Path Home Shows 2017 Show Archive May 2017 Show 1719 Politics. Murder. And the circus?

Politics. Murder. And the circus?

We take a look back in time at the history of an Oklahoma town with a famous name.
Politics. Murder. And the circus?

Politics. Murder. And the circus?

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Ringling Brothers Circus

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Show 1719: Politics. Murder. And the circus?
Air Date: May 7, 2017



Rob McClendon: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us here on “Horizon.” I’m Rob McClendon. Well, few art forms have influenced American culture more than the circus. There was a time when the circus came to town, schools let out and businesses closed so everyone could go watch the spectacle. And at its prime, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was considered the family-friendly outing. But circuses, they began to lose their appeal. And this month the circus billed as “The Greatest Show On Earth” closes for good. Certainly an interesting story unto itself, but one that also has a direct tie to Oklahoma. In the early days of the state, a railroad running through town could mean the difference between economic growth, or literally getting passed by. However, railroads are expensive to build. So when an Oklahoma wildcatter oilman by the name of Jake Hamon was told the well-dressed man sitting in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria was the John Ringling, Hamon approached him. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Rob McClendon: Well, whether a cleverly crafted plan or just fortuitous, what happened inside the Waldorf Astoria in 1912, we will never know. But what we do know is Jake and Clara Hamon left the New York city hotel in partnership with John Ringling of Ringling brothers fame. By this point in his career, John Ringling was just as interested in railroads as high wire acts. So Hamon and Ringling began buying land just west of Ardmore along a path they planned on building a railroad, all the way to the Pacific ocean. Construction began in 1913 with Oklahoma Gov. Lee Cruce driving the first spike. And the Oklahoma, New Mexico (and) Pacific Railroad became reality.

Mike Moore: And that is how the town of Ringling got formed.

Rob: Meet Mike Moore. Except for his time at pharmacy school, he’s called Ringling, Oklahoma, home.

Mike Moore: My understanding, that he came over here and wanted to winter the circus here in Ringling. Apparently what happened, the first winter that he was going to bring the circus out, because they traveled by the train, was the worst winter in Oklahoma history, I guess. They had blizzards and storms and snow and sleet and ice and everything else. So he did not bring the circus out here, and he never came back with the circus.

NATS: Spring is surely here when the circus comes to town.

Rob: So while John Ringling’s circus actually never came to the town of his namesake, something else did, oil. And thanks to Jake Hamon securing 8,000 acres of oil-rich land leases, John Ringling became one of the richest men on earth. And the town of Ringling, well, it became a boomtown. Today Ringling is a sleepy little place with a church bake sale the only excitement we could find.

NATS: When Ringling left from here all they left was their monkeys behind. So maybe that’s why we love each other so much.

Rob: But in its hey day estimates are up to half of the businesses John Ringling owned here were of the entertainment nature.

Rob: I’ve got to read this little passage here.

Mike Moore: All right.

Rob: The little town was alive and moving 24 hours a day. This is talking about early Ringling. She didn’t have time to settle down into the quiet community she is today. Instead numerous pool halls, honky-tonks with dime-a-dance girls, bootleggers and prostitutes filled the streets.

Mike Moore: That’s probably true. I was a little young for that, but I’m sure that’s very true.

Rob: Much night life here now?

Mike Moore: Uh, no! Very quiet. Very quiet night life.

NATS: Oilfield workers are called drillers, roughnecks, roustabouts, rope chokers.

Rob: With the oil flowing and money plentiful, John Ringling went on to travel the world buying all types of artwork to adorn his Sarasota, Florida, mansion, while Jake Hamon stayed put, bought more oil leases and became rich in his own right. But the good times were not to last for either man.

Rob McClendon: For Jake Hamon, his newfound fortune allowed him to attain the political prominence he had so long sought. Yet like so many, it was his greatest desires that led to his eventual undoing. This historical marker almost hidden by bushes is all that remains of what happened here in downtown Ardmore on Nov. 21, 1920. It was in a room in the posh Randol Hotel that Jake Hamon told Clara Hamon that he was to be newly elected President Warren G. Harding’s secretary of the interior. And while he was heading off to Washington to join the president’s cabinet, she wasn't. That's because Clara Hamon was not his wife, but his mistress and niece by marriage. Well, no one really knows what happened in that hotel room except that Jake Hamon was shot. Bleeding, he stumbled down the stairs into the lobby and was taken to the hospital two blocks away where he told authorities, “Clara didn't murder me even if she did fire the fatal shot.” But not everyone was so convinced. And Clara was whisked off to Mexico by a confidant of President-elect Harding. Within weeks Clara was extradited and stood trial at the Carter County Courthouse. And it only took the jury 39 minutes to come back with their verdict, not guilty. And so ended a love affair turned sour and Hamon’s dreams of political greatness.

Rob: Today Jake and Clara’s portraits still hang in a vacant downtown storefront in Ringling. And at the city limits, welcome signs that look like a circus tent.

Mike Moore: Over the years, we’ve had a connection, and if anybody asks about the town of Ringling, and they say, “Ringling? I’ve never heard of Ringling.” I said, “Well, you always say the circus.”

Rob: And while the circus actually never came to town, Ringling did go to the circus.

Mike Moore: I mean the whole town went. Of course there was probably 1,400 people at the time, 14, 1,500 people. You could have, that would have been a good day to rob Ringling, because there wasn’t anybody in town.

NATS: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, Nicole Feld.

Rob: And as the greatest show on earth plays its final performance this month, townsfolk in Ringling say while they are sad to see it go, they have had some time to get over it, considering it has now been over a hundred years since the Ringling Brothers Circus never came to town.

Rob: Now, a postscript. While a bullet did cut Jake Hamon’s life short, his political wheelings and dealings lived on well after him. Estimates are the Oklahoma oilman spent close to a million dollars in bribes at the 1920 Republican Convention to get Ohio Sen. Warren Harding that nomination. And ironically, it was the secretary of the interior cabinet position that the conniving Hamon thought he had bought that led to the largest corruption investigation of that day. Called the Teapot Dome Scandal, it sent one member of Harding’s cabinet to prison and is believed to have been behind the stress that led to the president’s fatal heart attack while still in office. And while Jake Hamon never got to enjoy the political spotlight he sought so much, his son did. Jake Hamon Jr. became a successful Texas oilman and one of President Bush senior’s most trusted advisers. And as for Clara Hamon? Well, after acquittal on murder charges, she left the state for Hollywood, where she became the star of an autobiographical movie called “Fate,” which chronicled the two star-crossed lovers’ doomed relationship. And while she made no other films, she did marry the movie’s director. And then there is John Ringling. He sold his Oklahoma railroad in 1924, but did retain all his oil leases. By 1925, his assets were estimated to be over $100 million, which included not just the circus, but banks, real estate and hotels. In 1927, his circus did find its winter home, not in Oklahoma, but in Sarasota, Florida, not far from his mansion. And in 1929, he went on to buy the American Circus Corp., which after the stock market crash of that same year brought down his entire financial empire. Once one of the wealthiest men in the world, John Ringling died in 1936 with only $311 in the bank. And as for The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, well, it closes for good on May 21. Now, when we return, keeping a Ringling inside the big top.