- Historic Sites
THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
In 1921, while Floyd was standing on the road, he stopped a curator of anthropology from the Chicago Field Museum. The man hired him as an assistant. Floyd helped him for three years and learned enough to know that he liked the caves better than the road. He and Gerald began to argue about whose turn it was to be inside. Business got tougher and tougher. One cave promoter turned his truck into a billboard and drove it up and down. His competitors put a stop to this by burning it. Another man picked a fight with Floyd and tried to run him off, but Floyd gave him a beating. He and his father started to argue about renewing Johnny Gerald’s options when they expired on January 1, 1925. Lee wanted to renew them, but Floyd wanted to be free. Lee threatened to sue him, but Floyd wouldn’t budge. So Lee renegotiated Gerald’s option on his own half of the cave, but didn’t tell Floyd a thing. He made the deal behind his own son’s back. By then Floyd had begun to look like a middleaged man.
In the middle of January, 1925, Floyd signed a contract with a man named Doyle and another man named Ed Estes to explore a rock overhang called Sand Cave on Doyle’s farm. Doyle and Estes agreed to give Floyd half rights to anything he found there. There was a story that men who worked for Mammoth Cave had once dynamited the overhang. The day before Floyd went down, he showed Estes a skull he’d found in a cave and then gave it to Estes’ son, Jewell. He said he was afraid of not coming out alive.
On Friday, January 30, he went into the cave. He crawled down into the dark, on his belly, into a narrow passage. He slid fifteen feet straight down, then twisted through a hundred feet of loops that sloped at 3o degrees. He dropped straight for eight feet and then crawled for fifty feet more between loose rock walls until he reached a small cavern. He lay on his belly, looking down into a fifty-foot pit, twenty-five feet long and ten feet wide. He went down into it, looking for a passage, but it was closed. He scaled the walls and headed back the way he had come. He kicked a rock that knocked some stones that started a slide that trapped him. He was caught a hundred and twentyfive feet deep in the ground, in a space eight inches high and twelve feet long. The temperature was 16 degrees. He was facing up in the direction from which he’d come, but there was a seven-ton boulder on his left foot. He lay in mud and black night, with water dripping on his head.
On Saturday morning Estes sent Jewell into the tunnel. Floyd told him to go tell his brother Marshall and then come back and stay with him in the dark. Jewell grabbed some broken stalactites and crawled out. Marshall came with his other brother, Homer, and a crowd of men came with blowtorches to heat the rock, and chisels and hammers to break it. They worked all day but couldn’t free him.
On Sunday, Floyd’s predicament was briefly reported in the Louisville Courier . On Monday, February 2, the Herald mistakenly reported that he’d been freed. By then local and regional papers and the Associated Press had decided to change him into a story. They turned him into a headline because similar things had happened before. In 1922 Floyd and a photographer from the Herald had been trapped for two days in White Crystal Cave. While Floyd dug a way out, the photographer had taken a picture of him that was circulated as a post card and newspaper illustration in the state. Other people had been trapped in other places before that. Sometime between 1920 and 1925 a minister had been falsely reported by Nashville papers to have been lost in a cave in northern Tennessee. In December, 1906, a miner who worked for the Edison Electric Company in Bakersfield, California, had been trapped in an overturned automobile when the roof of a communications tunnel collapsed. His predicament and rescue on December 22 had been reported throughout the country. When the Louisville papers first heard about Floyd, they recognized his name and remembered Mr. Morrison’s subterranean elevator; the Chicago and Nashville papers that followed the lead of the Courier and the Herald were already quite familiar with the reputation of Mammoth Cave; and the East Coast papers that subscribed to the Associated Press recognized the dramatic possibilities of a cave rescue. If Floyd had been saved as the Herald reported, the story would have ended; but Floyd remained trapped, and so his story spread and changed its nature. By Thursday, February 5, it had become a variety of moral tale known as the tragic disaster, in which the protagonists always suffered the consequences of their own immoderate appetites and ambitions.