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The Life of James Haley of Florida

January 04, 1899
The Life of James Haley of Florida Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Florida Representative James Haley served 12 terms in the House and eventually chaired the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
On this date, Representative James A. Haley of Florida was born in Jacksonville, Alabama. Haley attended the University of Alabama and enlisted to fight in World War I. In 1933, he became the general manager of the estate owned by John Ringling, of circus renown. After Ringling’s death in 1936, he immersed himself in the circus business and later became vice-president of the successful circus show, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1943. He married Richard T. Ringling’s widow, Aubrey Ringling in 1943. Circus life agreed with Haley until July 1944, when disaster struck during a performance in Hartford, Connecticut. The big top caught on fire after the canvas had been treated with a mixture of gasoline and wax to waterproof it, and incidentally made it highly flammable. The fire engulfed the big top, killing 169 people and injuring hundreds more. Haley and other circus executives pled no contest to manslaughter charges when no arson suspect could be found. While a circus roustabout with a history of mental illness eventually confessed to setting the fire, he recanted in 1994 and Connecticut officials were never able to question him. Many believe the true arsonist will never be found. Haley served eight months before being paroled and eventually pardoned. He continued as president of the circus until 1948, when he won a seat in Florida’s state house of representatives to which he was reelected in 1950. Haley was then elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1953. Haley often joked that he was the one of the best trained Members of Congress, claiming: “I came from the greatest show on earth to the big sideshow.” When asked which was more difficult, running a circus or being a Member of Congress, he lightheartedly answered, “I believe I’d rather run the circus.” He eventually became the chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee as well as a top-ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Haley retired from the House in 1977 and passed away in Sarasota, Florida, in 1981.

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