Floyd Collins [Laws G22]

DESCRIPTION: Floyd Collins is trapped in a cave from which a rescue party cannot free him. He tells his parents that he had dreamt this would happen. At last, still trapped, he dies
AUTHOR: Words: Andrew Jenkins
EARLIEST DATE: 1925 (copyright)
KEYWORDS: disaster dream death family
Jan 30, 1925 - Floyd Collins is trapped in a "sandhole" cave near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, where he is caught by a landslide. He is discovered by his brother the next day, but attempts to rescue him fail
Feb 16, 1925 - Collins is found to be dead
REFERENCES (12 citations):
Laws G22, "Floyd Collins"
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 212, "Floyd Collins" (1 text plus 2 excerpts)
Gardner/Chickering-BalladsAndSongsOfSouthernMichigan 125, "Floyd Collins" (2 texts)
Carey-MarylandFolkloreAndFolklife, pp. 55-56, "Floyd Collins" (1 text)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, pp. 82-83, "Floyd Collins" (1 text)
Thomas-BalladMakingInMountainsOfKentucky, pp. 110-111, "The Doom of Floyd Collins" (1 text)
Burton/Manning-EastTennesseeStateCollectionVol1, pp. 8-9, "The Fate of Floyd Collins" (1 text, 1 tune); pp. 76-78, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (1 text)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, pp. 261-262, "Floyd Collins" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 223-224, "Floyd Collins" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker, _Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins_, 1979; (revised edition?), University of Kentucky Press, 1982, pp. 248-251, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (1 text)
William R. Halliday, _Floyd Collins of Sand Cave: A Photographic Memorial_, 1989; New Revised Edition, Byron's Printing Inc., 2004, p. 2, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (reproduction of the main page of the sheet music)

Roud #1940
Fiddlin' John Carson, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (Okeh 40363, 1925)
Vernon Dalhart, "Death of Floyd Collins" (Victor 19821, 1925) (Columbia 15031-D [as Al Craver or Dalhart Texas Panhandlers], 1925) (Banner 1613, 1925; Conqueror 7068, 1928) (Edison 51609 [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.], 1925) (Gennett 3197Champion 15048, 1926; Challenge 160/Challenge 315, 1927; rec. 1925) (Bell 364, 1925) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5049 [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.], prob. 1925) (Regal 9916, 1925)
Vernon Dalhart, "Floyd Collins Waltz" (Victor 19997, 1926) [a bizarre recasting of 'Death of Floyd Collins' in waltz time, with truncated verses]
Charlie Oaks, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (Vocalion 15099, 1925; Vocalion 5069, c. 1927)
Harry Smith, "The Death of Floyd Collins" (OKeh 45260, 1928)

Chief Aderholt (File: Burt186)
NOTES [5135 words]: As the dates of the recordings show, this is by origin a popular song -- Murray/Brucker, p. 248, report that the Dalhart recordin sold three million copies, exceeding even the "Wreck of the Old 97/Prisoner's Song" disc (which I doubt). There were also substantial player piano sales. But the number of versions collected show that it did become a folk song.
There are various claims about the authorship of this song. (This might be because there were a lot of other Floyd Collins poems, mostly deadly; Murray/Brucker print an example on p. 251). Brown quotes Thomas to the effect that it was written by one Adam Crisp. The attribution to Jenkins seems certain, however. Paul Stamler cites the statement of OKeh records A&R man Polk Brockman, who commissioned the song from Jenkins. Laws, following Wilgus, also accepts the attribution to Andrew Jenkins, who wrote other songs which became traditional.
The 1925 sheet music (published by Shapiro Bernstein & Co and copyrighted by P. C. Brockman) credits the words to Rev. Andrew Jenkins and the music to Mrs. Irene Spain. Irene Spain was Jenkins's daughter. I would suspect that Jenkins fit the tune himself but put her name on it so the copyright could be held longer.
KentuckyEncyclopedia pp. 215-216, gives a brief biography of William Floyd Collins, who was born April 20, 1887, to Leonidas Collins and Martha Burnett Collins. He grew up working on the family farm, apparently exploring caves for fun. He named one of his discoveries "Crystal Cave," and the family promoted it as a tourist attraction. But there was no good way for tourists to reach the entrance he had found, so he tried to find another. (Collins lived in the Mammoth Cave area of Kentucky, which had a bedrock of limestone -- the "Central Kentucky Karst." The whole area is riddled with limestone tunnels and caves; Murray/Brucker, pp. 26-27. The caves had been the basis for tourism since the late 1830s; Murray/Brucker, pp. 28-29. Indeed, the competition between caves was so fierce that on one occasion a gang of thugs beat up Collins to try to get him to agree to something; Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 102-103).
Floyd was the third of eight children of his parents, and the second-oldest of those who lived to adulthood. The family farm (200 acres) was not especially fertile and the home a cramped single-story dwelling. The large family cooperated to run the farm, which meant that they were able to produce more than they needed (Murray/Brucker, pp. 40-41), but it was a tough life; little wonder that the Collinses sought other sources of income. But only Floyd became a caving fanatic.
Caving was not a safe job; explorers found several bodies of Indians in the Mammoth Cave complex, and the first European to die in the local caves was one Pike Chapman, in 1897; he had been well-known to the Collins family (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 18). Collins reportedly also once found a recently-dead man in one of his underground observations -- and did nothing about it, never returning to that cave (Collins/Lehrberger, pp 40-41). But Chapman, and that unknown dead man, didn't have an Andrew Jenkins to tell his story. Despite the risks, there was a wild rush in the early 1900s to try to find more caves and latch on to a share of the caving tourism business (Murray/Brucker, pp. 30-36). Floyd Collins was just one of those who tried to cash in, largely abandoning farming to hunt for attractive caves.
He seems to have been a rather strange man -- and we know there was mental illness in the family. His little sister had just come back from a long stay in an institution at the time Collins died (Murray/Brucker, p. 54). His father was also a very odd character (Murray/Brucker, p. 157, and repeatedly elsewhere) although that may just have been age).
Halliday, p. 5, calls Floyd "barely literate and wildly superstitious" (in one of his underground inscriptions, he spelled his name "Floid"; Halliday has a photo on p. 31 although I find it illegible.) He took excessive risks, had peculiar emotions, and engaged in magical thinking -- he thought he could read magnetic directions with his body, although a test showed he was wrong (Halliday, p. 10). And he had difficult relations with his father, even though he was still living among his family when he reached his thirties (Murray/Brucker, pp. 42-43; p. 49 explains how he and his father got into a major business dispute, which caused them to plan to break their partnership even though Floyd was still living at home even after most of his younger siblings had moved out). He seems to have had a secondary obsession with Native American artifacts (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 22-25), and did much of his caving to search for them (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 30-33), often walking off with them in ways that would not be allowed today. He seems to have liked playing with dynamite, too (see, e.g. Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 41-43). He was sloppy about his preparations, sometimes going exploring without properly maintaining his light (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 86-87). He "was not much interested in women" (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 46-48) and his father said he "was simply not interested in the fairer sex (Murray/Brucker, p. 159). (There is no sign that he was interested in men; lack of interest in sex occurs in some people with autism and personality disorders.) He was "a loner" (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 57) who was "thought curious by the neighbors" (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 115) and considered "shiftless"; except among his few friends, he seemed "taciturn and slow-witted" (Halliday, p. 10). When learning to drive, he insisted on taking the wheel alone before he was competent -- and proceeded to crash the car (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 89). It seems pretty clear that if he lived today, he would qualify for a psychological diagnosis (my wild guess is schizotypal personality disorder, but obviously I'm getting my information at many degrees of removal!).
But above all, and from a very young age, he was obsessed with caves. He was allegedly called "The Cave Hound" and "The Human Groundhog" (Halliday, p. 6).
It wasn't really a bad idea to try to find new caves; that part of Kentucky was already known as cave country, and there were many "cave tourists." Operators even hired "cappers" -- people in pseudo-police uniforms to direct traffic to their caes (Halliday, p. 9, with a photo of one on page 8).
In 1917, he had made his first big discovery, known as "Crystal Cave" because of the beautiful crystals in one of the galleries. (After his death, it became "Floyd Collins Crystal Cave; Collins/Lehrberger, p. 81). With beautiful rock formations and a large chamber that came to be known as "The Grand Canyon" (photo on p. 12 of Halliday), it might well have been a good commercial attraction; In 1917, he had made his first big discovery, known as "Crystal Cave" because of the beautiful crystals in one of the galleries. (After his death, it became "Floyd Collins Crystal Cave; Collins/Lehrberger, p. 81). With beautiful rock formations and a large chamber that came to be known as "The Grand Canyon" (photo on p. 12 of Halliday), it might well have been a good commercial attraction, p. 13, calls it a "world's wonder." Problem was, the Crystal Cave site was undeveloped and too far away from the main cave sites. There was no usable road, only a wagon trail. The family set out to build a gravel road; this proved to be very difficult, and Floyd wasn't the only one whose car came to grief on the road (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 88). Allegedly people from other caving outfits kept blocking the road, too (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 101). His fight with his father came in part because of their disagreement over how to manage Crystal Cave (the fact that two counties were trying to tax the land didn't help). Floyd really wanted to find a new opening that would get him better road access to one of the caves under his control.
It's hard to believe that the final opening he explored -- which came to be known as "Sand Cave" -- was worth the effort. But it was at a spot that would easily draw traffic, so Collins worked out an arrangement with three local landowners to split the profits (Murray/Brucker, p. 49). The cave Collins found -- the entrance of which was on the land of Beesley "Bee" Doyle -- was narrow but very deep; behind a forty foot entry ledge, there was a passage which went down 55 feet over the course of a 115 foot run (Murray/Brucker, p. 23) -- very steep, and with five major curves if the drawing on p. 18 of Murray/Brucker is to be believed (according to Collins/Lehrberger, p. 132, it took twenty minutes to reach the blockage where Collins was working). There wasn't much of interest in that first part of the run, but the passage continued beyond; it's just that it was too narrow for Collins. So he blasted and cleared it (KentuckyEncyclopedia). In January, during an extraordinarily long work spell, he told Bee Doyle (the owner of the property where Collins had been working) that the next day should let him enter the next part of the tunnel (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 130-131). On January 30, 1925, he went down to see just what he had found.
Exactly what happened next is uncertain -- Collins himself may not have known, since his lamp had gone out (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 134-135) -- but there was some sort of rock fall. Collins ended up being pinned and trapped underground. Bee Doyle discovered the next day that Collins had not made it home, checked with the other locals to find that he hadn't gone there, and went to the cave, where the found Floyd's coat hanging on a rock (Murray/Brucker, pp. 52-53). Clearly Collins was still down there, leaving the searchers to try to find him.
They didn't have Collins's skills as a caver. Only one of them, Jewell Estes, a slender 17-year-old, made it close enough even to hear Collins calling. He couldn't get close enough to reach Collins, but he did learn he was stuck (Murray/Brucker, p. 53).
Floyd's younger brother Homer, more at home in caves and with more motivation, eventually went in and got close to Floyd -- and discovered what proved to be the real problem for any rescue: the tunnel was so narrow that there was no way to turn around. If a man went down head-first, he could dig at the rubble that held Floyd, but could not return upward; if he went down feet-first, he could reach Floyd but had no way to get his hands in position to dig Floyd out (Murray/Brucker, p. 57). Homer pulled out a lot of stones, but more fell to replace them. Unless another way could be found to get at the rocks that held Floyd, there was no way to free him.
Apart from being trapped and without supplies, Collins was poorly dressed for the low temperatures in a cave -- and water was running down on him because of rain and melting snow from above (Murray/Brucker, pp. 58-59). Floyd was threatened with more than just hunger and thirst; if the water kept flowing, he was likely to die of hypothermia. After two and a half days, Floyd's mind seemed to be failing -- clearly a sign of his failing physical condition (Murray/Brucker, p. 67).
Well before that, a large crowd had gathering outside the cave -- although they weren't doing anything to help with the rescue; they were just gawkers who got in the way (and brought the police, who promptly confiscated the liquor that Floyd had requested and Home had managed to find; Murray/Brucker, p. 62). Homer went down with one companion; they managed to free Floyd's hands, but they were badly hurt; Floyd still couldn't do much (Murray/Brucker, pp. 62-63).
It sounds as if Homer at this point had largely given up hope and was simply trying to comfort the delirious Floyd as he died. But then the newspapers got their hands on the story, plus a Louisville fireman, Lieutenant Robert Burdon, came to Sand Cave looking for a cheap chance for promotion -- and became obsessed with rescuing Floyd (Murray/Brucker, pp. 75-77). Eventually, dozens of reporters showed up; the case even earned coverage in England. There was so much demand for telephone capacity that eventually several temporary radio stations and a Western Union branch were established (Murray/Brucker, p. 154). There was even a film crew trying to make a movie about it (Murray/Brucker, p. 156)
The first attempt to rescue Collins involved harnessing up his upper body and trying to pull him loose. This caused Collins so much pain that it had to be abandoned without moving him at all (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 160; Murray/Brucker, pp. 79-80. There was talk of amputating Collin's foot, but there was no way to perform the operation in the tight conditions, and no way to carry him out if Collins could not move himself, so that idea went nowhere; Collins/Lehrberger, p. 169).
An experienced caver named Johnnie Gerald, whom Collins had requested from the first, eventually showed up, and made much better progress at clearing Floyd out than anyone before him. (Note: Murray/Brucker and Halliday call him "Gerald," But Collins/Lehrberger, p. 121, etc. give his last name as "Geralds." Murray/Brucker, p. 233, explains that different members of the family used different spellings; Johnnie Gerald's uncle J. T. Geralds would eventually be the undertaker who handled Floyd Collins's corpse).
Gerald was probably the best caver available, but it was slow and exhausting work in the limited space, and eventually Gerald had to go up and take a break (Murray/Brucker, pp. 85-87). Had there been several Geralds to do the work, Floyd might have been rescued fairly quickly. But Gerald was having to do all the work, and he was exhausted and could not work fast enough (Murray/Brucker, pp. 92-93).
The newspapers were increasingly interested, although the stories were often garbled (Murray/Brucker, pp. 89-91; p. 91 says that the story was on the cover of the New York Times for two straight weeks starting on February 3). Rescuing Collins became a sensation -- one of the reporters, "Skeets" Miller, who himself helped in the rescue and talked to Floyd Collins underground, would get a Pulitzer for his coverage (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 9; there is a photo of him on p. 16 of Halliday). Murray/Brucker, p. 85, claims that some 150 people hung around the cave entrance at times, mostly getting drunk rather than helping, and that someone actually set up a concession stand! (A photo of a five cent hamburger stand at the site occurs on p. 167 of Collins/Lehrberger and p. 19 of Halliday.) Toward the end of the saga, it is estimated that there were more than ten thousand gawkers in the area (Murray/Brucker, p. 170). All they were doing was getting in the way -- and their movements might cause more collapses.
To make things worse everyone had a different idea for what to do -- most of them being ideas that Gerald, the expert on the scene, thought hopeless. One of the largest projects -- and one of the few genuinely organized attempts at a rescue -- was planned by the Kentucky Rock Asphault Company (Kyroc), whose manager, Henry T. Carmichael, planned to dig a shaft down to Collins.
It might have worked had they started at once. But Homer Collins, at least, thought the shaft absurd (Murray/Brucker. pp. 94-95). So the Kyroc people instead worked on the existing opening. They were, at least, the hardest workers to take part in the project to this time, taking on the task in shifts.
While that was going on, someone managed to rig a generator and get some lights down into the cave (Murray/Brucker, pp. 98-99) -- until then, people had had constant problems with lamps and flashlights. Human chains of up to eleven men started working to clear the tunnels at this time; the newspaper reporter Skeets Miller was one of these, and got his award-winning interviews while down in the tunnel (Murray/Brucker, pp. 100-101). They were making progress, but Collins's foot was still trapped. Crews kept bringing down tools and trying new tricks to level the stone off his foot, but none of the people who went down the tunnel was a toolmaker, and nothing ever seemed to work (Murray/Brucker, pp. 104-106). And Johnnie Gerald observed that all the work that was being done was wearing at the tunnel, and raising the humidity and temperature. The tunnel might turn unstable; already cracks were developing and debris falling (Murray/Brucker, p. 115). This surely shouldn't have surprised anyone; after all, the reason Collins was trapped was that there had already been a rock fall! Gerald was right. Four and a half days after the initial collapse, while people were actually working in the tunnel, there was a further collapse; only Gerald's prompt warning prevented more men from being trapped. But Collins was now more thoroughly buried than before (Murray/Brucker, pp. 116-117).
Only then did anyone have the bright idea of running a field telephone and a feeding tube down the tunnel. But they couldn't get to Collins, of course (Murray/Brucker, p. 120). It would have been comic if it hadn't been so stupid and tragic. At this point, some potential rescuers quit (Murray/Brucker, p. 121)
The whole thing was turning into a competition (Murray/Brucker, pp. 108-109), with no one in charge. Odds are, had there been one person (perhaps Gerald) to manage the whole thing, Collins would have been rescued. But there hadn't been any such person. After the second collapse, Gerald finally took charge, with a small crew digging and the Kyroc people shoring up what they could (Murray/Brucker, pp. 122-123). It was too late. After some attempts to re-open the tunnel, late on Wednesday, February 4, Gerald found rocks falling on him, some of them hurting him badly. The whole thing was collapsing. At 11:45 p.m., Gerald came out and said he would not -- could not, really -- go back (Murray/Brucker, p. 126). A few others tried to go down the tunnel; they too gave up (Murray/Brucker, p. 127).
The government had been keeping track of this since February 1, but only on February 4 did a tiny contingent of the National Guard arrive -- too small to really control the crowds. Governor Fields then ordered a larger force to come in from Bowling Green (Murray/Brucker, p. 129). The governor put Lieutenant Governor Henry H. Denhardt, who was also a National Guard brigadier, in charge -- not necessarily a smart move, since Denhart, although decisive, was not very thoughtful or perhaps even very bright (Murray/Brucker, p. 130; Halliday, p. 22, calls him "bombastic" and says "Truly he as not the person for quick, delicate intercultural actions [between locals and outside engineers] that still might have saved Floyd Collins" -- later in life, he allegedly murdered his fiancee and was murdered in turn by her relatives). Among other things, he barred Gerald from the area (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 177). But at least his presence meant that, by February 5, there was someone in charge. A number of other engineering experts arrived at around the same time. They quickly learned that no one had done an engineering survey of the Collins cave during the five previous days of the rescue effort (Murray/Brucker, p. 131). They gathered what data they had and calculated where Collins must be stuck.
Then the question was what to do. The suggestion that Denhardt adopted was to have the Kyroc people dig a shaft down to where Collins lay. So everyone had to figure out where to drive the shaft. This took some hours, then the site had to be cleared, and then they had to figure out how to dig it! (Murray/Brucker, pp. 132-133). A big crew and a lot of machinery then set to work -- but Murray/Brucker, p. 134, calculate that Collins had been underground for 144 hours by the time they started, and without food or water for more than 36. They needed to dig at several feet per hour if they were to have any chance of saving him. It was a pace they could not manage, especially as the weather turned and mud got into everything (Murray/Brucker, pp. 140-141), meaning they also had to shore everything up. Carmichael, the man in charge, said it was "like digging in a sack of peanuts" (Halliday, p. 21) -- the more rock they pulled out, the more fell in. Nor was the planning very good; on more than one occasion they had to go in and rebuild the shaft (Murray/Brucker, pp. 200-201). It flooded whenever it rained, too (Murray/Brucker, p. 202). It might have been better had it been wider, too -- "Skeets" Miller, the newsman who had been down in Sand Cave to talk to Floyd, said going down the sfaft was five times more scary than going down the cave! (Murray/Brucker, p. 202).
It sounds like a bad engineering job, even allowing for the fact that it was backwoods Kentucky in 1925. And, despite all the machinery, most of the digging was by men with picks and shovels (Murray/Brucker, p. 167). And the locals, who didn't like this interference, we mostly non-cooperative (Murray/Brucker, p. 141) -- indeed, it got to the point where Denhardt had his troops holding them back by force (Murray/Brucker, pp. 146-147).
All of this was of course beyond the means of the Collins family. (Eventually it was estimated that the whole business -- National Guard, engineering work, news coverage -- was about $200,000; Murray/Brucker, p. 223.) A fund was started to help them, then the local Red Cross stepped in to feed all the hangers-on around his cave. This proved so expensive that they went broke and the national Red Cross stepped in (Murray/Brucker, p. 139).
The whole thing brought Cave City, the local town, a lot of tourism revenue -- and a lot of wear and tear and crime, plus the locals ran out of almost everything (Collins/Lehrberger,, p. 167; Murray/Brucker, p. 153). And eventually crazy rumors started -- that the whole thing was a hoax, that Collins had been murdered, that Collins was alive and coming out a back entrance at night then going back to his tunnel, and so forth (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 182, Murray/Brucker, pp. 175-179). It got so bad that a military commission was appointed to get to the bottom of it all even before they had finished digging the pit (Murray/Brucker, p. 184, who also point out that martial law had not been declared, so the military probably should not have been involved). If nothing else, this quickly established that Collins existed and was clearly in the cave -- not that that should have been surprised; no hoaxer could have forecast how much attention the case would get! And the testimony of Floyd Collins's father Lee cleared Gerald of any wrongdoing (Murray/Brucker, p. 189). But the commission didn't accomplish much else except to demonstrate how many crazies there were with ideas for a rescue plan.
Meanwhile, digging continued. On February 16, 1925, the pit had gone down far enough that they were digging sideways, and at 1:30, the miners finally broke through into the passage holding Collins (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 194, which gives the time as 1:30 a.m.; Murray/Brucker, p. 209, says it was p.m.). The first man down found that Collins's body was cold. This was announced to the media at 2:42 (Murray/Brucker, p. 210). It was not possible for a physician to get through the tunnel, but another man went down and, following a physician's guidance, made it certain that Collins was dead (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 196; Murray/Brucker, p. 211).
Doctors eventually managed to make an examination of sorts, and reported to the coroner's jury (which included among others Johnny Gerald, since he could identify Floyd). The best guess was that Collins had died on Friday, February 13, 1925 (Murray/Brucker, p. 213). There were attempts to take photos of him in the tunnel, but at least one fake photo circulated (shown on p. 24 of Halliday).
The digging of the shaft had been slow, but it led directly to the tunnel Collins had been in -- a good bit of calculation. Not so good was the fact that the shaft hit Collins's tunnel above his body, so they still didn't have access to the rock that had pinned his leg (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 196-197; Murray/Brucker, p. 211; Halliday, p. 25, says that this was done deliberately because everyone knew he was dead and they wanted to get to the body sooner). So he was dead, and additional digging would have been needed to recover his body. Instead, the initial decision was made to seal up the shaft and let Sand Cave be Collins's burial site (Collins/Lehrberger, p. 197).
The family apparently wasn't thrilled with that outcome (Halliday, p. 25). Homer Collins received an offer to tour the country to talk about the rescue attempt. He claimed he didn't want to do it, but decided to take part when it was pointed out that he could use the money to rescue and properly bury Floyd's body. So he raised the money, and the proceeds let him hire people to dig the rescue shaft twelve feet lower down, below Floyd's body, which they were then able to bring out in April 1925 (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 199-201).
Collins's body was buried in the family plot. Lee Collins then sold his property of Crystal Cave (Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 201-202; Halliday, p. 26) -- a decision which caused a rift within the family, and caused the children to think their father was losing his marbles (Murray/Brucker, pp. 230-231; to be honest, I think they were right); they took over the estate while Floyd's body was brought up. Lee's wishes hardly mattered; with tourists suddenly worried about the safety of caves, Lee found the property almost impossible to sell (Murray/Brucker, p. 233). But he finally found a buyer, Harry B. Thomas, who set up a grave for Floyd with a headstone that said, falsely, "Greatest cave explorer ever known" (Murray/Brucker, pp. 234-235; Collins/Lehrberger, p. 204, has a photo, and Halliday has photos on p. 28 and on the back cover).
Against the family's wishes -- three of Floyd's brothers would sue Thomas about it (Murray/Brucker, p. 235; Halliday, p. 26) -- Floyd's body was reburied in Crystal Cave, in a casket that allowed his face to be seen (it had required a lot of work from the undertaker to repair!), along with that exaggerated gravestone. There it stayed except for a brief interlude when the body was stolen and the leg cut off (! -- Collins/Lehrberger, pp. 202-203; Murray/Brucker, p. 235, says they never did recover the leg. No one ever figured out who did it -- there was speculation that Homer Collins himself was behind it; Murray/Brucker, p. 236).
Even before the Collins incident, there had been talk of making the Kentucky Caves a national park. The Collins tragedy gave that a further impetus; in 1926, Mammoth Cave National Park was authorized -- although with little money allocated for it; the understanding was that the land was to be donated. A park association managed this, helped by a Kentucky law that gave it the power to use eminent domain to acquire land. That became a lot easier to condemn the land in the 1930s, when it could be bought at Depression prices (a cause of real resentment to the owners who weren't given any choice!). The park became official just before World War II, and opened just after. It was also understood that Mammoth Cave would bring in money from guided tours -- which meant that the park didn't want competition from other caves. So it set out to buy up other cave sites and shut them down (Murray/Brucker, pp. 238-239).
Crystal Cave was not one of the original acquisitions. It was commercially exploited for many years; Bee Doyle also tried to make money showing off Sand Cave (there is a photo of Doyle, beneath his sign advertising the cave, on p. 203 of Collins/Lehrberger and one of the sign on p. 28 of Halliday), although he didn't make much. Floyd's coffin stayed in Crystal Cave until 1989, even though the National Park Service had purchased and closed the cave in 1961 (KentuckyEncyclopedia; Murray/Brucker, p. 243, says that Great Onyx Cave, the other remaining holdout, was also acquired and closed at this time). Meanwhile, explorers were gradually finding links between all these caves.
You can see maps and photos of the area by looking up "Sand Cave, KY" in Google Maps. There is a trail close to the cave, but the cave itself is closed, and based on the comments of visitors, it appears very little is said about Collins and the rescue attempt. Collin's other discovery can be found at "Crystal Cave, KY." That cave is open, and there are photos of it available.
There are at least five books and a pamphlet about the event:
-- Murray/Brucker, cited here
-- Homer Collins (Floyd's brother), Floyd Collins in Sand Cave: America's Greatest Rescue Story (1958; this and Murray/Brucker are the only sources KentuckyEncyclopedia thinks worth citing; it appears to have been republished as The Life and Death of Floyd Collins by Homer Collins and John Lehrberger, also cited here; according to Murray/Brucker, there were three manuscripts of Homer's tale, which don't all agree -- probably the two editions worked from different manuscripts)
-- the pamphlet is "Floyd Collins of Sand Cave; A Photographic Memorial" by William R. Halliday, cited here; scattered among its 33 pages (in large type) are 35 photos, drawings, and illustrations
-- Arcadia Press also has two items called "The Floyd Collins Tragedy at Sand Cave," but one is a postcard collection
-- the three other books are roughly contemporary with the events, but they were loosely based on the inaccurate newspaper accounts of the time, with no additional material of their own; they have no value except as examples of the Collins hysteria. In that they resemble this song, really; a lot of it is generic "Young people take warning" material, and the rest is also more fluff than fact -- e.g. the song mentions Floyd's father and mother but never uses their names (and Floyd's mother was dead!).
There were also later dramatic presentations. Murray/Brucker, pp. 253-254, says that the 1950 movie "Ace in the Hole" or "The Big Carnival" took some inspiration from the Floyd case, although it wasn't actually based on it. In 1951, the "Philco Television Playhouse" produced "Rescue," which was a Collins retelling, although televisionized.... They brought in Skeets Miller and Homer Collins to consult, and had them talk briefly at the end (Murray/Brucker, p. 254). Later in the 1950s, several magazine articles appeared. In 1957 came another television show, "Robert Montgomery Presents" offering the "Tragedy at Sand Cave." This was much less accurate, and Homer wasn't involved -- and so he finally decided to tell his story, resulting ultimately in Collins/Lehrberger (Murray/Brucker, p. 255). But it seems as if his memory had slipped a bit by then; Murray/Brucker, p. 256, note several errors in Homer's story. Robert Penn Warren's 1959 book The Cave was also inspired by Collins, although with many changes in emphasis as well as names. And on and on the dramatizations went. - RBW
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The Ballad Index Copyright 2021 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.