rear carpet. Instead of cleaning it, he left it alone so it would smell very bad. This way no other officer would want to ride in his vehicle. He enjoyed riding alone. He said he got used to the smell and each morning he would get in his police car and say out loud hello to her by name. When his shift was over, he would tell her out loud goodnight by name when he left his car. He said that his commander finally had to order him to clean out his car after hearing so many reports of this strange behavior and complaints of the disgusting smell of Mr. Reye's vehicle.
Hank Vial,
Bradenton, Florida

I hope her ghost haunted Mr. Reyes for his horrible actions and behavior. He was a truly sick person.
Posted by Ray Flash on April 2, 2015

It is sad then that Russell (Russ) Lynn Pillifant is now working for Bealls, Inc. in Bradenton, Florida whose motto is that of their founder E. R. Beall "Always do what is right." If he made sexist/racist comments while working, drank alcohol while working and lied while working on the job as these comments contend, then he was not doing what is always right.
Posted by Jay Cole on March 29, 2015

Russell (Russ) Lynn Pillifant no longer is employed by Florida State University/John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and is the Regional Investigator at Bealls, Inc.
Information about his racist/sexist comments that led to his leaving the Sarasota Police can be read here:,530443&hl=en
Posted by Robert Reyes on March 26, 2015

In or around 2010, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art/Florida State University security attendant Henry (Hank) Vial was terminated for theft. He was hired by and then directly supervised by security supervisor, Derek Ross. Mr. Vial admitted to taking home a plastic penis topping from a gag cake in the green room of the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts that belonged to a member of the Asolo Rep Company.

Mr. Vial was a strange character and many museum employees complained about his work ethic. He did no outside security patrols, never drove or helped put the security cart away at night. He did just a few inside security patrols and instead he sat in the security office at the FSU Center for Performing Arts and looked at news clips online and complained that the computer had no sound while making others do his work for him.

Mr. Vial while on duty told his coworkers that he used to be a still photographer and was once at a porn shoot and was offered to participate in it, to have sex on camera with the models. He told of a time that he and his lawyer sued someone that got into a car accident with him. In order to win the lawsuit, Mr. Vial said he faked an injury and actually went to physical treatment for it when in fact there was really nothing wrong with him at all. He said that he really did not get along well with women. He lived alone and only cared about women when he ?needed a little.? He said that then he would give them what they wanted (money, gifts or dinner out) in exchange for what he wanted (sex.) He had been married 3 times and engaged 4 times.

At one time, Mr. Vial had been a motorcycle police officer and he said that his biggest regret was that he got into a fight with a man with a knife that he pulled over and he had wished he would have just killed the man. There was an assault lawsuit after the fight against Mr. Vial and the police force that he was working for that went on for years afterwards. Mr. Vial told the story of a time when as a policeman he responded to a woman who had gotten a glass Coca Cola bottle stuck in her vagina while she was masturbating with it. While he was there, other officers arrived and the bottle was removed. He said that all he wanted to tell her while he was there with her was to offer to have sex with her so she would not have to use a bottle. Mr. Vial said that it was all he could do to hold himself back from asking her if she wanted to have sex with him after the bottle was removed.

Mr. Vial upset his coworkers and made them uncomfortable with his comments about the middle school aged Sarasota Ballet of Florida female students that would come to class at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, because he would talk about their make up and how it made them look older and sexy. He would ask what their ages were. He would also make sexual comments about the female FSU students and the female cast members of the Asolo Rep Company. Of one female FSU graduate student, he said that his fantasy of her is something that no one can take away from him, not even Derek Ross (his direct supervisor and the person that hired him.)
Mr. Vial complained to his coworkers about having to work with Glenda Fellows. He said that he thought she was going to come in with a gun one day and start shooting. He said, of all the people there, she was the one that probably had and carried a gun. He said that they got into arguments because he would order her what to do and that he would raise his voice at her when telling her what to do.

On Wednesday February 24, 2010, Mr. Vial used the label ?dyke? when speaking about female police officers that he had worked with in the past. On another occasion while also on duty he said that there were a lot of ?faggots? working at the Asolo Rep Company. On both of these occasions, passersby heard him and wrote letters of protest to the Sarasota Ballet of Florida and the Asolo Rep Company. Those letters were then passed on to Mitch Ladewski, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art/FSU Coordinator of Safety and Security. Mr. Vial reported to his coworkers that Mitch Ladewski took him into his office, had the letters spread out on his desk and questioned if he had used those two words. Mr. Vial lied and said no and denied it. Mr. Vial said that Mr. Ladewski had ?read him the riot act.? Mr. Vial said that Mr. Ladewski had come on hot and heavy about it because since Mr. Ladewski was a short man, he had a ?Napoleon Complex.? Mr. Vial said he was ?pissed? that Mr. Ladewski had brought him into his office about this. He admitted to his coworkers that ?If Mitch (Ladewski) knew what he talked about, he would be fired.?
Posted by Robert Reyes on March 22, 2015

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Director of Security, Russell (Russ) Pillifant no longer is employed by the Florida State University system. Ringling security supervisor, Bill Pennington, walked into Mr. Pillifant's office trailer after an event at the museum and reported Mr. Pillifant drunk and passed out along with one of Mr. Pillifant's male FSU event staff members, Claude. They were surrounded by empty bottles of wine. Later, on Sunday January 31, 2010 while working the Forks and Corks event at the museum, FSU employee Robert (Bob) Reyes reported that Mr. Pillifant was directing vehicle traffic at the event with one hand, while drinking from a bottle of beer in his other hand. Mr. Reyes observed that he got the specialty brewed beer bottle from one of the vendors at the event.
Posted by Ray Flash on February 26, 2015

John Ringling owned a private railroad observation passenger car and used it from 1905 to 1917 to travel with his circus train. He named it for his home state of Wisconsin. It is now restored and is on display at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. In 1917, he bought what was said to be at the time the longest railcar made by the Pullman Company in Illinois. The private observation car reportedly cost him $100,000. It measured 81 feet and 11 inches long according to its blueprint and weighed 175,400 pounds. Its blueprint is dated March 22, 1917 and is identified as LOT 4440, PLAN 3305 by Chas S. Knapp, Asst. Chief Engineer. John Ringling named his new railroad coach the Jomar. The letters jo come from John, ma from Mable and the r from Ringling. It had a cook, valet and a secretary who stayed with the railcar even when John Ringling was not on the show. It contained a living room, staterooms, a full sized bathroom, dining room, kitchen and quarters for the chef and butler. He hosted many important and famous guests on this luxurious railcar. When he was staying in Sarasota, the Jomar would be ?spotted?, a railroad term for parked, on a railroad spur that extended on a pier into Sarasota Bay from Strawberry Avenue (about where Marina Jack?s Restaurant is located today.) Upon John Ringling?s death in 1936, the Jomar went to his nephew, John Ringling North, for his use on the circus circuit. The Jomar is currently being restored in Sarasota, Florida. It is owned by Bob Horne and Harvey Vengroff, who bought it in 2004.
Posted by Bob Horne on February 8, 2015

About 7 years back or so, one day while the Ringling Musuem was open a female came in and went to the secret garden. It had been a place she had enjoyed and she found it peaceful. Because the musuem has no metal detectors when you enter, she was able to bring a handgun in with her. She shot herself there in the secret garden and died there. Ringling Security heads Russell Pillifant and Mitch Ladewski had to clean up the scene after her body was removed. I wonder if her ghost is still there today?
Posted by Don A. Stuart on February 6, 2015

This museum really seems to have some problems. On Election Day back in 2012 one of its bronze sculptures was cut from its base and taken. Security did not notice a thing and the stolen piece of art named Endogenae by A. Arlie Sinaiko has never been seen again.
Posted by Jay Hitchcock on February 5, 2015

Since 1987 there has been documented Asbestos problems in the air and basement of the Ca d'Zan. On the first floor, between the stairs and the door into the great hall there is a bathroom not for public use. Next to that bathroom is a door with steps that go down to the basement level which only employees see. There is a large warning sign in the basement that instructs to enter only when wearing full protective gear. On the second floor office area, off limits to the public, are panels that monitor the Asbestos level in the air and warn if it rises. About 5 or 6 years ago some ancient fuel storage tanks were removed from in front of the Ca d'Zan. They were contaminated with Asbestos, the excuse for their removal was that they were fixing and making more flat the sidewalks and pavement that come up to the Ca d'Zan. A few years prior to storage tanks actually being removed, I was working at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art when an employee sent out an email reading that he was being fired for trying to address this Asbestos problem and get it corrected. He sent this email just before being escorted off the property by security. A little time later in the day, an email was sent reading that he was not fired but that his position had been eliminated.
Posted by Alan Smithee on January 28, 2015

For all you taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there:
John, Mable and his sister are today buried in the secret garden. This happened in 1991 after years of arguement about doing it. His 2nd wife is not buried on the property.
Posted by alan smithee on January 21, 2015

John, Mable and his wife after Mable are all buried on the property just in front and to the right of the Ca d'Zan. It is called the secret garden and John is buried between the two women. There is a locked gate around the 3 graves and tombstones. There is a garden and statues in front of the gate. On the date of John Ringling's birthday, New College students will sneak there at night and place a cigar on John's grave. The lock on the gate and this secret garden is checked every day by 2nd and 3rd shift security.
Posted by Dennis Gergel on January 21, 2015

A man who worked at The John and Mable Ringling Musuem of Art (now a part of the Florida State University system) named Joe McKennon self-published a book called
"Rape of an Estate" which recorded widespread abuse and misuse at the Musuem (before FSU control.) The Musuem was so threatened by it, that they tried to get all the published copies and still today stores them under lock and alarm in their circus musuem. There are stacks of the book in a circus archive room that the public is not allowed into. Only the security attendants on the 2nd and 3rd shift during patrols are allowed in that room and certain circus musuem employees. This is an example of The John and Mable Ringling Musuem of Art's censorship tactics.
Posted by john smithee on January 18, 2015

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