Dying Alone in a Crowd

Darkness is my friend.  Its about my only friend . . . ”
      —Vic Dillinger, The Black Orchid


The human itch for exploration can lead to wondrous discoveries or tragic disasters. 

Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition aboard his ship Endurance resulted in an ice-bound vessel and an entire crew stranded in the most remote corner of the planet.  Shackleton, though, through his heroic leadership and bravery, managed to lead his men to safety with no loss of life after many months adrift on an ice floe.

A journey of discovery equals death for some, however. 

The earth below can be as inhospitable and remote as the farthest Arctic outposts.  For amateur spelunker Floyd Collins in the mid 1920s, a cave exploring trip left him trapped underground. 

He was unique in his predicament – Floyd Collins suffered the exquisite irony of slowly dying alone while the whole civilized world waited.

Floyd Collins (ca 1920)Credit: public domain

And listened . . .

The Mammoth Cave system in south central Kentucky is the most extensive in the world.  Its nearly 400 miles of subterranean twists and turns encroach on another state outside the Commonwealth.  The cave has but one natural entrance despite its massive, three-dimensional labyrinthine sprawl.  That entrance in the Mammoth Cave National Park is called the “Historic Entrance”.  [The handful of other entrances, scattered at different compass points, are all artificially created.]

The very gaping Historic Entrance has served humanity well over the millennia.  The earliest signs of human activity date to about 4000 years ago.  Evidence of the first mining activity goes back about 2000 years.  It had been a home to Native Americans, on and off, over many centuries; the earliest non-Native explorers found several naturally mummified remains in the caves nearer recesses.  The consistent ambient temperature and relative humidity are ideal for such natural preservation.

This main entrance was discovered in 1800 (or, more properly, “re-discovered” as it was obviously known to the transient native tribes who dwelt there from time to time).  The cave system was formed from two prehistoric, subterranean rivers raging in the limestone bedrock.  As the waters receded the dry passageways remained, filled with minerals and, later, life forms.

The scope of the adjoining cave system leading from the mouth of the Historic Entrance, with only the briefest of inspections, was immediately grasped as immense, hence the name “Mammoth”. 

The cave has been a source of industry for many.  During the War of 1812 a gunpowder manufacturing operation was set up at the confluence cavern where the two giant rivers had once merged.  One can still see the eroding swirling water patterns on the ceiling high overhead.  The cave was used for making gunpowder because of bats.  A key ingredient for gunpowder manufacture is potassium nitrate, otherwise known as saltpeter.  Bats leave this substance behind in guano, and the cave’s bat population provided an abundant supply of potassium nitrate once the guano was processed.  The cave’s naturally cooler temperatures also helped keep the stored powder stable.

This same part of the cave was later used in the 1840s as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.  Since many different methods of treatment were tried with varying degrees of success, it was thought the controlled cooler air of the cave, combined with its low humidity, might help consumptive patients.  The stone cabins in which the patients lived were dressed from cave rock. 

Exploration started early; it seemed there was no end to the cave’s passages and offshoots.  Pioneer spelunking was the milieu of the brave. 

Stephen Bishop (1820-1857; explorer & slave)Credit: National Park Service, Mammoth Cave National ParkOne of its best known explorers, mappers, and pioneer spelunkers was a teenage slave named Stephen Bishop who was in the area starting in 1838.  Slaves were used to give tours of the known cave at the time; Stephen Bishop took his job a bit more seriously.  In a foolhardy bid to satisfy his curiosity, he not only led vacationing parties through what he knew of the cave, but also ventured in on his own many times at great peril, exploring areas where no humans had ever been. 

In one classically documented instance carrying nothing but a kerosene lantern and a rope, he struggled along in near dark until he reached a pit that was impassable. Lowering his lantern as far as his rope would reach he could not see the bottom. 

This did not satisfy him, so he returned later with a flimsy plank he used to crawl over this chasm.  Even with more rope, he could still not lower his kerosene lantern deeply enough to see the bottom.  He informally dubbed it “The Bottomless Pit”.  Although not “bottomless”, it is extremely deep (a bit over 100 feet or around 30 meters), and he truly took his life into his hands crawling over its maw on a board (some accounts say he used a ladder).  Stephen gained his freedom from slavery in 1856 – he died the next year, but he is perhaps the best known of the early explorers.

Other spelunkers came and went.  Most were driven, unfortunately, by greed.  The property upon which the Historic (and only natural entrance) is located was held privately.  Anyone finding an opening not on the current land, but connected to the great cave network, could have made much money by charging fees to access the cave system.  None had much luck finding an alternate entryway, though such entrepreneurs did help expand knowledge about the cave. 

The search for another natural outlet went on for decades, and during this time discovery after discovery was made (Echo River, for example, a subterranean waterway that supports a completely insular microcosm of albino and blind insects, fish, and small mammals, all adapted to the dark).

Floyd the Spelunker
Some people, however, took an academic as well as a financial interest in the cave system. 

William Floyd Collins was born on a farm on July 20, 1887, very near the location of Mammoth Cave’s natural entrance.  That part of Kentucky is filled with sinkholes and caves, and the Collins farm had a small cave entrance near its farmhouse. Floyd Collins (in Crystal Cave, ca 1921)Credit: public domainIn 1917, the young adult Floyd Collins took the initiative to investigate the cave entrance on the family farm.  What he found was amazing – gallery after gallery of crystal gypsum formations, and natural limestone shaped like familiar objects over the eons.  The mineral formations were stunning and glittered in the kerosene lamp light.  The cave was named “Crystal Cave”.  Floyd and his father (Lee Collins), along with other family members, opened up some blocked passages, cleared away some rubble and other debris, blasted away at the entrance so people wouldn’t need a rope to climb down, and opened their own tourist attraction to compete with nearby Mammoth Cave.

In February of 1921 further exploration in the Crystal Cave complex by Floyd and his father Lee led to the discovery of an underground waterfall that dropped into a second, lower series of crystal galleries.  This other discovery was written up at the time in the Louisville Courier-Journal, and for a short while the Crystal Cave operation briefly boomed.

However, the Collins Crystal Cave was not part of the normal flow of traffic in that area of Kentucky, and the business struggled to attract visitors.  Like others, Floyd believed another entrance that connected to the Mammoth system, or a new cave system (lying between his cave and Mammoth), would help the family stay afloat in the competitive tourist trade.  He approached some of his neighbors, all with land adjoining the main highway nearby, with a business proposition: Floyd would search for a new cave, and if he found one with commercial possibilities on any of their land the owners would pay to develop the cave and Floyd would take a cut of the ensuing profits. 

Floyd Collins set out on forays in the area, searching for sinkholes or undergrowth that might conceal a cave entrance of any merit.  Over a three-week period he found, explored, and partly expanded a previously unknown opening, later named “Sand Cave” by print media.Floyd Collins (ca 1922)Credit: public domain

He was an experienced spelunker and what happened to him next was simply a freak accident.  Floyd was certain he had found what he needed for a new tourist attraction, and on January 30, 1925, he returned to the newly found cave alone to explore it more thoroughly. It was not readily accessible, and he spent hours crawling and squeezing through several small openings as he wormed his way down, hoping to find a gallery or room large enough for him to stand up in. 

His lamp was guttering, so he decided to leave before it was completely out of fuel.  As he snaked his way up toward the entrance, he knocked his lamp over by accident.  It went out, and in the dark Collins began to panic.  He dislodged a small boulder that tightly secured him to the spot.  His left leg was pinned in such a way that he could not reach the rock trapping him (although it weighed only slightly over 25 pounds).  He was fixed firm, and alone, stuck in the dark and the cold.

When he didn’t return as expected a search went out for him.  Fortunately, he had advised some people of his new find, and he was located the next day.  But the position of the rock pinning him combined with the narrowness of his spot prevented his would-be rescuers from doing much more than giving him food and then going for more help.  Collins was 150 feet (around 46 meters) along his path from the entrance to the cave (vertically to the earth’s surface, just a bit over 55 feet or almost 17 meters). 

But for all that, he might as well have been trapped on the Moon – there was no maneuvering, and the rock overhead was solid.Sand Cave entrance w/ rescue crew (Feb 1925)Credit: public domain A work crew arrived and strung an electric light down to where Collins was stuck fast. 

During the first week of his entombment, he stayed alert.  His rescuers crawled back and forth along his descent path to try anything to get him out.  Food was provided, and the light gave him some warmth.  But five days after he was trapped (on February 4, 1925), the tunnel between him and the entrance collapsed in two separate places. Floyd Collins entrapment scenario

Word of Collins’ dilemma had spread rapidly, and the media sensation was such as had never been seen.  Vendors set up concessions near the cave entrance and sold drinks, food, and souvenirs to the on-looking mob.  Tens of thousands showed up to ogle the rescue effort.  Business for the nearby privately held Mammoth Cave exploded with new tourists all coming to experience the hype around The Man Buried Alive. 

Collins’ communications were limited, particularly after the tunnel collapsed and was deemed unsafe.  One intrepid reporter (William Burke Miller of the Louisville Courier-Journal) however, smelled the story of the century and continually risked his neck crawling down to Collins to keep him company, interview him, to give him food, and to report back to the surface every word he said.  A telegraph station was set up, and as soon as Collins said anything his words were keyed to multiple newspapers all over the United States. 

Another medium also reported on Collins’ minute-by-minute situation.  That was radio.  A line was established so live reports from the field could be broadcast, and radio announcers also made use of the telegraphed feeds to announce on-air changes as they developed. 

It was the first real demonstration of the new medium’s true power of information dissemination.  The first commercial broadcast radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had gone on the air in 1920.  The early cost of the receivers was out of range for the average person, but by the mid 1920s in America most people were either able to afford or had access to a radio.  They sat riveted as Collins’ story played out live over the airwaves. 

Because the reporter William Miller was the only one now brave enough to work his way to Collins he was also the first to have what broadcast media calls an “exclusive”.  It was his reports that went out en masse over the telegraph and radio.  Miller’s doggedness and derring-do paid off in spades soon enough – he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.  [To give a sense of how big this was as a media event, it was the third-largest media sensation between World War I and World War II.  Only Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic and the kidnapping and murder of Lindbergh’s infant son in the 1930s surpassed Floyd Collins as a news subject in popularity.]

At the time of the natural tunnel’s collapse on February 4, the people in charge of the rescue operation felt the cave tunnel was now unsafe and impassable.  An alternative plan was needed if Floyd was to be saved.  It was decided to sink a shaft vertically and parallel to the general tunnel Floyd had followed.  Then a lateral tunnel would be cut over to him, opening up just behind him, and free him that way.

The parallel shaft inched down. It ended up at about 55 feet deep; when the roughly horizontal access tunnel was carved out, and opened up just over Collins’ head on February 17, 1925, it was too late.  Floyd Collins was dead from exposure and starvation (it was later determined he had died about three or four days earlier, most likely on February 13 – the natural tunnel was completely impassable by that point, and Miller had not been down in some time to check on Collins).

After all that work digging the shaft, the rescuers could not free Floyd Collins from his pinned place.  The offshoot tunnel had come out in the wrong spot (it should have been to his rear to be useful).  Facing nothing more than a dead man they could not remove, the rescuers left Floyd Collins where he was, filled the rescue shaft with debris, and departed.  Sand Cave, which should have been a new lease on life for Floyd and his family, killed him instead.

Raising Floyd Collins remains (Apr 1925)Credit: public domainFloyd Colins remains (Apr 1925; Sand Cave entrance)Floyd Collins corpse (Arp 1925)Credit: public domain

The Big Carnival
Since there was no body to bury, a simple memorial service was held for Floyd topside.  His brother, Homer Collins, did not like the idea of the body lying at the bottom of a cave for eternity, however.  About two months after Floyd died Homer mounted an operation to get Floyd’s remains out of Sand Cave.  The tunneling crew used the original shaft, but this time ran a lateral line in a different direction, approaching the body from a more accessible angle.On April 23, 1925, Floyd Collins’ remains were recovered from Sand Cave.  He was buried on the Collins farm the next day, April 24.  In 1927, his father, Lee Collins, sold the farm with its natural wonder, Crystal Cave.  In a bizarre, morbid, and sleazy move, the new owners exhumed Floyd’s body.  They brought him to Crystal Cave, and set the corpse up as an exhibit for paying customers.  He was displayed in state in a glass-topped casket, complete with his headstone brought down as well.Sometime overnight of March 18-March 19, 1929, Floyd’s corpse was stolen from Crystal Cave.  It was recovered but was missing its left leg (the one that had been pinned beneath the boulder).  It is obvious someone took the leg as an artifact for resale or as an object for collection.  The Crystal Cave operators put Floyd’s body back in the cave, but in a more secluded spot, and this time his casket was chained down.Floyd Collins casket & headstone (1989, re-interrment)

In the wake of Floyd’s adventure, because of the media spotlight suddenly shone on this part of Kentucky, Congress formed Mammoth Cave National Park in 1926 (completely established by 1941).  In 1961, Crystal Cave was bought by Mammoth Cave and closed to the public as the Collins family had raised objections to the continued showing of Floyd’s body to the public.  Finally, in 1989, after years of discussion, the National Park Service removed Floyd’s chained casket from Crystal Cave and reburied him, properly, in a local cemetery. 

The removal of his chain-bound casket and headstone from Crystal Cave took a 15-man work crew three days to complete.

Ace In The Hole
Floyd’s value as a commodity was certainly clear while he lay trapped in the cave, pinned beneath a boulder, and later when his remains were put on display for public ogling. 

Another interesting note to his case concerned the media involvement at the time.  The phrase “media frenzy” was appropriate as a result of the circus atmosphere around the Sand Cave site. 

'Ace In The Hole' (movie poster, 1951)Credit: Paramount PicturesIn 1951, Billy Wilder wrote and directed a brilliantly thought-provoking movie about media responsibility called Ace in the Hole.  The premise of the film is merely a fictional retelling of the Floyd Collins “trapped-in-a-cave” story with a spooky and unsettling twist: the media causes his rescue to be dragged out so they can continue selling huge numbers of newspapers and capitalize on the surface vending and carnival activities.  This is not what happened to Floyd Collins, but the movie is a brilliant indictment against the power of media. 

In the film, Kirk Douglas (a suitably smarmy, alcoholic, out-of-work reporter) lands a job at a dead-end newspaper in the middle of nowhere – he’d burned all his bridges and could find no other work. 

He learns of a man trapped in a cave, and a rescue operation is mounted.  Kirk realizes the lucrative potential in dragging the story out, so he manages to convince the construction crew digging the rescue shaft to use a slower method to reach the trapped man.  This insured the news story could drag out longer and he could make a name for himself again as a top-notch journalist.  Like the real reporter William Miller, Kirk’s reporter goes down into the tunnel to interview the trapped man repeatedly, but all the while insuring the rescue efforts are going very slowly.  He finally sees the man will die soon, and he talks the rescue crew into changing tack to work faster – the request comes too late, and the trapped man dies.

This film is powerful.  It is as riveting to watch as if one were on hand at Floyd Collins’ circus sideshow.  Although this movie’s true title is Ace in the Hole, just before it was released into theaters Paramount execs changed the name to The Big Carnival, reflective of the carnival atmosphere in the film.  Although Wilder was castigated for this movie both critically and with a poor showing at the box office, the film is a classic, and it is worth watching.  Kirk Douglas is slimily Machiavellian in his ambitions; it is easily one of his best star turns in a film.Floyd Collins (headstone & head shot)Credit: wiki & public domainFloyd Collins, the real life “ace in the hole”, died a miserable and lonely death among thousands of onlookers, well-wishers, sensation seekers, and profiteers.  The world knew of his demise almost as soon as his rescuers did – this was the first case of live-wiring, pumping information to the masses as it happened. 

It would not be the last. 


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