- Historic Sites
THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
On Monday, Homer Collins told a Herald reporter that he’d spent Sunday night in the tunnel with his brother. “Floyd told me that last night he dreamed of white angels riding in white chariots drawn by white horses … he saw chicken sandwiches [and] a red hot stove … I heard him praying … ‘Oh Lord help me. I’m going home to the angels.’” Homer offered five hundred dollars to any surgeon who could crawl into the passage and cut his brother’s leg off. Would-be heroes arrived from nearby counties and tried to crawl down the tunnel. Hundreds of men stood around the hole telling one another what to do and offering one another drinks. They’d ask Homer or Marshall for permission and then crawl in carrying blankets and gloves, thermoses of coffee, bottles of milk, and cans of soup. Some of them got halfway down before they became frightened and stuffed the blankets and bottles and cans into the nearest crevice; they’d come out and tell everyone how grateful Floyd had been and exactly what he’d said.
The newspapers in Louisville and the telegraph office in Cave City began to get telegrams of advice. A doctor from Des Moines said he’d amputate Floyd’s leg if they sent an airplane to get him; a man from Brooklyn suggested a screw jack; a man from Sehenectady suggested a flat iron hook; a man from Detroit suggested a welding torch; and another from Kansas City suggested a small electric drill. The Louisville and Nashville dispatched a special train from Louisville to carry a pneumatic drill, a crew of stonemasons from a monument company, a fire-department lieutenant named Burdon, looking for a promotion, and a sweet-faced nineteen-year-old reporter named Skeets Miller from the Courier . As soon as Burdon got off the train, he told a Louisville Post reporter that the only way to save Floyd was either to dig a shaft down behind him or crawl in and pull his leg off. He persuaded Homer and Marshall to let him strap a harness to Floyd, connect it to a windlass, and try to pull him out like a worm from a hole. By the time he was ready, Homer and Marshall had passed out and been carried away.
Once Floyd’s brothers were gone, his ex-business partner took over. Johnny Gerald told Burdon that if he tried anything, he’d kill him. He chased away the stonemasons. He wouldn’t deal with any outsiders. At midnight on Monday he crawled in, followed by a college president from Bowling Green and an ex-army lieutenant who taught mathematics. They cleared rock from Floyd’s body, freed his hands, widened the passage, and fed him coffee, milk, and grape juice. Floyd told Johnny that he’d rather have him do the rescuing than anyone else in the world. The college president crawled out and announced that he was going to interrupt the southern tour of his basketball team and order the boys to the rescue. The stonemasons from Louisville left the next morning. They said the rescue camp was a cross between a country fair and a circus. Five hundred men crowded around in front of the cave. People complained about pickpockets and tire thieves. The president of the People’s Bank of Cave City and the city marshal asked the state governor to send a national-guard officer and a chief engineer to direct the rescue.
In the middle of the confusion, sometime on Tuesday while Gerald was taking a nap and the college president was looking for his basketball team, Skeets Miller, the boy reporter from Louisville, led a crew of men into the tunnel. Skeets knocked some rock away, gave Floyd a drink, and conducted an interview. It began: “Death holds no terror for Floyd Collins, he told me … as I placed a bottle of rnilk to his lips. …” Then it ran: “I have been in the cave three times … I am very small … I am confident … I lead the way … I have succeeded. … It is terrible … I went first …” His paper ran the headline “ COURIER JOURNAL MAN LEADS 3 RESCUE ATTEMPTS .” That night Skeets pulled a shining electric bulb with him into the tunnel and left it looped around Floyd’s neck to keep him warm. The next day the Courier printed a frontpage picture of Lee Collins shaking his hand. Lee was a bent old man who’d taken his hat off. Skeets stood young and tall as a prince. “‘Skeets the First’ Is Cave City Ruler,” said the Courier . “Modest Young Miller Is Hero of Town With Unwavering Determination.” He had crawled into the deep pit and returned to tell the world. People followed him everywhere. In spite of danger and fame he still acted like a boy: “I wish you’d … tell my mother that there isn’t any real danger because I know she’ll be worried.”