Producer: Tom Thurman
A Death Underground
Growing up in Edmonson County, just miles from Mammoth Cave, William Floyd Collins naturally spent much of his free time exploring underground passages, becoming known locally as a daring and knowledgeable navigator of the subterranean world. Eventually, he became the most famous caver in the aboveground world, too—though not in the way he might have wished. While exploring a small cave on a neighbor’s property, Collins was pinned by a fallen rock. He remained trapped for two weeks, with his plight attracting the 1920s version of a media circus, and died before rescuers could reach him.
During the early decades of the 20th century, as the increasing availability of automobiles gave birth to the great American road trip, cave owners in Southcentral Kentucky waged an all-out war over tourists and their dollars. Floyd had discovered a nice cave, which he named Crystal Cave, on his family’s property. But it was too far from the highway to generate much traffic. So over the course of the next eight years, Collins kept exploring the surrounding area in the hope that he could find a more accessible entrance to Crystal Cave.
On January 30, 1925, that quest led him to neighbor Bee Doyle’s property and Sand Cave. Accounts differ on whether Floyd was on his way down or back up its narrow entranceway. In any case, a rock dislodged and pinned his leg, and he found himself unable to move in any direction.
Collins’ absence was not noted until the next day. And when he was found, at first it seemed that rescue would be a fairly simple matter. He was only 150 feet from the surface; searchers were able to wriggle down to where he was to talk to him and could even touch him. But no amount of effort would move the rock that pinned him long enough to free his body. At one point, Collins told a group of would-be rescuers just to pull on him until his body came loose—even if it meant pulling his foot off. But that effort failed, too.
Meanwhile, word of the trapped man was spreading rapidly via the newspapers and the new medium of radio. An enterprising cub reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal named Skeets Miller ventured into the passageway several times during Collins’ entrapment, bringing him food and filing exclusive interviews. His aim, he said, was to keep Collins’ spirits up, and his stories would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize. But the throngs of reporters, spectators, and then vendors attracted by the rescue effort at times actually interfered with that effort. (The Hollywood film The Big Carnival, starring Kirk Douglas as the reporter, is loosely based on the Floyd Collins story.)
By the end of the first week, a rock slide had cut off physical contact with Collins, though he could still be heard. Then another slide made the passage he had used so unstable that it was abandoned. Rescuers dug another shaft, reaching Floyd on February 16. But he had been dead for a few days—probably since Friday the 13th.
Even then, Collins’ misfortunes were not over. Officials deemed retrieval of the body too dangerous and sealed the new shaft. Two months later, his brother Homer, determined to give Floyd a proper burial, finally dug his body out and buried it in the family plot. Then the family sold the land and moved away, and the new owner dug Floyd’s body up once again and displayed it in a glass coffin inside Crystal Cave. Vandals stole it, and it was recovered minus one leg. Collins’ next resting place was a chained casket inside Crystal Cave, which guards were occasionally known to open up for the curious who were willing to offer a generous tip. It was only after Crystal Cave became part of Mammoth Cave National Park that Floyd Collins was finally laid to rest in a local church cemetery.
Our guide through this story of tragedy and exploitation is Roger Brucker, author of Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins. For another perspective, see the profile of country doctor C.C. Howard, who was called to the scene but could only stand helplessly by, in Kentucky Life Program 615.
For more information: Fine Art Editions, 146 E. Main St., Georgetown, KY 40324, (800) 972-8385
Producer: Valerie Trimble
On the Road Again
photographer John Hockensmith
Long misunderstood and often persecuted, the Gypsy or Romany people (the Travelers) are understandably cautious about dealings with outsiders. In this profile, we meet a Kentucky man who got a rare inside look at this proud culture and found it a life-changing experience.
John Hockensmith is a world-renowned equine photographer and the proprietor of Fine Art Editions in Georgetown. He had long admired the horses bred by the Gypsies to pull their colorful wagons. Incredibly strong and patient, these compact draft animals often sport distinctive, bold color patterns—the better to tell them apart—and flowing manes, tails, and “feathers.” Within the traditional nomadic Gypsy culture, they are both necessity and status symbol.
A few years ago, Hockensmith was introduced to the head of a prominent Gypsy family. A friendship developed and eventually led to an invitation to travel with the clan to the Appleby Fair, a horse-trading gathering that’s been held on the same hill outside Appleby in northern England’s Cumbria region every June since the middle of the 18th century.
For Hockensmith, the trip brought a new appreciation of life on the road—and a wealth of great subjects for his artist’s eye. Kentucky Life talked with him at an exhibit of photographs from his book Gypsy Horses and the Travelers’ Way at the Kentucky Horse Park.
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