- Historic Sites
THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
The experts continued their own investigations. They sprayed banana oil into the downdraft of the cave and then tried to smell it rising from crevices that might lead to the original passage. They hung two darning needles to the depth of their rescue shaft and then crawled as far as they could into the original passage with a powerful electromagnet. They calculated the angle and direction in which the needles strayed from the perpendicular and, in this way, verified the progress of their digging. On Friday the thirteenth they discovered they’d been wrong; the shaft was now deep enough but too far to one side. The radio-amplified light bulb and the electric darning needles hadn’t worked. They sent a man named Ed Brenner, a miner from Cincinnati, into the passage to make a noise to give them a clue. While they listened to him he heard “somebody in a groan … like you hear a man that’s got hurt in a hospital. …” They uncovered Floyd the next day. Dr. Hazlitt said he’d been dead five days. Brenner said his “face was sharp and pointed; he had jaws like a bulldog. A sharp nose, a high forehead. His eyes were sunk and his mouth was open. His hair was black. I took his head in my hands and … washed his face.” The adjutant general fainted when he heard the news.
They left Floyd where he was. The people in Cave City figured there’d been sixty thousand tourists. Mr. Carmichael said operations had only cost twenty-five thousand dollars.
Each of the local papers that had carried Floyd’s story used his predicament as an occasion to tell moral tales. The Louisville Post had told a story about “Collins … trapped in a … grave more horrible than the weirdest imaginings of master fictionalists. Nature is moving against … human beings … like a master chess player. … It has been a desperate struggle for cheap fame … if Collins dies, a monument should be erected on the mossy wall of the cave … bearing the inscription: ‘A brave man died here … a martyr to the lust for glory.’” The Courier published an allegory in which Floyd was the protagonist of “a tragedy in several acts,” written by “Fate the master playwright,” whose subject was “the struggle between man and … Nature, unexorable,” and whose dramatic effect was heightened by “Ignorance … Jealousy … and Greed.”
During the first week of Floyd’s imprisonment the papers jointly elaborated a story in which Floyd was the victim, Nature was the deadly antagonist, Johnny Gerald was a traitor, and the engineers and National Guard were heroes in a battle. However, during the second week the Herald came out with its wildly paradoxical story, which could be understood only by an audience already critical of its own surroundings. The Herald was joined by three other newspapers in three other major cities of the region, but it was not joined by the Courier . The Courier refused to elaborate this new parable because the story denied the salvation offered by an archetypal young hero from the Courier ’s own staff. The Courier ’s version of events resembled a pleasant fairy tale in which a worthy man was helped by a young prince who, in turn, was aided by wise men and warriors, while the Herald ’s, version sounded like a paranoid delusion.
The adjutant general who fainted when he heard Floyd was dead blamed the story of the hoax on a Chicago A.P. man who wanted to sell papers more than tell the truth. The truth was that the people of the area had been exchanging gossip and spreading rumors long before either the adjutant general or the reporter had come near them. Sons accused fathers; neighbors blamed neighbors. They cheated and threatened one another; they envied and beat one another. They went into business.
The people who bought the papers in Louisville, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Chicago believed the rumors and the accusations because they had heard of such things before in their own cities. They had read many stories of betrayal and had learned much about suspicion. During the First War they had experienced government intervention and regulation of their food, their labor, and their thought that were more harsh than even their grandparents had experienced during the Civil War. They had suffered an inflationary increase in the wholesale price index of 108 points between 1914 and 1918 and a severe depression in 1921.