- Historic Sites
THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
The reporters began to look for news. They found that Floyd’s faithful dog Shep hadn’t eaten or slept for eight days. They learned that Floyd had once gone all the way to Louisville to buy his sweetheart, Alma Clark, a box of chocolate-covered cherries. They listened to rumors. Neighbors hinted that Floyd had done it all for publicity, or had escaped through a secret tunnel, or had never been there in the first place. Marshall Collins and Fire Lieutenant Burdon and Ed Estes said that Floyd had been murdered. They said Johnny Gerald had made a secret deal with Floyd’s father to kill him and take over Crystal Cave. The A.P. correspondent from the Chicago Tribune asked Adjutant General Denhart what he knew. Denhart said he’d never heard any respectable citizen say anything about a hoax. The A.P. man said he’d heard that “the whole thing was an advertising scheme for the cave country and that the L&N and other powerful interests were behind” it. He said he personally believed that Floyd was trapped but he “did not believe ‘fake journalism’ was dead.”
Whether fake journalism was dead or not, the A.P. man wasn’t the only one to have heard the rumors. Another A.P. man from Louisville had heard them, and a doctor from Horse Cave had heard them too. When the correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean went home for a day, he said fifty people had asked him if the whole thing wasn’t a fake like the story of the minister lost in the cave. On Saturday, February 7, all the correspondents from Louisville, except Skeets, met with correspondents from Cincinnati, Chicago, and Nashville in the Dixie Hotel in Cave City. They agreed that “jealousy, commercial strife, and personal enmity were far greater factors in the imprisonment of Floyd Collins than the forces of nature.” They waited until Monday to publish their new version of events. That gave the adjutant general time to persuade the governor to convene a court of inquiry to stop the rumors.
But the show went on. The Louisville Automobile Club issued directions on how to drive to Cave City. Twenty thousand came to have a look. They bought souvenirs and posed for photographs in the meadow outside the barbed wire. Lee Collins moved through the crowd, introducing himself and handing out leaflets that advertised White Crystal Cave. By noon the only two restaurants in Cave City had hung out “Bread and Water Only” signs. Louisville papers sold thousands of copies of their Sunday edition to people who couldn’t get close enough to see even the barbed wire. The general gave a Louisville minister permission to hold a service on one of the bluffs overlooking the hole. Five thousand people got down on their knees and prayed. They sang “Lead Kindly Light / Amid the encircling gloom / Lead Thou me on / The night is dark and / I am far from home / Lead Thou me on.”
On Monday the Louisville Herald , the Chicago Tribune , the Cincinnati Post , and the Nashville Tennessean all published copyrighted stories in which they combined the rumors and thus told a baffling tale about the murder of a man who wasn’t there. The newspapers described a paradox, but the governor of Kentucky preferred the truth. He ordered Adjutant General Denhart to remove the Chicago Tribune A.P. correspondent from his camp and to begin a military inquiry. He also asked the A.P. to retract its man’s story.
The court convened the next day. “The khaki, [the] shining accoutrements, and [the] highly polished boots recalled the days of the war and lent an air of impressiveness to the session,” according to one reporter. The court listened to Lieutenant Burdon accuse Johnny Gerald and then heard the mathematics professor defend him. It heard a building contractor from Louisville, accuse anthropology and zoology Professor Funkhouser of not knowing what he was doing and watched while the professor fainted from the strain. It listened to a dairyman from Louisville describe the drunks who stood around the cave entrance, and it heard testimony that doctors had put stimulants in Floyd’s coffee. It heard Lee Collins and Homer Collins defend Johnny Gerald, and it took the testimony of two reporters who’d never heard any rumors. General Denhart himself told of his conversation with the A.P. man from Chicago, and Edward Estes described how he’d first learned of Floyd’s predicament.
While all this went on, a man from Haddam, Kansas, revealed that he was Floyd Collins. “Please contradict statements that I am buried alive in Sand Cave. Tell mother I am all right. Am coming home.” He said he had an American-flag tattoo on his right arm and a scar on the left of his navel that Johnny Gerald had given him. Two little boys in Pittsburgh played Floyd Collins and trapped themselves in a cave near a beer vault. A lady from Chicago wrote to Mr. Carmichael at Sand Cave to tell him that she knew Floyd was alive because her coffee grounds had settled in a heart shape.