31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.
Tourists to Floyd Collins’ coffin in Crystal Cave (via TSGS)
Floyd Collins was a cave explorer who died once, and was buried four times, once as a tourist spectacle.
Back on January 30, 1925, he was searching for an entrance to Mammoth Cave in Sand Cave in Kentucky. The caves in the region were divided at that time into small tourist destinations, with Collins’ family running the beautiful, but poorly visited, Crystal Cave, which Collins had found in 1917. It was a little too off the beaten path for many visitors, and the sprawling Mammoth Cave was already getting all the attention.
Although the 37-year-old Collins — a highly experienced spelunker (and Crispin Glover lookalike) — had been on many underground adventures before, that day he was out alone and ill-prepared for disaster. When he accidentally knocked over his lamp he managed to dislodge a rock onto his leg which pinned him in a tight tunnel. When his predicament was discovered, a rescue effort immediately began, but then it took a strange turn into a media circus.
Collins’ struggle for survival became one of the biggest national media sensations between the two world wars, with a sort of carnivalesque atmosphere on the surface above where he remained underground, with vendors and gawkers gathering each day, along with the journalists. Collins could actually be reached through the cave and brought food and water, and one journalist, William Burke Miller, squeezed his way down several times to interview Collins, the stories later earning him a Pulitzer.
The entrance to Sand Cave (photograph by Wayne Hsieh)
Yet disaster occurred on February 4 when the tunnel collapsed and Collins was suddenly unreachable. Another rescue shaft was immediately started, yet when they finally dug down to Collins on February 17, he was dead. It took two months to actually get his body out, so a funeral was held at the mouth of the cave and mementos tossed into the darkness. When his remains were finally retrieved, he was buried on the Crystal Cave grounds.
The home of Floyd Collins on the left and the original Crystal Cave ticket booth on the right (photograph by Wayne Hsieh)
Then the story gets stranger. In 1927, Crystal Cave was sold to new owners, who decided to dig up Collins, fix up his embalming, and place him in a glass-topped coffin in Crystal Cave as a heavily advertised tourist draw. It worked, and the crowds of visitors could peer through a little window at the dead explorer’s face. A tombstone was installed next to it that included in its epitaph: ”Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”
A metal casket in Mammoth Cave, said by some to be that of Floyd Collins (photograph by James St. John)
Postcard of “Grand Canyon Avenue” showing Floyd Collins’ coffin in the center (via Kentucky Digital Library)
His body was once stolen in 1929, but aside from that, he remained in the cave until 1989 when his family finally had him reburied. (The family had tried for years to retrieve his body, but a judge had ruled, improbably, in favor of the new Crystal Cave owners.) There was a 30-foot monument at one point built to him in 1940 with his face and story at the base of its tower, but a truck ran into it and it was destroyed.
Postcard of the Floyd Collins Monument, reading on the opposite side: “He lived for an ideal - in search of earthly beauty - this he found in his discovery of Crystal Cave. He died for an ideal - the ideal of service before self. (via Kentucky Digital Library)
Despite now resting in the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery, the memory of Collins lingers. There’s a Floyd Collins Museum that exhibits mementos of his time as both a media and macabre spectacle, and some say the spirit of the intrepid explorer even roams the caves. According to to Mammoth Cave tour guide Colleen Olson, one person was “caving near part of the cave where Floyd, when he was alive, would go caving, and she tripped and she started to fall, and then she felt somebody grab her and pull her back, and of course she thought it was her caving partner. So she was about to say, ‘Thanks, Richard,’ thanking her pal, but he was way on the other side. So then, when she realized it wasn’t Richard, she said, ‘Thanks, Floyd.’”
However, in the case of Floyd Collins, even a cave ghost is no match for the strange truth of his wandering corpse and its glass-topped coffin.
Grave of Floyd Collins (photograph by Nicholas Frost)
Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world.