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John Ringling's Yacht – Who Was Aboard When It Sank?

It was late on the night of February 4, 1930 when passengers walked down the 13 steps at the back of Ca’ d’ Zan to board the Zalophus, John Ringling’s 125-foot yacht. It headed south with Useppa Island’s fabled Collier Inn as its’ destination but it never arrived!

The next morning beachgoers on Lido Key could see the smoke stacks protruding above the surface in 12-feet of well charted water. Despite its’ size, the ship’s draft was only 3½ feet. What made it sink?

Articles in both the Sarasota Herald and the New York Times had no details about what the ship struck – just that a collision with an unidentified object produced a hole in the steel hull. One newspaper report identified Sam Compertz, the founder of Coney Island, as having been aboard that night. Another report said that there were 10 passengers. John Ringling was in New York on business – who else was aboard?

Two crewmen, both of whom suffered crushed hands when lowering a lifeboat, were treated by Sarasota’s Dr. Joseph Halton. The crewmen told Dr. Halton that the married, 49 year old, Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York City, and his 23 year old ‘friend’, showgirl Betty Compton were aboard. That fact remained a secret until 1958 when Dr. Halton was interviewed by a reporter from the Sarasota Herald.

Ringling bought the $200,000 boat as a means of enticing investors to buy property in Ringling Estates, St. Armand’s Key and environs.

Dredges had made hundreds of acres of solid land from mangrove islands. Statues were brought from Italy and placed along the avenues. Thousands of trees were planted. Millions of dollars were spent to create the Ringling Estates. The Zalophus with its crew of 11 and lavish furnishings, was the mode of transport for ‘monied’ buyers.

An article in the February 7, 1930 Sarasota Herald said that Mexican fishermen in Cortez, Florida found desks, tables and chairs from the shipwreck on the shore. The sheriff brought the articles to Cubbage-Walpole Insurance Company who paid Ringling $100,000. The insurer is still in existence; the Ludwig-Walpole Company on Orange Avenue, just south of downtown Sarasota. The Ringling Circus Museum still has some of the artifacts from the Zalophus.

*Useppa is an island in the Gulf of Mexico accessible only by boat. The Collier Inn was part of Barron G. Collier’s estate visited during the “Golden Years” by the Vanderbilts, President Hoover, Gloria Swanson and other well known personalities.

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