Dark Carnival

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In 1973 Michael Lesy published perhaps the most unusual Ph.D. thesis of all time under the title Wisconsin Death Trip . In this strange and controversial book he selected some two hundred of the thousands of photographs taken in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, by Charles Van Schaick between the years 1890 and 1910, and presented them along with clippings from local newspapers. The clippings were brief, mordant accounts of murder,. suicide, accidents, insanity, arson, sexual hysteria, contagion, theft, and destruction. For Lesy was fascinated by the horrors that he saw stirring beneath the orderly currents of turn-of-the-century life in rural America. To Lesy the newspaper accounts were particularly valuable in expressing the emotional climate of the time, not only in the incidents they reported, but because, as he wrote in his introduction, “these writings transformed what were private acts into public events. In a time that was disjointed by a depression as epidemically fatal and grotesque as the most contagious disease, these articles created temporary but intimate bonds between creatures who had been separated and divided by a selfish culture of secular Calvinism.”

Since Wisconsin Death Trip , Lesy has turned his idiosyncratic vision on a city—Louisville—and a time—the 1920’s—and found monsters lurking there too. He continues to be interested in the effect of newspapers on the community, though he sees the garish tabloids of the twenties as performing a different and more sinister function than their turn-of-the-century counterparts. The article that follows is as much a story of metaphysical fantasies in the press as it is a chronicle of the anguish of Floyd Collins. It will appear in slightly different form in his book Real Life: Louisville in the Twenties , to be published this month by Pantheon Books.

One hundred and fifty thousand people subscribed to the Louisville Sunday papers in 1925, and probably a hundred thousand more read bits and pieces of them. The feature sections of these papers printed stories filled with names, places, prosaic details, and scholarly references; they were illustrated with photographs. But the photographs were cut into collages, and the names and details did nothing but fill the empty spaces around the headlines. The stories were elaborations of news accounts that were themselves literary transformations and elaborations of actual events. By the time the stories were printed as Sunday magazine features, they were moral tales that had as much to do with real people and actual facts as Pilgrim’s Progress or the Odyssey had to do with actual journeys.

 

During the month of February, 1925, the newspapers changed the struggles of a man named Floyd Collins into one of those stories. It took them two weeks to tell it. Collins had been trapped while exploring a cave in central Kentucky on January 20, and died in it sometime between February 12 and February 16. By the time the people who tried to rescue him had found his body, fifty reporters from sixteen big-city newspapers and film crews from six motion-picture studios had turned him into a popular martyr. On the first Sunday of the newspaper story twenty thousand people from sixteen states turned a country road into an eight-mile traffic jam to get a look at the hole he was in. Hundreds of ordinary people sent telegrams of advice, rich women sent physicians, fortunetellers sent predictions, impostors made claims, and little boys became lost.

Business and industry tried to save Collins; experts and miners tried to help. The truth was that few of the experts knew what to do. The only men who ever got close to him were a newspaper reporter who’d never met him, a business partner who’d become his rival, a fireman who wanted to pull his leg off, and a miner who kissed him good-bye. The harder they pulled to save him, the more Mother Earth sucked him in. The bigger the hole they made in her, the quicker and stronger she squeezed it closed. Most of the city papers said she killed him; others said his family and friends had murdered him for his money; there were some who said he’d never been there to begin with.

It is difficult and complicated to tell what happened, but even that is easier than to account for what the newspapers thought it meant and what their readers imagined.