THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
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.
Collins was trapped in Sand Cave, in Barren County, a few miles over the line from Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County. The limestone under the ground was pocked and rotten. There were caves everywhere; there were three thousand sinkholes. Woodland Indians had lived and buried their dead in the caves a thousand years before Christ’s body was shut away. When the whites dug saltpeter from Mammoth Cave, they found the body of a woman, surrounded by whistles, pendants, beads, and feathers. They said it was an Indian mummy. In 1820 a scholar visited the caves and went away talking like a man who’d seen a ghost: “The entrance to the infernal abodes of ancient mythology is most forcibly called to mind. Here … Virgil might have found a hell formed to his mind … this [is a] tomb of nature. …” A hundred years later Mammoth Cave had become an income property that paid regular dividends. Billy Sunday, the Christian evangelist, said that the cave made him feel “like a small piece of nothing dropped in the infinite.” That feeling cost money—a dollar to get inside and four dollars to stay all day. The receipts went to two old ladies in San Francisco who’d been left that piece of Mother Earth by a doctor, their uncle. The number of people who visited the cave varied with the state of the world. Forty thousand—a record number—made the descent during one of the years of the First War. There were cave exhibits at the Kentucky State Fair for those who couldn’t travel. The one in 1923 featured fish with no eyes and, said the Louisville Herald , “the mummy of a monkey … which antedates by one million years … the famed King Tut.”
The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others. There was Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. They were all owned and operated by men who would have charged admission to the Creation. At the center of it all was Cave City; it served the tourists the way Lourdes served pilgrims. The only difference was that the men who ran the Cave City hotels tried to make their own miracles.
In 1915 a Louisville man named G. D. Morrison formed the Mammoth Cave Development Company, with the help of a vice president of the Fidelity-Columbia Trust Company and the owner of a Louisville men’s store. They hired a sewer engineer to sneak into Mammoth Cave and make a few surveys. In 1921 Morrison persuaded the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to lease the development company a hundred acres of land three and a half miles from Mammoth Cave. Somewhere underneath those hundred acres were the passages the engineer had surveyed.
Morrison’s workmen drilled for a year, telling anyone who asked that they were looking for onyx. Once they broke in, Morrison strung some electric lights inside, built a hotel outside, and opened for business. He’d made himself a back door. He called it the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave. He also called it “a miniature Atlantic City in the heart of Kentucky.” He said he had plans to build a twenty-thousand-dollar elevator in his hotel lobby so that his guests could comfortably descend to the caverns below. There were other people with other plans. A group of Chicago investors, headed by a member of the Glen Oaks Country Club, announced that they had purchased three hundred acres of land three miles north of the cave. They planned to construct a private eighteen-hole golf course, to be called the Blue Grass Country Club. They intended to solicit membership of midwestern businessmen who couldn’t be bothered to travel all the way to Florida for a vacation. Whoever had sold them the land hadn’t told them that it was so leached by ground water that one of their greens might turn into a sinkhole overnight.
While Morrison planned his underground elevator and the golfers sited their fairways, the local people were filing their own claims. Floyd Collins had more patience and less money than most of them. He was one of nine children, raised in a log cabin. His father, Lee, was a poor farmer who did a little trapping; Floyd, his brother Homer, and his brother Marshall made a bare living cutting timber into railroad ties for the Louisville and Nashville and rafting them down the Green River. In 1917, when he was twenty-seven, Floyd followed a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned into a passage that led to a cavern. He called it White Crystal Cave. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business. They sold options on the cave to a inan named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. He and Floyd took turns; one of them stood on the side of the road and tried to talk the tourists inside; the other guided them into the cave, down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals.
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.
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.”
The more people admired Skeets, the more Johnny Gerald resented him. Johnny chased him away on Wednesday morning and led ten men into the hole. He chipped at the boulder that held Floyd’s foot until Floyd told him he was free. The crew headed back to get a piece of canvas to drag him out. They were fifty feet from him when the tunnel collapsed. Five days of digging had loosened the roof and weakened the walls. The heat of the work had thawed the frozen mud that had helped hold the rock in place. Gerald broke through again twelve hours later. Floyd’s foot was still caught. It had never been freed. He’d been delirious. He was dying of pneumonia. A young miner from Central City named Maddox gave him the last food he ever ate. He mumbled and whispered: “Maddox, get me out … why don’t you take me out … kiss me good-bye, I’m going.” Maddox saw purple circles around his eyes and two front teeth made of gold. He kissed him good-bye.
The experts came to save Floyd the next day. Kentucky Governor Fields had ordered two detachments of soldiers under the command of Adjutant General Denhart to bring order to Cave City; he had asked T. J. Carmichael, a superintendent of Kentucky Rock Asphalt and a member of the State Geological Survey, to direct rescue operations; and he had requested W. D. Funkhouser, a University of Kentucky professor of anthropology and zoology, who had conducted archaeological surveys of the area, to offer his advice. The Louisville Gas and Electric Company sent a geologist who had made surveys of the area for the company; and Mrs. Emma Blaine, formerly Miss McCormick of International Harvester of Chicago, dispatched Dr. William Hazlitt, a prominent surgeon, to cut off Floyd’s leg. Newspapers from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Dallas sent their reporters. The Red Cross set up a complete field hospital on one of the slopes overlooking the camp, and the soldiers strung barbed wire in a perimeter fifty yards beyond the bluffs that surrounded the rock overhang.
Outside the wire, venders sold hot dogs, sandwiches, and coffee to tourists who had begun to arrive from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee and from Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Inside the wire the experts agreed that the tunnel had become too dangerous and that the safest way to rescue Floyd was to dig a shaft until it reached the boulder that pinned him. None of them believed that they’d find him alive, and most of them thought he was dead already. The newspapers explained it this way: Homer and Marshall had passed out; Lee was an old wreck; Johnny Gerald had threatened a fireman and chased away a young hero. The only thing Fïoyd’s friends and relatives had managed to do was start arguments with nice people and bring the roof down on their own heads. They were amateurs who had made fatal mistakes. The experts would solve everything. The same military discipline and professional organization that had won the First War would prove its worth by saving a corpse.
Carmichael of the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company organized three hundred volunteers into three shifts. Some of them worked for the same company he did, others worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, some were out-of-work miners from the eastern Kentucky coalfields, and others were striking miners from Muhlenberg County in the western fields. The miners said that Floyd would be squeezed to death before they got near him. The squeeze, they said, always happened when the walls of a mine tunnel became weak and hydraulic pressure pushed the floor up to the ceiling. They estimated the tunnel was closing at the rate of a quarter of an inch an hour. In Boston two Harvard geologists denied such a thing could ever happen in a limestone region.
The experts at the cave began to monitor Floyd’s condition electrically. They connected a “radio detector” to the light bulb around his neck. They heard a grating noise every twenty seconds. Dr. Hazlitt, the surgeon from Chicago, said it meant that Floyd was gasping for breath. A radio station in Chicago strapped a glowing bulb to the chest of a volunteer and then connected it to amplifiers. No one could hear a thing. The engineers hauled two ten-thousand-dollar steam shovels down the bluffs to the cave, but Dr. Hazlitt discovered that engine exhaust fumes were being drawn into the tunnel. Johnny Gerald made a rude remark about the experts’ shaft, and the Army threw him out. Mr. Carmichael said it might cost a hundred thousand dollars to dig Floyd up. Three thousand people stood outside the wire and watched. They were too far away to see anything.
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.
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.
Between 1923 and 1925 stories of fraudulent business deals and crimes of passionate betrayal filled the front pages of city newspapers. In Louisville there were the sexual disasters of Dr. Lewis, a drug addict who had murdered his wife; of Richard Heaton, a commodities broker who had tried to castrate his best friend; and of William Zinmeister, a soft-drinkstand owner who had shot his daughter. There were the stories of the bunco schemes of Madame Dinier, who stole Josephine Traub’s savings, and of Mr. Defough, who robbed generous Mr. Coravitous. Each year there were stories of business frauds on a grand scale. The papers told of how the Home Telephone Company was acquired by the Cumberland Telephone Company through the connivance of bankers, businessmen, and elected officials who told the public a series of lies. There were constant stories of partners against partners, brothers against brothers, death at opportune moments, and marriages of convenience. The papers reported how Elmer Schmidt had signed an insurance suicide pact with William Werdeman, whom he planned to murder. They reported how William Haldeman had sued his brother Bruce to sell their father’s newspapers to Robert Bingham, and how Bingham had bought the papers with money inherited from a woman who had died nine months after he’d married her.
The people who had learned about all these things remembered them as they read about Floyd Collins, the small businessman who was trapped by his own greed, failed by his own partner, betrayed by his own father, and libeled by his own neighbors. They hoped that a young prince would save him, but they understood when Skeets proved as helpless as the soldiers, the businessmen, and the experts.
When Floyd’s audience read about him, they thought about themselves. Four years later it became evident that his story was a prophecy.