At the close of the 19th century, thousands of people saw strange things in the sky, attributing them sometimes to aliens but more often to secretive inventors, including experimenters traveling with the Ringling Bros. circus. The sightings began in late April 1896 in California and spread east. "In major cities like Sacramento, Omaha and Chicago, thousands rushed into the streets or clambered to rooftops to view the vessel as it passed," wrote Daniel Cohen in his history of the phenomenon, The Great Airship Mystery.
Just 14 years later, circuses featured balloon ascensions as regular attractions. From 1871 through about 1894, circus balloons were not uncommon, but they stayed close to the fairgrounds. Circuses could not account for the swift comings and goings of the mystery airship. It wasn't until 1905 that Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show featured a slow, tiny, self-propelled airship. It could not compare to the mystery air- ship of more than a decade earlier.
One of the first mystery airship sightings anywhere occurred on the night of Nov. 22, 1896, in Sacramento. Walter Mallory, a deputy there is one plausible earthbound explanation for the airship: it belonged to the Ringling Bros. circus. The explanation, denied by the circus, came when a Madison, Wis., newspaper pointed out that the airship's appearance in Chicago occurred "almost simultaneously with the advent to that city of the Ringling’s." One of the brothers was even observed transporting "large and mysterious bundles" from the circus grounds.
A reporter sent from Madison to the circus's base of operations, in Baraboo, Wis. found that residents there were "of the opinion that the airship was a succession of balloons or something of the kind, which were aimed to prey upon the curiosity of an incredulous public to the end that shining half dollars would pour into the big wagons where tickets for the big show are sold."
On April 15 the Chicago Times-Herald stated that the air- ship was definitely the product of the Ringling’s' Baraboo workshops, where it was still being tested and perfected. The article said that the airship was based on a model created by a New York inventor, built by a man named Carr and further developed by the Ringling’s.
The Ringling Bros. denied it, and so does a leading circus historian today. “I've never heard of any dirigible experiments with the Ringling show,” said Fred Dahlinger, .Jr., director of the circus library and research center at Baraboo's Circus World Museum housed in the very workshops where the airship was allegedly created. ‘I really would find it hard to believe that any show at that time would do anything with dirigibles," he told me.