Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

“Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of the Death Car” Part III

Clyde Car Part III

Original publish date:  May, 2014       Reissue date: October 10, 2019

In parts I & II of this article, we recalled the bloody death of outlaws Bonnie & Clyde and explored their Indiana connection. By now, you know the Barrow gang robbed a bank in the tiny community in North Central Indiana known as Lucerne and that Clyde was wearing a shirt made by the Wasson’s department store in Indianapolis when he shot to pieces by Texas lawmen 80 years ago on May 23, 1934. But what about the death car? That bullet riddled Ford V-8 coffin of Crimedom’s best known romantic duo? Well, long-story-short, the Bonnie & Clyde death car is owned by (and on display at) Whiskey Pete’s Las Vegas Casino which also owns the Clyde Barrow death shirt. But how it got there, well that is an interesting story.
Clyde Barrow loved to drive Ford V-8’s. He didn’t like to pay for them and it is unlikely that he ever owned one outright, but he sure could steal ’em. Those who knew, or chased, Clyde said with unanimity that when he slid behind the wheel of a flathead Ford, Clyde Barrow became a part of that car. He could drive those cars so fast and loose around those dirt lined country backroads that no lawman alive had a chance of ever getting a sniff of him. I guess that’s why those six Texas lawmen decided to wait roadside in the brush for Bonnie and Clyde to coast past before popping up and unloading 167 bullets into them.

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Magazine ad for the 1934 Ford V-8 Fordor.

Clyde once famously wrote a letter to Henry Ford praising his cars. The letter, dated April 10th, 1934, was sent from Tulsa, Oklahoma and reads as written: “Mr. Henry Ford Detroit Mich. Dear Sir: -While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 -Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow” The letter is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Bonnie & Clyde death car, known by crime aficionados as “The Warren Car”, was technically known as a “1934 Ford Model 730 Deluxe sedan Fordor model”. Built in February 1934 at the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, it featured a large 85 horsepower Ford V-8 flathead engine with a manual 3-speed transmission and rode on Firestone tires. It was purchased by Miss. Ruth Warren from the Mosby-Mack Motor Company of Topeka Kansas for $ 835 and was “Cordoba Gray” in color.

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Ruth and Jesse Warren posing with their recovered car.

The death car belonged to Ruth and Jesse Warren, a roofing contractor in Topeka. Ruth bought her new Ford for $782.92 – $200 down, $582.92 to be paid by April 15. It was a beautiful automobile with special seat covers, bumper guards, a metal cover on the extra tire, an Arvin hot water heater, and a leaping greyhound in shiny chrome on the radiator cap. The windows not only rolled up and down, but also slid backward almost two inches for partial ventilation. The running boards were wide, and the doors, both front and back, swung outward toward the rear to open. Ford Dealers of the 1930’s advertised that this new V-8 would get nearly twenty miles to the gallon at forty-five miles an hour. But Clyde Barrow proved it could go much faster then that.
For a month and a half the Warrens ran the car at low speeds to break it in smoothly. By late April they had driven 1,243 miles and had paid the balance owed on it. On Sunday, April 29, 1934, she took the car out for a short trip and returning home, she parked it in the driveway, leaving the keys in the ignition. The new car had been sitting in their driveway for only a short time when Ruth, who had been doing dishes, looked out the window and noticed it was missing. Ruth believed her husband had driven it to a nearby neighbor’s house. But just to be sure, she called him and learned that he hadn’t taken the car.
fordv8She called the police and reported the car as stolen. According to the police report, shortly after one o’clock, neighbors saw a man and a woman circling the block in a Plymouth coupe. Later the mystery couple returned, this time with a man riding on the right running board. He jumped off, climbed into the Warren’s car, started it, backed out of the driveway, and sped away. The Warrens wouldn’t see their new Ford for three months.
Clyde would put 7,500 miles (in only 25 days) on the odometer before it rolled to dead stop on that deserted dusty Louisiana highway barely 3 weeks later. Clyde added Arkansas license plate # 15-368, stolen just a week before the massacre, to the car immediately after boosting the automobile. The plate had originally belonged to a Mr. Merle Cruse of Fayetteville, Ark. Later, when Mr. Cruse was in a theater watching newsreel footage of the death scene and impounded death car, he noticed it bore his stolen plate. He jumped up excitedly exclaiming “THAT’S MY LICENSE PLATE!”
On May 23, 1934, an Associated Press reporter notified the Warrens that their car had been found in Arcadia, Louisiana. But the reporter warned Ruth that before she got too excited, there were a couple of things wrong with the car. The upholstery was blood-soaked, and the vehicle had 167 bullet holes in it’s body. In response to the stunned silence coming from the other end, the reporter told the Warrens to check out that evening’s newspaper. The headline read, “Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow Shot Down In Louisiana” and right there was the Warren’s car with the bodies of America’s most famous outlaws grotesquely twisted in the throes of death inside.

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Newsreel poster from 1934.

In a flash of violence, the Warren’s Ford became the most famous car on the planet. Soon everybody in the area knew the story of the death car and by the time the coroner arrived, a souvenir-mad mob had gathered, everyone trying to get mementos. Bits of window glass were broken off, swatches of blood-soaked upholstery were ripped away and the chrome was a twisted, mangled mess. A wrecker arrived and hooked the gray Ford up (with Bonnie and Clyde still inside) and the makeshift rolling coffin made the fifteen mile trip into Arcadia. The car stopped occasionally to let curious clusters of people along the road peer in at the bodies. Behind the wrecker a long line of cars followed.
After the ambush Mrs. Ruth Warren arrived in Bienville Parish, Louisiana to claim her car. Sheriff Henderson Jordan refused to release it to her, claiming that she would have to pay $15,000 to get it back. Warren quickly hired attorney W.D.Goff from Arcadia to represent her. Goff claimed that by Jordan setting the value of the car over $3,000, the case would surely wind up in Federal Court. Because of Sheriff Jordan’s refusal to comply, Federal Judge Benjamin Dawkins threatened to send the sheriff to jail if he did not return the car to Mrs. Warren. She finally got her car back and amazingly drove it to Shreveport, Louisiana, bullet holes and all. From there the car was taken by truck, back to Topeka, Kansas, where it sat in her driveway at 2107 Gabler Street for several days.
Jesse Warren didn’t want anything to do with it and thought it was horrible thing to have the death car parked in his driveway looking like a mess. What would anybody want with a bloody car full of bullet holes? But Ruth soon took control and leased the car to John Castle of United Shows, who exhibited it at the Topeka Fairgrounds. But in September of 1934, Castle defaulted in paying rent. It took the Warrens, another trip to court to repossess the car. Within a short time, a Kansas man name Duke Mills appeared. Billing himself as a “master showman and display expert”, Duke approached Jesse Warren with a plan to exhibit the car at the “Century of Progress” Worlds Fair in Chicago. He offered to rent the car for $50.00 a week and pay Jesse a commission of the ticket proceeds on top of that. But that deal never materialized.
Banner-BC-Death-Car1Ruth then rented the death car to carnival operator Charles Stanley, who exhibited it on the Hennies Brothers Midways in his 1939 crime show. Stanley displayed the car outside of his tent and charged admission to see the film of the actual ambush on the inside. Eventually, multiple bullet-riddled 1934 Ford Fordor sedans began appearing on the county fair and carnival circuit over the next few years, all claiming to be the actual death car. The various owners sometimes vigorously defended their claims, too, casting doubt on the authenticity of the real death car. Aside from the damage to historical accuracy, the frauds cut into the revenue generated by Ruth Warren as the death car toured the country.
1_000a06adb74b0c437bc04c47ed2a8cc2After Ruth divorced her husband Jesse, she kept the title to the car and sold it to Stanley for $3,500.The car was then exhibited at Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati from 1940-1960. After World War II, memories faded and interest waned in the “Public Enemies” Era, pushing the car further-and-further into obscurity. In a 1960 issue of Billboard magazine, Stanley offered the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car for sale. Ted Toddy purchased the car in 1960 for $14,500. The car then sat in a warehouse for years until the popularity of the 1967 movie “Bonnie & Clyde” brought it out of retirement. 2547195_0 (1)
In 1971 Toddy leased his car to the Royal American Shows. In 1973 the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car was purchased by Peter Simon of the Oasis Casino in Jean Nevada for $175.000. It was eventually put on permanent display at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm Nevada not far from the California Stateline. The display is free and the car rests prominently, yet unceremoniously, behind photo-obscuring reflective glass in the casino lobby flanked by a pair of macabre “Bonnie and Clyde” mannequins. The death car is part of a special display of Bonnie & Clyde personal items including the light blue cowboy shirt that Clyde was wearing when he was nearly shot to pieces. The shirt that Clyde Champion Barrow bought at Wasson’s Department Store in Indianapolis 80 years ago this month.

 

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Next Week: Part IV of Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of he Death Car

Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

“Bonnie & Clyde-The Indiana Connection” Part II

Clyde's shirt part II

Original publish date:  May,  2014               Reissue date: October 3, 2019

The ambush of Bonnie and Clyde some 80 years ago this month proved to be the beginning of the end of the “Public Enemy” gangster era of the 1930s. By the time of their bloody, bullet riddled deaths on May 23, 1934, new federal statutes made bank robbery and kidnapping federal offenses; and the growing relationship between local jurisdictions and the FBI, plus two-way radios in police cars, combined to make the outlaw bandit sprees much more difficult to carry out. Two months after the Bonnie and Clyde massacre, Hoosier John Dillinger was ambushed and killed in a Chicago alleyway beside the Biograph theatre; three months later, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was killed by 14 FBI bullets fired into his back in a Clarkson, Ohio cornfield; and one month after that, Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face Nelson”, shot it out, and lost, in Barrington, Illinois.

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Everyone knows of Dillinger’s connection to our state and city. Many know that Pretty Boy Floyd spent time here assisting Dillinger in the robbery of an East Chicago bank on January 15, 1934 where Police Sargent William Patrick O’Malley died at the hands of the gang. Devoted Hoosier crime buffs also recognize that Baby Face Nelson coasted through the state during a robbery of the Merchants National Bank in South Bend on June 30, 1934, during which a police officer was shot and killed. But what about Bonnie & Clyde? Do they have Indiana connections?

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Frank Hamer

Of course! The more your research, the more you find that EVERYTHING has an Indiana connection. For one, the posse that signed on to hunt down the duo to the death, led by the legendary Frank Hamer, had begun tracking the pair on February 12, 1934. Hamer studied the gang’s movements and found they swung in a circle skirting the edges of five Midwestern states, including Indiana, exploiting the “state line” rule that prevented officers in one jurisdiction from pursuing a fugitive into another. Barrow was a master of that pre-FBI rule, but he became quite predictable in his movements, so the experienced Hamer charted his path and easily predicted where he would go next.
On May 12, 1933, during Hamer’s heightened observation, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang robbed the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana. Some say the gang netted $300, other accounts say they left empty-handed. Lucerne, an unincorporated community founded by Swiss immigrants in Cass County, seems to have forgotten their connection to the deadly duo.

 

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Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck

On Thursday May 11, Clyde and Buck cased the place. Later that night, Bonnie dropped the pair off and drove their most recent stolen Ford V-8 out of sight. The duo broke into the building and waited for clerks to arrive to open the bank in the morning. Clyde figured that he could get the drop on the unsuspecting employees before customers arrived to interfere. Great idea, in theory at least. Turns out, it was a fiasco.
Employees Everett Gregg and Lawson Selders arrived at 7:30 Friday morning. As soon as the tellers entered the room, closing the door behind them, the Barrow boys jumped out from their hiding places, ordering the startled workers to put their hands up. But this was 1933 and the rash of bank robberies across the state had made everyone jumpy. The bank managers had hidden a shotgun behind the cashier’s desk. Seems that although the Barrow brothers were alone in the building for hours before the robbery, neither thought to search the place. Cashier Gregg and the Barrow boys exchanged several shots, but no one was hit.

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Bonnie & Clyde.

Charging to the sound of the gunfire, Bonnie and Buck’s wife Blanche roared to the rescue in their Flathead Ford. Bonnie was driving. The girls expected to see the boys running out of the bank, arms full of bank bags stuffed with cold hard cash. Instead, their husbands came sprinting towards them firing wildly over their shoulders apparently empty handed. Clyde jumped into the driver’s seat and, despite his well known prowess as a world class driver, getting out of town proved as difficult as the robbery. Locals were out for their morning stroll as the car roared through the small town.

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Buck and Blanche.

One good citizen deduced that there was a robbery in progress. He quickly picked up a large chunk of wood and threw it in front of the speeding automobile. Clyde swerved into a nearby yard to avoid it. Another man jumped onto the hood of the Ford and Clyde yelled at Bonnie to “shoot him, shoot him!” She grabbed a gun and began to shoot, but failed to hit her prey. The ersatz hitchhiker fled in panic, gunpowder peppered through his thinning white hair. Bonnie later told her family that she deliberately missed because she “didn’t want to hurt an old man.”
By now, the whole town of Lucerne seemed to be descending on the outlaws. Guns were sprouting out of every doorway as nervous townsfolk took potshots at the fleeing robbers. Trouble was, the outlaws were shooting back. Two women, Ethel Jones and Doris Minor, were slightly wounded in the melee. The women were luckier than the livestock though. Clyde plowed his car straight through a pack of hogs, killing two of them, making these the only fatalities of the encounter. By all accounts, the robbery did not go well and Clyde, with Bonnie, his brother Buck and Blanche, had to shoot their way out of town for a paltry reward. According to the official Lucerne report in the FBI files, the gang’s getaway car was recovered in Rushville a couple days later.

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H.P. Wasson’s Department Store-Indianapolis.

Evidently, perhaps hyped by their adrenaline infused escape, Clyde and his crew stopped into Indianapolis to do some shopping before leaving the Hoosier state forever. As promised in part I of this story, the most famous grisly blood relic associated with Bonnie & Clyde came from a well known department store in downtown Indy. Clyde Barrow’s death shirt came from the H.P. Wasson and Company (aka Wasson’s department store) located at the intersection of Washington and Meridian Streets in Indianapolis.
68a2294d0f53206f6cc77a70dba69824Clyde was wearing a size 14-32 western style shirt of light blue cotton print with “one patch pocket and pearl buttons” when he was shot to death near Gibsland, Louisiana. The neck label on the shirt reads: “Wasson V Towne shirt/Indianapolis”. The shirt was removed from Clyde Barrow’s body by the coroner who performed the autopsy. Hit by over twenty rounds (Including buckshot), Clyde’s bullet-riddled body slumped against the shattered steering wheel, his 12-gauge shotgun, damaged by the gun fire, slid to the floorboard beside him. Bonnie, with a half-eaten sandwich and magazine at her side, was also struck over twenty times. Both of the star crossed lovers died instantly.

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The death shot to the back of Clyde’s neck that severed his spinal cord.

The Clyde Barrow death shirt contains over 30 bullet or buckshot holes and the cuts made by the mortician when the shirt was removed. An inked inscription on the shirt tail reads: “This is Clyde Barrow’s shirt worn on May 23, 1934 when be was killed.” and is signed by his youngest sister Marie Barrow as its witness. Traces of bloodstains remain in Parts of fabric. The shirt was given to Clyde’s mother, Connie Barrow, after his death. Marie said her mother kept the shirt in a cedar chest for years before passing it on to her.
The shirt was sold, ironically, on tax day of 1997 by a San Francisco auction house. The bidding was fast and furious and in the end, a Nevada casino known as “Whisky Pete’s ” paid $85,000 for the bloodstained shirt. Much more than Clyde ever stole in his lifetime. That number does not include the $ 10,000 buyer’s premium. The rest of Clyde Barrow’s belongings including a belt and necklace made by Barrow while in prison, a handmade mirror and 17 Barrow family photos, brought $187,809, most of which went to Marie Barrow, Clyde’s sister (She died in 1999).

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Clyde Barrow’s Pocket Watch.

One of the more prized personal relics that hit the auction block that day was Clyde’s 17-jewel, 10-carat gold-filled Elgin pocket watch. Expected to bring in $3,000, it was sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $20,770, including buyers’ fees. All items in the Barrow lot sold for amounts in excess of their estimated value, often doubling and tripling those estimates. The remaining Barrow family was at the auction to take a final look at the items before they changed hands. That Elgin pocket watch had an “Indianapolis movement.” Did I mention that Wasson’s also sold pocket watches?

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The author and Clyde’s shirt at Whiskey Pete’s Casino.

 
Next Week: Part III of Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of he Death Car

Abe Lincoln, Creepy history, Gettysburg, Ghosts

Harry Houdini and Abraham Lincoln.

Houdini & Lincoln

Original publish date:  June 8, 2017

Magician Harry Houdini had a very unlikely boyhood hero. A hero adored by a generation before Houdini’s 1874 birth and a hero worshiped by generations hence. Harry Houdini’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Houdini’s devotion to Lincoln could be found on stage during his shows. He traveled with a pet eagle named ‘Josephus Daniel Abraham Lincoln’ or ‘Abe Lincoln’ for short. Houdini’s eagle would materialize at the end of his Whirlwind of Colors routine culminating in a wild frenzy of scarves and other fabric pulled from a small container.
Houdini & birdIn Kenneth Silverman’s 1996 Biography “Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss : American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker”, the author relays how Houdini referred to Lincoln as “my hero of heroes.” Houdini claimed to have read every book about Lincoln by the time he was a teenager. In William Kalush’s 2006 biography “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero”, there is a story of young Houdini attending a seance where the medium produced a message from our 16th President. Houdini, Lincoln expert that he was, then asked a question to Lincoln via the medium and was puzzled when the answer that came back was not correct. This encounter led to Houdini’s early discovery that most Spiritualists were fake.
amd_houdini_originalAs he grew older and more financially secure, Houdini began to amass a personal collection of Lincoln memorabilia, particularly letters and autographs of the Great Emancipator. He also collected handwritten letters of every member of the assassin John Wilkes Booths family, several in response to letters sent by Houdini himself. Spending much of his adult life on the road, in hotels and traveling for days on ships and trains, Houdini became a prolific man of letters. One such letter survives that illustrates his desire and devotion to add to his Lincoln collection, despite the constraints of his vagabond lifestyle.
The letter is written on the magician’s personal “Lettergram” form that featured two portraits of Harry at the top. It was written in Milwaukee on September 20, 1923. Houdini’s pictorial Lettergram began with a printed message reading, “Please pardon any incivility in this letter. It has been rushed to you under stress of business and written in the dressing room. Therefore all formalities like Dear Sir, Dear Madame. etc. have been omitted, not to be curt or brusque; but that it is deemed better to let you hear from me in a lettergram of a few words than not at all.” The Lettergram was sent to Anton Heitmuller, a Washington businessman who billed himself as “Specializing in Selling Collections of Autographs, Manuscripts, Historical Broadsides and Curios”.

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Houdini lettergram to Anton Heitmuller.

Heitmuller was peddling artifacts related to John Wilkes Booth along with a collection of items of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for treating Booth’s broken leg after the assassination. Heitmuller saw a promotional opportunity for both he and Houdini in showing these materials; Houdini showed some interest but being at the height of his career, found it hard to find time to get to Washington to see the artifacts. Houdini’s typed letter reads, “I am on the road for the next four months, and there is a possibility of my reaching Washington about March or April. It all depends upon booking possibilities. Just rushing this to you to give you an outline of my route.” The note was signed in pencil by Houdini. Whether or not the meeting, let alone a purchase, ever took place is unknown, but the lettergram illustrates Houdini’s desire to acquire Lincolnania and the lengths he would go to find it.
Houdini became a friendly acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. In one instance, a spirit medium claimed to possess authentic spirit photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Houdini sent copies of the photos to Robert Todd Lincoln and debunked them by proving that the images were manipulated from known photos of his father taken while Mr. Lincoln was still very much alive. To further prove his point, Houdini produced photos of himself alongside Mr. Lincoln.
houdini-lincolnOn Feb. 13, 1924, a day after the 115th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Houdini typed out a letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, the grand-daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s sister. The letter, written from the dressing room of the State Lake Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, reads: “My dear Mrs. Brown: Enclosed you will find a Spirit Photograph of your renowned ancestor, and although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect. Mrs. Houdini joins me in sending you kindest regards, Sincerely yours, Houdini.”
M2014.128.703.27_150415-P1Furthermore, Houdini also produced ‘fake spirit messages’ from Lincoln during his lectures to debunk spiritualism. Many spiritualists attempted to back up their fake photos and messages by claiming that Abraham Lincoln himself was a devoted spiritualist who had held seances in the White House. As proof, they cited a piece of British sheet music, published while Lincoln was President, which portrayed Honest Abe holding a candle while violins and tambourines flew about his head. The piece of music was called The Dark Séance Polka and the caption below the illustration of the president read “Abraham Lincoln and the Spiritualists”.
Actually it was Mary Lincoln who consulted a series of mediums in a desperate attempt to contact their dead son Willie, who died in the White House. Houdini naturally pointed out that President Lincoln was in attendance for only one such “call to the dead” and then solely to support his grieving wife. After the seance, Lincoln gently guided Mary over to a window that looked out over Washington and pointed to the lunatic asylum with a warning that if she didn’t stop this foolishness, she would end up there.

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Houdini and Magician Harry Cooke.

Clues to Houdini’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln can also be found in a couple of the magicians he associated with. One was a former Civil War veteran named Harry Cooke who first took up magic as a means to entertain his fellow soldiers in camp. Legend claims that Cooke once showed Lincoln an escape from a piece of rope and the president was so impressed he put him to work as a Spy for the Union Army. Cooke kept a two dollar bill given him by Mr. Lincoln on another occasion when he was performing before the president and his cabinet. Amazingly Cooke was also present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. Harry Cooke and Harry Houdini knew each other well and Houdini considered the elder magician as an early mentor. Many historians credit Cooke as being the first escape artist in America. Houdini, of course, became America’s greatest escape artist.

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Magician Signor Biltz and Harry Houdini.

One final connection between Houdini and Lincoln is magician Signor Blitz. During the Civil War, Blitz performed at hundreds of Union Army Hospitals. His act was made up of several parts, including magic, ventriloquism, plate spinning and the command of trained birds. Blitz was apparently one of the first performers to use a dummy during his ventriloquism thereby setting the stage for future generations. His favorite trick was the Bullet Catching act (snaring a gun fired bullet between his teeth). However, a number of close calls persuaded the magician to remove it from his show. The final straw was when an audience member took out a six shooter and yelled “if you can catch one, you can call all of them!”. Fortunately, Blitz was able to stop the man from shooting.

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Mary Lincoln with her sons Willie (left) and Tad (right).

Blitz once performed at a July 4th function where Lincoln and his son Tad were present. The incident took place near the Summer White House on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home in the Rock Creek section of DC, today it is known as Lincoln’s Cottage. Lincoln often used the cottage during the summer months to escape the brutal foggy bottom heat of the Executive Mansion. In early July of 1863, President Lincoln took a break from his duties to watch a rehearsal of the upcoming July 4th parade. Numerous people stood along the street watching the rehearsal, among them Signor Blitz.
The sly magician reached out and produced a bird from the hair of one of the girls in the parade. The rehearsal parade came to a sudden stop and now all eyes were on Blitz. Thinking fast on his feet, the magician quickly produced an egg from the mouth of a child standing nearby. Blitz had no idea that the child was none other than the President’s son, Tad Lincoln. Blitz was soon formally introduced to the President and one of the most remarkable impromptu conversations of the Civil War ensued. Lincoln surprised the magician by saying,”Why, of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America. How many children have you made happy, Signor Blitz?” The magician answered “Thousands and tens of thousands”. The President then dolefully replied, “While I fear that I have made thousands and tens of thousands unhappy. But it is for each of us to do his duty in this world and I am trying to do mine.”

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Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

This exchange took place just as the Battle of Gettysburg was winding down. Lincoln had not yet heard news about the outcome of the battle. What neither knew was the Union victory at Gettysburg, combined with the siege conclusion at Vicksburg, had just turned the tide of the war for the Union. Of course, Houdini was keenly aware of the connection between Blitz and Lincoln. After Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan, he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in New York City. About a hundred yards away is the grave of Signor Blitz.

 

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Harry Houdini grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.
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Signor Biltz grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.
Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART III

Floyd Collins part 3 picture

Original publish date:  September 5, 2019

After 230 hours trapped in a Central Kentucky 55 feet underground, Floyd Collins was no closer to rescue than he had been when he first entered Sand Cave on January 30, 1925. The previous 10 days were a media circus: reporters, photographers, sketch artists, telegraph operators, and radio operators from all over the country stormed Cave City. By now, Floyd’s makeshift grave was shielded by a large white tarpaulin hung over the opening with “country gutters” ringing its edges, but these makeshift rigging’s were not enough to stop the pools of frigid water from soaking the men working at the bottom. The sound of gas powered generators shook the earth as pumps struggled to keep the water from trickling down on the now world-famous spelunker.

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The tarped entrance to Sand Cave during the rescue attempt.

On Wednesday, February 11, 1925, those rain showers turned into snow flurries. Now fingers, toes, noses and cave-trickle froze solid, only to thaw in time, turning the shaft, boulders and cave walls into a slimy death chute. Above ground, Lee Collins wandered through the crowd aimlessly, begging visitors for donations, which only sparked conspiratorial theories that the whole thing was a hoax. Reporters crowded the barbed wire fence surrounding Sand Cave. Over two dozens telegraph operators stood by as did seven in a nearby pasture, ready to transport dispatches and photographs to distant newsrooms.

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Carnival atmosphere outside of Sand Cave.

After seventeen days trapped in the shaft, twelve without food or water, rescuers finally broke through. It was 1:30 p.m. on Monday February 16, 411 hour after Floyd Collins became trapped. Cave rescuer Ed Brenner flashed his lantern into the darkness and carefully eased himself into the cave. Skeets Miller later reported, “For the next five minutes those remaining in the shaft proper watched that hole without blinking.” Once inside, Brenner aimed his light at the trapped man and saw a glimmer. A glimmer much different from the cave crickets and crystals all Central Kentucky cavers were used to seeing. It was Floyd Collins’ gold tooth shimmering in the light, and it was not moving. Brenner turned his head back to his fellow rescuers, shook his head, and hollered “Dead.” Floyd had lost his battle with Sand Cave.

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The author at Sand Cave holding a return ticket to depot from Floyd Collins’ Cave.
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The author at Sand Cave holding sheet music for song “The Death of Floyd Collins.”

The coroner. Dr. C.C. Howard of Glasgow, declared that Collins had died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia just three days before the rescue shaft reached his position. Another physician contradicted Dr. Howard by claiming that Floyd had been dead five days and noting that Floyd’s “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.”
On Tuesday, February 17, newsreel cameras filmed the weary Collins family as it said goodbye to their son and brother. A choir sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee” the very hymn Collins loved playing on his old stalactite xylophone. They left Floyd where he was, buried in the shaft. The people in Cave City figured there’d been sixty thousand tourists. The governor said operations had cost the state over twenty-five thousand dollars. After the reporters and tourists left, the hillside looked like a battlefield as silence returned to the Kentucky hills. After the jaws of the earth finally swallowed her prey, Cave City returned to normal. The name Floyd Collins-front page headlines for two weeks- was pushed out of the public eye by news of a mine explosion in Sullivan, Indiana, barely 200 miles northwest of Sand Cave. It was the Hoosier state’s worst mine disaster ever, killing 51 miners on February 20th, 1925. A mine was like a cave, and apparently, the world had had enough news of death down under.

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Homer Collins being pulled from Sand Cave after trying to rescue his brother.

Bee Doyle, the owner of Sand Cave, erected a sign on the highway proclaiming, “200 YARDS AWAY THE BODY OF FLOYD COLLINS IS IMPRISONED IN SAND CAVE.” For 50 cents, tourists could walk down the muddy path to stare at the gaping hole that swallowed Doyle’s former partner & friend. An agitated Homer Collins signed a vaudeville contract and traveled the country for eight months, regaling packed stages with Floyd’s story. Contrary to what some believed, Homer’s performances were not for personal gain. The sibling used the proceeds to fulfill a vow to get his brother out. “I kept thinking of Floyd lying in the muck where he had suffered beyond our power to imagine,” Homer decreed. “I would never have peace of mind if he remained there.” On April 17, seven local coal miners reopened the shaft and descended into Sand Cave. A week later, on April 25th, they removed the 27-pound rock pinning Floyd’s leg. The next day, Floyd’s casketed body was buried on the Collins farm.
fc-homerAs springtime returned to the Kentucky hills, the Collins family melted back into their rocky, hillside farm; no richer from the limelight. After the crowds departed, locals saw old man Lee scouring the rescue site for glass bottles to return for deposit. Two years later, in 1927, a struggling Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave to a dentist named Dr. Harry B. Thomas. The sale included White Crystal cave and the burial site of Floyd Collins. Lee’s $10,000 deal with Dr. Thomas included a morbid clause: that his son’s body could be exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered coffin inside the cavern. The enterprising country doctor quickly dug the dead man up and placed Floyd’s encased body on display in Crystal Cave. The gimmick worked and, much to the horror of Floyd’s friends and the Collins family, tourists flocked to Crystal Cave to view the embalmed body of the man now known as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”

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Floyd’s body being pulled out of Sand Cave.

ac54471aafc5e4cda072b1789e368cecSometime in the wee hours of March 18-19, 1929, Floyd’s body was stolen. The grave robbers “rescued” Collins’s corpse with the intentions of chucking him into the Green River, but Floyd’s body got tangled in the heavy underbrush and Dr. Thomas recovered the remains from a nearby field, minus his injured left leg. The remains were re-interned in a chained casket and placed in a secluded portion of Crystal Cave dubbed the “Grand Canyon”. A half-a-year later, the Great Depression blanketed the country and Floyd Collins’ saga was now a forgotten footnote. Times in Cave City got tough. Tourism plummeted-the same limelight that drew tourists innumerable to the Kentucky cave region now caused visitors to avoid it. As tourism dollars dried up, the sleazy tricks of local cave owners intensified. That feeling pervades Cave City today.

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Floyd Collins body.

Thirty-two years later, in 1961, the National Park Service purchased the land including the Sand Cave property and, eventually the Collins’ Homestead and Crystal Cave (with Collins still encased inside). The NPS closed the Grand Canyon tomb of the legendary spelunker and choked off public access, although a few enterprising cavers still made their way to Floyd’s casket, now marked with a proper tombstone. In 1989, at the urging of the Collins family, the body was re-interred at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church. There his body rests today under the very same tombstone that once adorned his macabre underground tourist attraction for all those years.

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Floyd Collins in his glass topped casket displayed in the cave.

By that time, a half-century after his death and the end of the Cave Wars, Floyd Collins’ prophecies of underground riches were confirmed. Crystal Cave’s NPS pricetag, $285,000 (more than $2 million today), exceeds Floyd’s wildest dreams. Collins’s hunch that the caves in the region were all inter-connected was also confirmed by professional cavers who discovered 405 miles of passageways making the Mammoth Cave-Flint Ridge-Joppa Ridge System the world’s longest. Floyd Collins’ sand cave, however, remains isolated. Near the Mammoth Cave welcome sign, visitors pass a gravel covered curved pull-off. At the mouth of which exists a winding wooden boardwalk that quickly disappears under a canopy of oak trees. The path, often deserted, dead-ends at an overlook that gazes down into a sinkhole ringed by a conspicuous lip of crescent-shaped rock. Moss covered ledges now disguise the dark chamber that was once Sand Cave. After all these years, Sand Cave remains separate and deserted.

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Author Roger Brucker.

In 1977, legendary caver and author Roger Brucker ventured into Sand Cave. “It was the scariest cave I have ever been in,” he said. Along the way, Roger and his crew found many relics from the Collins tragedy; bottles and cans, pieces of wood shoring, a steel poker, fragments of an army blanket, and a pair of electric wires. In the 1980s, the cave entrance was permanently sealed with a steel gate, bolted and welded shut. Professional cavers continue to explore the 400-plus-mile Mammoth Cave system, sometimes stumbling upon evidence of Floyd Collins’s famous early cave explorations; the letters “FC” can still be found scratched into rocks, a voice from the grave of old Floyd Collins. Although Collins was an unknown figure during his lifetime, the fame he gained by his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known”.
Although I have deep admiration for the National Park Service, I must admit that their collective treatment of Floyd Collins leaves much to be desired. On a recent trip to Mammoth Cave, I inquired of the park ranger at the front desk about Floyd Collins, in particular, the location of his grave, former ticket shack and house, all of which are contained within the park. The NPS ranger immediately snapped back the “We don’t do Floyd Collins here. No Floyd Collins” as she looked past me and turned her attention to some hikers and campers behind me in line. It is interesting to note that not 50 feet from where the exchange occurred, there were Floyd Collins books for sale on the shelves at the NPS giftstore. The NPS even offers an occasional driving tour of Collins related sites for visitors, but I suppose these are only available to the well-informed visitor and not promoted actively by the NPS. I’m also told that the 27-pound rock that led to Floyd’s doom is also stored somewhere on the property, out of view of course.

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Author’s Collection.

As for the Cave City community, not much has changed from the cave wars era. The hotels, non Park Service attractions, restaurants and gift shops operate like the old gangster era Las Vegas strip with the obvious intention of “stripping” every visitor of their cash as quickly as possible. On the Mammoth Cave exit are also the horrid tourist attractions known as “Guntown Mountain” and “Dinosaur World.” An old brochure in this author’s collection from the wild west themed Guntown mountain actually invites the visitor to see live hangings and ogle can-can girls. Every hotel room in town reeks of cigarette smoke and the restaurants in the area also encourage smoking. Like many Hoosiers, some of my ancestors hail from this central Kentucky cave region, so I remain… conflicted.

 

 

 

 

 

And now, for the Irvington connection. Weekly View readers know editor Paula Nicewanger. She, along with Ethel Winslow and Judy Crawford, keep the wheels turning at the View. What some of you might not know is that Paula’s maiden name is Collins and that Floyd Collins is a cousin of hers. Paula’s grandfather, Isaiah Dennis “Dan” Collins (1875-1927), was a dead ringer for his cousin Floyd. Paula says that Dan Collins “was a moonshiner / bootlegger to make a living. My dad had to quit school after 2nd grade and go to work when his dad died – there were 8 kids.” As for any Floyd Collins family stories, Paula admits, “Unfortunately my Dad was only 7 in 1927 and his Dad had died when he was 6 so dad didn’t know much. I learned about Floyd Collins in one of my college classes and found out then from other relatives that we were distant cousins. Dad was born in Cave City but they lived in Turkey Neck Bend and Thompkinsville. Dad did work building trails in Mammoth Cave when he was a teenager in the Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) the government ran in the ’30s.”
Screenshot 2019-09-06 13.18.01However, Paula’s younger sister Gail, (a Harvard graduate and architect who lives in Oakland, CA) caught the Collins’ family fever and is a caver. Paula explains, “she got the spelunking gene – she and her husband belonged to a Spelunking Club when she was in her 20s.” Gail states, “Floyd Collins was in a forbidden “sandstone” cave which is the most fragile of rocks. I only went into Limestone caves which are more stable. The biggest concern about spelunking in Indiana & Kentucky is flash flooding. We only did caving during the dry months and mostly winter, when the ground is frozen for 5-8 weeks at a time. I spent New Yea’s Eve in a cave with Chuck (her husband) and our Spelunking group one year. One of my last spelunking adventures I was pulled out of a very wet cave entry, by a caving buddy, 6’6″, 250 lb former Marine, because the makeshift tree trunk ladder was missing two rungs. He reached into the hole and used one arm to hoist me out. A harrowing adventure indeed.” Seems that Gail narrowly escaped the fate of her long lost cousin Floyd.
Perhaps to honor the Collins family spelunking tradition and to set the record straight, Gail wants to be sure and update the caving avocation by saying, “There is a code of ethics for Spelunkers. Never leave ANYTHING in the cave, and NEVER REMOVE OR DAMAGE ANYTHING in the cave. It was a pact we never broke. It is like Wilderness Camping: PACK IT IN and PACK IT OUT. Green Ethics to protect the natural features of our world…We have come a long way since Floyd Collins, in knowing we have a planet in need. It is important that we drive home the importance of shared planet stewardship.” I’m sure that Paula & Gail’s cousin Floyd would be appreciate that sentiment.
Floyd Collins viewed “cavemanship” as a triple edged sword. It was what he loved to do, it was what he needed to do to survive, and it could kill him at anytime if he failed to remain vigilant. Today’s Cave City is not Floyd’s Cave City. While the National Park Service may remain ambivalent about the contribution of the greatest cave explorer ever known, they most certainly carry on the rich cave tradition the legendary spelunker himself possessed. The NPS protects and preserves the Mammoth Cave region 365 days a year for our enjoyment and education. A trip to Mammoth Cave is worth the 3-hour drive from Indy. Just keep in mind, Cave City operates by its own set of antiquated rules and morays. Guns, hangings and dinosaurs. Even the enterprising Floyd Collins would scratch his head at that. Reminds me of the old wild west admonition, “Beware of pickpockets and loose women.” Rest in peace Floyd Collins. Rest in Peace.

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Roger Brucker’s excellent book is available on Amazon.
Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART II

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Original publish date:  August 28, 2019

Floyd Collins is likely one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of. But, if you have ever taken a vacation down to Central Kentucky and visited Mammoth Cave, you’ve walked in his footsteps. Although Collins is a local legend, you wouldn’t know it if you asked many of the rangers on duty for the National Park Service there. Depending on which ranger you ask, Floyd Collins is either a rascal or a miscreant even though he is the most famous spelunker in the history of the world. During the roaring 20s, Collins’ story was only dislodged from the headlines by aviator Charles Lindbergh. There was a popular song written about his ordeal underground and President Calvin Coolidge himself followed Floyd’s story daily from the oval office in the White House.

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Floyd Collins

Since the early 1800s, Mammoth Cave has been THE tourist trap of Central Kentucky. The world’s longest cave, spawned a railroad, innumerable hotels, countless souvenir shops and sourced fortunes for many enterprising Kentuckians. When Louisville businessman G. D. Morrison found a new entrance to Mammoth Cave in the early 1920s, it set off a “Cave War” that raged for decades. After Morrison broke through the Earth’s crust to reveal his new entrance to Mammoth Cave, he strung some electric lights inside, built a hotel outside, and opened for business. He called it the “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and promoted it in his literature as “a miniature Atlantic City in the heart of Kentucky.” He told visiting reporters that he would build a twenty-thousand-dollar elevator in his hotel lobby so that his guests could comfortably descend to the caverns below.

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2 miniature lapel pennants from the author’s collection.

Morrison’s announcement was followed by a group of Chicago investors who quickly 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 they would name the “Blue Grass Country Club”. Their intended membership was to be made up of Midwestern businessmen who couldn’t be bothered to travel all the way to Florida for a golf vacation. That is until they discovered that the land was so leached by ground water that any one of their greens could turn into a sinkhole overnight. The cave business got tougher and tougher. One enterprising promoter turned his truck into a billboard, driving it up and down to distraction. Angry competitors put a stop to this by burning it. Floyd Collins, a caver since the age of six, watched patiently while these carpetbaggers battled for position.
Floyd was one of nine children, raised in a log cabin. His father, Lee, was a poor farmer who did a little trapping and kept the family alive by selling eggs to Mammoth Cave hotels. Floyd and his brothers supplemented the family income by cutting timber into railroad ties for the Louisville and Nashville railroad and rafting them down the Green River. In 1917, Floyd discovered his own money pit, which he called “White Crystal Cave.” The cave, although sensational, was only mildly successful due to its location on the tail end of the cave route. Like G.D. Morrison before him, Floyd was determined to find his own “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave.” However, Floyd’s entrance would be at the front of the road.

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Floyd Collins Cave Pennant from the author’s collection.

In mid-January of 1925, Floyd signed a contract with a local landowner to explore a rock overhang called Sand Cave that Collins had known about since childhood. On Friday, January 30, Collins entered the cave. He crawled on his belly down into the dark, narrow passage. He slid fifteen feet straight down, then twisted through a hundred feet of 30 degree slopes before dropping eight feet and crawling another fifty feet more between loose rock walls before reaching a small cavern. Here he gazed down into a fifty-foot pit, twenty-five feet long and ten feet wide. He descended searching for a passage, but it was closed. He scaled the walls and headed back the way he had come. That is until he kicked loose a rock that trapped his foot at the ankle. Floyd was now trapped 125 feet underground, in a coffin like space eight inches high and twelve feet long. The temperature was 16 degrees. He was face up looking in the direction from which he’d come, but there was a seven-ton boulder hopelessly pinning his left foot in the crevice.

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The author with a piece of Floyd Collins memorabilia from his collection.

He lay in mud and black night, with water dripping on his head. Floyd spent that first night alone; terrified, screaming and praying. On Saturday morning, after Floyd had failed to return home, his brother arrived and found him, but was unable to free him. A crowd of men came with blowtorches to heat the rock armed with chisels and hammers to break it. They worked all day to no avail. On Sunday, the story hit the Louisville Courier. Homer Collins told a reporter that he’d spent that 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.

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Floyd Collins.

On Monday, February 2, the Herald mistakenly reported that he’d been freed. When it was discovered that the caver was still trapped, more people came, and soon he became a media sensation. Well-meaning Kentuckians arrived from nearby counties and tried to crawl down the tunnel, but only caused more rocks and pebbles to fall in around Floyd. Hundreds of men stood around the hole, drinking whiskey and telling one another what to do. Volunteers crawled into the crevice carrying blankets and gloves, thermoses of coffee, bottles of milk, and cans of soup. Some volunteers made it only halfway down before becoming frightened, ditching their supplies into the nearest crevice, only to emerge to tell everyone how grateful Floyd had been and exactly what he’d said.
The rescue operation to save Collins became headline news all over the country. Floyd’s saga became one of the first major news stories to be reported using the new technology of broadcast radio. The rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the world wars, behind only the transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Soon the Sand Cave Valley was flooded with 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 Detroit suggested a welding torch; another from Kansas City insisted they try an electric drill. The Louisville and Nashville dispatched a special train from Louisville to carry a pneumatic drill and a crew of stonemasons from a monument company. A fire-department lieutenant named Burdon insisted that they strap a harness to Floyd, connect it to an automatic winch, and try to pull him out like a worm from a hole.

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Rescuers during the Floyd Collins rescue attempt.

Floyd’s ex-business partner Johnny Gerald became incensed and chased away the interlopers. At midnight on Monday he crawled in, accompanied by a college president from Bowling Green and an ex-army lieutenant who taught mathematics, and together 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 have his basketball team come to the rescue. The stonemasons from Louisville left the next morning. They said the rescue camp was a cross between a county fair and a circus. Five hundred men crowded around in front of the cave. People complained about pickpockets and tire thieves. Cave City officials asked the governor to send in the national-guard. Over a period of 17 days, over 10,000 people crowded into the fields surrounding Sand Cave. Many of the local families padded their meager bank accounts by putting up out-of-towners, selling food and moonshine.

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The cave chute as seen from above.

On Wednesday morning Johnny led ten men into the hole and claimed that they had chipped away at the boulder that held Floyd’s foot until Floyd told him he was free. Then, as the crew headed out to get a piece of canvas to drag Floyd out, 50 feet above the trapped spelunker the tunnel collapsed. Five days of digging had loosened the roof and weakened the walls of the tunnel. This, combined with the heat of the work, thawed the frozen mud holding the rocks in place once again trapping Floyd’s foot. By now, Floyd was delirious and 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 Floyd good-bye.

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Kentucky Governor Wm. J. Fields

Kentucky Governor Wm. J. Fields ordered two detachments of soldiers to Cave City. The Red Cross set up a field hospital on the slope overlooking the camp, and the soldiers strung barbed wire in a perimeter fifty yards beyond the rock overhang. Outside the wire, vendors sold hot dogs, sandwiches, and coffee to curious tourists. 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.
During this period of non-communication, the circus continued. Reporters struggled to “dig up” news. They reported that Floyd’s faithful dog Shep hadn’t eaten or slept for eight days; that Floyd had once gone all the way to Louisville to buy his sweetheart, Alma Clark, a box of chocolate-covered cherries; that Floyd had done it all for publicity. Floyd had escaped through a secret tunnel, or worse, he had never been there in the first place. Rumors persisted that Floyd had been murdered by his partner Johnny Gerald who had made a secret deal with Floyd’s father to kill him and take over Crystal Cave. A lady from Chicago claimed that she knew Floyd was alive because her coffee grounds had settled in a heart shape.

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Homer Collins and Floyd’s dog Shep.

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.
The nation was starving for news accounts of Floyd’s entrapment in Mammoth Cave. Readers imagined what it would be like if they were caught inside the cold, dark cave, barely able to move. Floyd Collins’ story dominated the nation’s headlines, eclipsing President Coolidge’s economizing, Rudolph Valentino’s movie, the stock market’s gigantic jump in fortunes and whether heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey would retire. President Calvin Coolidge even asked to be kept up on the story daily.

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Reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller

One Louisville reporter, a young man named Skeets Miller, would become famous for wriggling down the hole early on in the adventure and becoming the first outsider to contact the trapped caver, wrote. “It would surprise Floyd Collins if he could see the electric lights, where before he has seen only stars…It would astonish him to look in on the hospital, with physicians and nurses waiting patiently, and the derricks, powder magazine, kitchen and mess hall, blacksmith shop, rest tent, lunch and fruit stands, restaurants and a taxicab stand—and all of them busy.”
image016An enterprising local scientist jerry-rigged a wire to a lightbulb that was sent down to not only illuminate the hole, but also to keep Floyd warm. An amplifier on the other end was closely monitored by technicians hunched over an electronic box under the tarp. A cross between a telegraph and a stethoscope, it detected vibrations whenever Collins moved and was viewed as a desperate lifeline. The amplifier crackled 20 times per minute, which the scientist claimed as proof positive that Collins was still alive and breathing. Alive and breathing, but still trapped.
Next Week- Part III- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART I

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The author at the cave entrance with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

Original publish date:  August 22, 2019

Last month Rhonda and I once again traveled the route of the World’s Longest Yard Sale along Highway 127 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Once again we started just south of Cincinnati and made our way to Crossville Tennessee. We set out on Wednesday morning and by Friday morning we had had enough. It has been our experience that after noon on Friday it becomes a frustrating route of diminishing returns. Traffic slows to a crawl, parking becomes a problem and our patience becomes frayed like an old pair of blue jean cut offs. Don’t even get me started on Saturday. You’re a better man than me if you can survive a Saturday on the 127.
So this year we decided to veer off to Cave City, Kentucky on Friday afternoon and chase the ghost of old Floyd Collins. I’ve always found myself drawn to antiheroes. The men and women who manage to achieve notoriety and great things while orbiting around the fringe of establishment. Some of these personalities seem to be predestined for greatness while others seem to succeed in spite of themselves. Not to be confused with an underdog, an antihero is often doomed to be critiqued (and sometimes ostracized) by people whose achievements would never stack up over a lifetime.
6731_1004064378Floyd Collins is one of those people. Collins was long, lean, logical and legendary. He remains history’s most famous spelunker. Not only because of the way he lived, but also because of the way he died. William Floyd Collins was born on July 20, 1887 in Auburn, Kentucky. He was the third child of Leonidas Collins and Martha Jane Burnett. Collins had five brothers and two sisters, including another brother named Floyd. Which was not uncommon for the time as frontier families often feared that a child might not survive to adulthood.
Central Kentucky, nestled firmly in America’s limestone belt, is not the best for farming. The soil is poor and thin and the bluegrass it produces is best for livestock grazing rather than crop production. However it does produce some of the best caves in the world.

Floyd’s Central Kentucky home rested smack dab in the middle of a region riddled by hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns, most notable of which is Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave became an unlikely tourist attraction after the War of 1812 when British soldiers ventured into it. Soon several other caves opened to serve the adventure seeking tourist. At that time the region represented the far westernmost frontier and a trip to an underground cave system was the capstone to a thrill seeking adventure. The roads, little more than livestock paths back then, were in rough shape and accommodations were scant. Eventually a train was put in that would stop at the various caves and a series of grand hotels were constructed.
z image2The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others: Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. These holes were all owned and operated by men who charged admission to the visiting tourists who were more than happy to pay for the privilege. At the center of it all was Cave City. Here was the depot that brought wealthy visitors in on the hour, all hungry for adventure. And Cave City residents were more than happy to assist these gullible visitors by relieving them of their cash. As we will see later in this article, not much has changed in 200 years.
From his earliest days, Collins spent his time crouching, crawling and slithering on his belly through holes that a groundhog would find challenging to navigate. Floyd learned early that “there was money in them-there holes.” Floyd spent his time through those damp, dark holes collecting arrowheads, “Tommyhawks” and moccasins to sell to the visitors by the pocketful. In time, visiting professors from American colleges and universities discovered the young spelunker’s talent for acquisition and offered good sums of money for any Native American Indian artifact that Floyd would send them. Some of Floyd’s discoveries can be found in the Chicago Field Museum to this day. Floyd was particularly active in the wintertime. He would walk for miles up and down the bluegrass hills looking for telltale puffs of smoke rising from the ground. Floyd knew it was steam rising from an underground passage that just might lead to the next great cave.67473718_10214761854061910_8843633147624030208_n
Floyd, a loner, would often disappear into the underground mazes for hours to explore cracks, crevices and sink-holes, only to unexpectedly pop up in a field or woodlot several miles from his point of entry. Collins usually took along a lantern, a can or two of beans, 70 feet of rope, and a compass on those solitary expeditions. The compass wasn’t to guide him, he claimed, but instead was a good luck charm. Although known as history’s greatest spelunker, Collins broke every rule of caving. He always traveled alone, never told anyone where he was going, always covered his tracks, often caved at night and followed water and, to his ultimate doom, to Floyd every discovery was kept a closely guarded secret.
Floyd Collins 1Collins first tasted celebrity when he discovered Crystal Cave in 1917 when he discovered Crystal Cave (now part of the Flint Ridge Cave System of the Mammoth Cave National Park). Twenty-seven year old Collins had chased a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned out to be a passage to a large cavern Floyd called “White Crystal Cave”. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business, selling options on the cave to a neighbor named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. Johnny 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 through the cave’s.
The pair worked unceasingly and spent every dime they had to open their new White Crystal Cave and make it accessible to visitors. It was Floyd who came up with the colorful names for the interior cave formations designed to dazzle visitors. In the decade after World War I, many generations of cavers followed Floyd down the Valley of Decision to the Devil’s Kitchen, left though the Gypsum Route to the Scotchman’s Trap to where the cave REALLY begins, eventually leading through the bowels of Flint Ridge to the surrounding caves. Floyd’s tour led his guests down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals and, much to the dismay of its owners, Floyd’s route eventually connected to Mammoth Cave.
z imageSoon the Collins family found themselves smack dab in the middle of the “Cave Wars” of the early 1920s, where Central Kentucky cave owners and explorers entered into a bitter competition to exploit the bounty of caves for commercial profit. Trouble was, Crystal Cave was the last cave on the road from Cave City. By the time tourists discovered it, they were out of money and interest. During the Cave War years, cave owners competed bitterly among each other in order to bring in visitors. The most common tactic was to deploy a man, referred to as a “capper”, who would suddenly rush out of the bushes, hop onto your car’s running board along the rugged road out to Mammoth to excitedly inform you that Mammoth had collapsed or was under quarantine from Consumption (now known as Tuberculosis) and would persuade you to visit their cave instead.
During the Cave Wars era, if someone finds an entrance to your cave on their property there was nothing to prevent them from exploiting that entrance and making money off of your find. So Floyd, who’s Crystal Cave was the back door entrance to Mammoth, was constantly on the lookout for an undiscovered “new front door” to Mammoth Cave. In the winter of 1925 Floyd decided to take a gamble on an overhanging sandstone ledge that contained a small, already known cave on the property of Bee Doyle. The site would be the first cave tourists would see on the road to Mammoth from Cave City. Collins and Doyle had agreed that, if a new entrance could be found, they would split the profits 50/50.

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The author at the cave’s mouth with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

On January 30, 1925, true to form, ventured alone into “Sand Cave” in search of that new entrance. Floyd had known of this spot since his childhood days and had already done some preliminary work with a stick of dynamite to dislodge a couple of huge precariously perched boulders that guarded the entrance. The Sand Cave site is nestled in a wooded surrounding, hidden by sandstone ledges of overhanging rock, each sheltering a crescent-shaped spot. The constant dripping of water leeching through the sandstone keeps the moist soil cool and plantless. That day, Floyd, with rope and lantern, entered the tight, mud-lined passage alone and unnoticed. The 150 foot claustrophobic mud slick tube could only be slithered through in most spots, with little room to crawl, let alone sit up or stand. It was absolute darkness and the damp, rock-strewn passage turned, narrowed or switched back underneath itself, and at times, Floyd, unable to turn around, was forced to wriggle upside down to traverse its depths.

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Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave Entrance today.

Floyd had been down this far before, having earlier removed some large stones and other obstructions that revealed a 10-foot-long chute so tight and steeply sloped, that Floyd knew he had to drop into it feet first for risk of being unable to push himself up and backward to a turnaround spot. Floyd dropped down the chute, where, at the bottom he worked his hobnailed boots into a narrow crevice, referred to as a “pinch” by cavers, met the chute horizontally at 90 degrees. Collins believed this spot to be the final secret link into a much larger cavern below, as he could feel the cave winds blow as he inched his feet farther into it. The coffin like crevice rose only about six inches above Floyd’s chest, tight on each side, and perhaps ten feet long before it opened onto a wide ledge overlooking a 60-foot drop.
imgFloyd was encased under a 4′ x 4′ square, two ton block of solid limestone ceiling, the sidewalls of the tunnel were composed of loose stones, pebbles, sand and mud. Floyd was careful to avoid bumping or displacing anything likely to cause a collapse. Collins made it through, muddy, soaked and sweating, after leaving his securely attached rope for a future trip into the 60-foot precipice he had yet to see. He wriggled head first back into the tight gravelly crevice leading to the steep, serpentine chute he’d just come in by. Pushing the kerosene lantern ahead of him as far as he could, he would then twist and squirm, shrugging ahead inch by inch till reaching the lantern before repeating the pattern by pushing ahead. Suddenly, Floyd’s lantern fell over, broke and went out.
Normally, the cave-savvy Floyd would take it in stride, but this development was unnerving. On his way into the tight pinch Floyd had noticed a peculiar hanging stone and had been particularly careful not to disturb it. Now, while he “crawfished” backward in the dark, his knee dislodged the 27-pound rock which dropped, wedging his left foot into v-shaped groove in the floor of the passage like a guillotine. His progress halted, Floyd lay on his back, tilted to his left at a 45 degree angle, his arms pinned down to his sides, and a solid limestone block five inches above his face. With lime water dripping maddeningly onto his face, Floyd discovered that the more he struggled, the more loose stone and dirt settled around him. Soon he was frozen in place. Floyd Collins was trapped in a narrow crawlway, 55 feet underground, and to make matters worse, no one knew he was there.

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The author with an original Floyd Collins cave car window decal and aerial pennant.

Next Week- Part II- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

Creepy history, Criminals

The life (and death) of John Dillinger’s Red Hamilton. Part II

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John “Red” Hamilton

Original publish date:  May 23, 2019

The Dillinger gang was speeding towards Chicago underworld “fixer”, Dr. Joseph Moran. During World War I, Moran served honorably as a pilot in the Army Signal Corps raising to the rank of lieutenant. His addiction to alcohol eventually gained him an unscrupulous reputation as the windy city’s best “pin artist” (someone who performed illegal abortions). In 1928 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after one of his patients died. He lost his medical license and was released after serving only two years. He became well known for his plastic surgery skills, particularly for his ability to obliterate fingerprints, and was most often associated with the Ma Barker and Dillinger gangs. It was Moran who removed five bullets and stitched up Red Hamilton after a previous shootout, hitting Dillinger up for a cool $ 5,000 for his handiwork.
But now, the silver dollar sized wound in Red’s back was festering and oozing. The bullet had lodged in Red’s lung and was already stinking of gangrene. The shady Moran refused to treat Hamilton at any price, likely because he knew that Hamilton’s wound was mortal. Moran directed the gang to take their dying compadre to Elmer’s Tavern in Bensenville and let him die there. Before the year is out Doc Moran will mysteriously vanish from the face of the earth.

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Hamilton spent a few days at Elmer’s, every hour in excruciating pain, but he simply refused to die. Finally, Dillinger took him to a Barker-Karpis gang safe house in Aurora that was being rented by Dillinger / Barker gang associate Volney Davis and his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. For the next three days, Dillinger, Van Meter, Davis, and Doc Barker stood watch as Hamilton slowly died. Edna took care of Red as best she could, but, ravaged with gangrene, Hamilton finally died on Thursday, April 26. On Friday night, the men took the body to a gravel pit in Oswego, Illinois, for disposal. Laid in a shallow grave, to hinder identification by the authorities, Hamilton’s right hand is cut off (presumably discarded elsewhere) and ten cans of lye are poured over his face and body by Dillinger who reportedly said, “Red, old pal, I hate to do this, but I know you’d do the same for me” as he emptied each can of it’s contents. After the grave was filled in, a roll of rusted barb wire was placed over it as a makeshift marker. Red Hamilton was left there to rest in peace – but not for long.
On May 19th authorities, unaware that Hamilton had died almost three weeks prior, indicted him on charges of harboring fugitives. Hamilton’s sister was convicted of the same charge, and served a short prison stint. Since Hamilton had been reported killed on other occasions, the FBI continued searching, refusing to believe reports of Red’s demise until the body was found. When Red’s grave was discovered on August 28, 1935, there wasn’t much left of him. The corpse was missing a hand and was so damaged by the lye that it could only be identified by some strands of hair and a belt size. Ultimately, only Hamilton’s dental records from the Indiana state penitentiary confirmed the identity. The FBI claimed that a couple of molars with distinct fillings matched Red’s prison x-rays.

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Volney Davis

It was not until Volney Davis was arrested, escaped, and rearrested that FBI agents learned the fate of Red Hamilton. At least, Red’s demise from the outlaw perspective. However, legend tells many different tales about the fate of Red Hamilton. What was left of the body that was removed from the gravel pit and reburied in the Oswego cemetery. The funeral service was paid for by Hamilton’s sister from Michigan. Like many fellow outlaws (John Dillinger, Billy the Kid, John Wilkes Booth, Butch and Sundance) most of the rumors claimed that Red was not dead, while other rumors never questioned Red’s fate, but rather the disposition of his mortal remains. One rumor claimed that he had been buried in the sand of the Indiana dunes. Another that he had been dropped into an abandoned mine shaft in Wisconsin.
Red’s fate remained in question long after Dillinger’s death in an alley outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago on July 22. Even before the body was found, the FBI had been receiving reports from police and public claiming that Hamilton was still alive and hiding out in northern Indiana. When interrogated by the FBI, Dillinger’s girlfriend Polly Hamilton (no relation to Red) claimed that Anna Sage told her that Red was alive and being treated for a “badly infected wound” by Dr. Harold Cassidy.
Dr. Harold Bernard Cassidy was the plastic surgeon who had famously performed surgery on John Dillinger’s face. It was Cassidy who injected the overdose of anesthetic which nearly killed Dillinger, who swallowed his tongue. However, the surgery was a success and Dillinger gave him $500 for his troubles. In 1933 Cassidy was arrested and charged with harboring a fugitive. He was given a suspended sentence in exchange for testimony against Dillinger. He served as a physician on Indian reservations and during World War II rose to the rank of Major in the Pacific. After the war he came back to Chicago, suffered a nervous breakdown, and shot himself in the head in front of his sister and mother on July 30, 1946.

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THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 29, 1935

Over the years, the FBI received numerous tips from people claiming to have seen or heard from Hamilton. Red’s nephew Bruce swore that he had visited his uncle in Ontario, Canada (Red’s birthplace) long after Red’s reported death. Nevertheless, no hard evidence for Hamilton’s survival has ever been discovered. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover officially marked Red’s fate as “case closed” in 1935. In typical Hoover style, the Director trumpeted the belated discovery of the last member of the Dillinger gang to every newspaper in the country. However, underworld rumors persisted that Red had recovered from his wound and was alive and well and living north of border after retiring from a life of crime. Supposedly, Red outlived John Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, and Baby Face Nelson (all killed in violent shootouts) and lived out his life working as an electrician and handy man.

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 John “Red” Hamilton and his girlfriend Patricia Cherrington

Reports claiming that Hamilton was still alive continued flowing in to the FBI on the regular, but, by Hoover’s directive, they were disregarded. Most were written off as mistaken identity. However, one survives that sounds particularly convincing. The letter, found in the files of the FBI, is dated August 24, 1936, a year after Red’s body was found. It was sent by a former inmate known as “Happy” who knew some of the gang members, as well as Dillinger’s attorney, Louis Piquett. It is believed that “Happy” may have been an associate of Dillinger named Fred Meyers, from Chicago.
The letter read: “Dear Sir: Will you kindly advise how much you will guarantee in cash for secret and confidential information about the movements of John Hamilton? There are three people who know that he is still living and happen to know the details concerning him. If interested please make offer through personal column of Chicago Tribune as follows, HAP * Will buy ,000 bushels, meaning of course that many thousand dollars for this information and place ED after the word bushels. If this offer is OK you will be supplied with an amazing detail report on his present physical condition and movements. Money must be on deposit at your Chicago Office but will not have to be paid until this man is captured or killed or both. This information must be kept strictly confidential between you and I and must be kept out of the newspapers except code transmissions between you and I. I am a hardworking electrician and took considerable time and money to get this data and do not want to risk my life for the deal. Everything will be handled by correspondence and code in the Chicago Tribune. If your offer is accepted, I will make you proposals which must be guaranteed by you as a strictly gentlemen’s agreement.”

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THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 29, 1935

There is no evidence that J. Edgar Hoover ever saw it or whether there was ever a follow-up. By then, the FBI claimed that Hamilton’s dead body had been found and identified and that Hoover had won the national “War on Crime”, thereby securing his position as Director for the next four decades. But could the letter have been true? Red’s nephew, Bruce Hamilton certainly believed it was. Years later, he described a family trip to Michigan to visit his “dead” uncle Red in 1945. The trip took the family to Sault Sainte Marie on the Canadian border to the home of John Hamilton’s sister, Anna. Wilton and his wife, Harriet, their older son Douglas, their daughter, Jane Margaret, and 15-year-old Bruce, all met the man known as John “Red” Hamilton. Wilton told his wife and children not to discuss the trip with anyone.
The trip to the Upper P resulted in the collection of a large amount of money that had been stashed away by the Dillinger gang. The loot’s whereabouts were known only by the gang’s last surviving member: Red Hamilton. As evidence, crime buffs and conspiracy theorists note that the impoverished Hamilton family suddenly came into thousands of dollars in cash years after Red’s “death”. After that 1945 trip, Bruce’s father Wilton paid off the mortgage on the family home in South Bend, bought a new house, and purchased the family’s first new car. Around this same time, Hamilton’s brother, Foye, recently released from prison, also came into a great deal of money. He used it to build a machine shop in Rockford, Illinois, and he also purchased Turtle Island in the Great Lakes area near Sault Sainte Marie, as well as boats and a seaplane to get to and from the island. Bruce suspected that a large cabin on the island provided a hiding place for his uncle John. The family claimed that the outlaw survived into the 1970s, vacationing numerous times with his family over the years.
According to a March, 2007 article in the South Bend Tribune, Bruce (then living in Shiprock,N.M.) believed “the wounded Hamilton, after stopping in Aurora and then Chicago (where the FBI originally believed he had died), was patched up by Dr. Cassidy and then went into hiding with his brother, Sylvester, in East Gary, Indiana. Dillinger then returned to Aurora, while Sylvester took Red to the home of William Hamilton, Bruce’s grandfather, in South Bend. William helped get him to a hideout previously used by the Dillinger gang, a nearby place called Rum Village Woods. Hamilton recuperated well enough to go to work as an electrician at a family-owned bowling alley in South Bend in 1936 and 1937.” Bruce also said that over the years, his great-uncle Red occasionally slipped over the border to rob a bank or two until he “got tired of being shot at.” According to Bruce’s elderly aunt, Red later moved to Canada and died in the 1970s.
But if Red Hamilton didn’t die in Aurora in 1934, then whose body was found in that barbed wire covered grave in 1935? Rumor says it was Dr. Joseph Moran, who disappeared shortly after refusing to treat Red’s wound in Chicago. Hoover directed his agents to continue searching for Moran for months after he vanished. Hoover eventually declared that Moran had been killed and dumped in Lake Michigan. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, of the Ma Barker gang admitted that Moran had been murdered and his body buried, but he never said where.

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Author Stephen King.

In 2001, Jack “Red” Hamilton rocketed to pop culture immortality when he became the subject of a short story by horror author Stephen King. “The Death of Jack Hamilton” was originally published in the 2001 Christmas issue of The New Yorker magazine. In 2002, it was published in King’s collection Everything’s Eventual. The true crime story is based on the death of Red Hamilton and is written as a first-person narrative, told by Homer Van Meter, who relays the slow, painful death of his fellow gangmember. In King’s story, Van Meter spares no detail in relating how Red lapsed into dementia before his agonizing, but merciful death.
Yet another account can be found that ties the mysterious Red Hamilton to Irvington while at the same time claiming John Dillinger survived as well. The anonymous writer relates, “I knew the remaining members of the White Cap Gang in Indianapolis. In the late fifties I was told the same story you have from his nephew. He recuperated in South Bend and went to his sister in Sault Sainte Marie. Later Red moved to a new place on the Canadian side. The fellows I knew had regular communication with him. Dillinger was still sending him letters and current photos of himself. As far as I know these are the only two members of the gang to have survived. I did see such a letter and photo that Tubby Toms brought to the house for verification after Dillinger had sent it to the Indianapolis Star. They told Toms that they weren’t sure of the ID of the man in the picture but laughed like crazy when he left. They knew both Dillinger and Hamilton where alive at that time and their respective location. Toms showed me the rabbits foot Dillinger gave him. It was small. Every one was so crooked that none of the official stories was true.” In June of 1933, John Dillinger and the White Cap gang robbed the Haag’s drug store / soda fountain on the Northwest corner of Washington and Audubon in Irvington. You can’t make this stuff up folks.

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Dufours restaurant site of former Haag’s drug store / soda fountain.