The Louisville Courier-Journal philosophically summed up the attempts to rescue Floyd Collins from Sand Cave near Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County, Kentucky, in 1925.
“It isn’t that news of the day didn’t reveal many tragedies of far greater peril and human life,” they reported. “Ships have been swallowed up by the sea. Miners by the hundreds have been imprisoned in the bowels of the earth. Fires and floods have swept populated areas and volcanoes have blighted entire country sides and cities. Earthquakes have devastated miles of inhabited territory causing countless loss.
“However none of these calamities has riveted and held a universal interest as did the fight for this single life in a Kentucky cave. The outcome was awaited and watched by a succession of rescue attempts by cavers, geologists, miners and engineers, because the world is a world of human beings. Every fellow-being, with a spark of imagination, could and did put himself in Floyd Collins place.
“Day after day millions of people read reports from the scene of the horror. Newspapers far and wide presented all of the details about it that could be obtained. Even papers thousands of miles away issued extras to keep their readers posted as to what was going on at Sand Cave in Kentucky. That is why the story of Floyd Collins unfolded for seventeen days in the newspapers of this country – a news serial with the most sustained interest of any story ever printed.”
Skeets Miller, the five foot five, 115 pound reporter from the Louisville Journal, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting during the rescue efforts. He was one of the youngest to ever win the prestigious award. Although he was a cub reporter, just 21-years old at the time, his diminutive size allowed him to get to Floyd’s untenable position.
The young reporter recalled being lowered by his heels into the entrance of Sand Cave. After reaching the bottom of an 80-foot drop he “had to squirm like a snake” as he proceeded through the narrow passageway. He said that water covered every inch along the way and very quickly he was wet from head to toe. The water splashed in his face and the cold numbed his body. He slid down an 8-foot drop, bumping slightly against Floyd.
“It startled him somewhat,” Skeets Miller recalled. “Perhaps he had been asleep. There was an oil cloth covering his face, put there by one of his brothers. When I removed it he said ‘put it back, the water is driving me crazy.’ That’s when I noticed the cold water was dripping down on his face. His lips were purple from the cold and the pallor on his face cried with urgency. It reminded me of the water torture of ages past.”
The funeral service for Floyd Collins was held on the surface near Sand Cave even though his body was still entombed 55 feet inside. Kentucky Governor William J. Fields sent the National Guard a few days before to help maintain order. The influx of thousands of curious Americans, mixing with profiteers selling food, drinks, souvenirs and moonshine, resulted in a carnival-like atmosphere. It was during the years of Prohibition yet many were drinking openly. Although it was a wooded area there were people as far as could be seen. Their twinkling campfires among the trees each night created an eerie sight.
It bothered Homer that Floyd’s body was still inside the mountain. He devised a plan to have a proper burial for his brother. Homer was hell-bent on raising money to have Floyd’s body removed from the cave and went on a tour of theaters across the country telling anecdotes of Floyd’s entrapment.
He soon accumulated enough funds and returned home where he contracted W. H. Hunt and six others to find and remove Floyd’s body from the cave. They succeeded in finding his corpse on April 17, 1925, raising it to the surface on April 23rd. Hunt and his fellow workers gathered around for pictures. A proper funeral for Floyd was held on the Collins property on April 26, 1925. Six pallbearers wore sashes on their arms with Sand Cave printed on them. A large stalagmite served as his head stone.
Sand Cave was never opened commercially as it was too unstable. Floyd had discovered Crystal Cave on the family property and readied it for opening in 1917, he and his father becoming equal partners. It was further off the beaten path so the other caves received the bulk of the tourists. That was the reason Floyd explored Sand Cave. It was much closer to the main roads.
Tourism dollars dried up in the months that followed and Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave and his homestead to Dr. Harry B. Thomas, a local dentist who was already a cave owner. He had electric lights installed through his caves and received authorization to move Floyd’s body. Dr. Thomas hired a mortician to do whatever was necessary to make Floyd’s corpse presentable. On June 13, 1927, the glass-topped coffin was placed along the walking trail inside the cave.
Visitors to Crystal Cave could look in at him. It proved to be a boon to the owner as millions knew the Floyd Collins name and were enthralled with the story about him. They flocked to the area on vacations and outings to see for themselves. A new granite tombstone listed pertinent information and concluded by calling Floyd the “greatest cave explorer ever known.”
Floyd’s brothers filed suit to stop the public exhibition of Floyd’s corpse. After hearing the testimony of Lee Collins, Floyd’s father and Crystal Cave co-owner, the judge decided that the cave and Floyd’s body had been legally sold. It would remain in Crystal Cave. Lee Collins said he was simply trying to stay out of the poor house. That was in early times when individuals had to ferret out to meet their needs, before the various government programs.
“Floyd Collins’ body is there for anyone to see if they want to see it,” Dr. Thomas said, never admitting that he displayed Floyd’s body for financial gain. “That’s what Floyd would have wanted.”
On the night of March 18, 1929 or the early morning hours of March 19, there was a bizarre occurrence. Floyd’s corpse was stolen. It had vanished from the coffin. Authorities searched about the countryside with bloodhounds, looking for Floyd’s body. Eventually it was found but Floyd’s left leg was missing. It was the leg that trapped him inside of Sand Cave. The leg was never found and no information has ever come forward with its whereabouts or reason for it being taken. Afterwards the body was kept inside a chained coffin in a secluded part of the cave, off-limits to visitors.
All was quiet for over thirty years when, in 1961, it was announced that Mammoth Cave National Park had purchased Crystal Cave and closed it to the public. Nearly another thirty years later the Collins family requested that the National Park Service release Floyd’s body and casket to them for a proper burial. They went one better. They re-interred Floyd’s corpse in the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery on Flint Ridge. It was March 24, 1989, 64 years after his entrapment and death in Sand Cave.
The gravesite is a favorite visiting place for visitors to Mammoth Cave, especially for other cavers. Their camaraderie has led many to leave items they found that held a mutual interest such as coins, stones, Indian flintwork, sunflower seeds, a variety of nuts and other objects.
Floyd Collins, undoubtedly, was the most famous cave explorer ever known. Unfortunately he didn’t adhere to the five accepted rules of caving. Cavers should not explore alone. They should always tell someone where they are going and when they expect to return. They should have more than one light source. They should wear adequate clothing including a helmet or hard hat.
Several books were written about Floyd and a song about his entrapment and death became popular. One nine verse song concluded with “Young people oh! take warning from Floyd Collins’ fate. Get right with your Maker before it is too late. It may not be a sand cave in which we find our tomb… at the bar of Judgment we must meet our doom.” Copyright 2016 Jadon Gibson
Editor’s note: Several writings served as resource material for the story, including the book “Trapped” by Robert Murray and Roger Brucker, works by James C. Neace, Kentucky Explorer articles, several newspapers and other articles.