Baseball, Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

“The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster” PART I

1903-Purdue Part 1

Original publish date:  October 31, 2019

It was Saturday, October 31, 1903. The college football season was half over as the Purdue Boilermakers geared up for their annual in-state rivalry game against Indiana University. (The “Old Oaken Bucket” trophy was still 20 years in the future.) The rivalry had started a dozen years before in 1891 and for awhile it looked like a clean sweep for the Purdue squad with the Boilers taking the first 6 games outscoring the boys from Bloomington 227 to 6. Then I.U. reeled off 3 in a row to shock the West Lafayette faithful before Purdue took the 1902 contest by once again swamping the cream & crimson 39-0.
The competition for gridiron glory between these two in-state titans was so hot and intense that, for the 1903 contest, both schools agreed that games should be held on neutral ground to quell “potential hooliganism” on the part of the students and fans. To this point eight games had been played in West Lafayette and two in Bloomington. In the spirit of fair play, officials from both schools decided to play the 11th contest on a neutral field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Washington Park was located at 3001 East Washington Street where it meets Gray Street (in the southwest corner of that intersection). The ballpark, built in 1900 just a stone’s throw from Irvington, was home to the 1902 defending American Association champion Indianapolis Indians.

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1902 Indianapolis Indians

To get to the new state capital location, both teams joined what seemed like the entire student body as they piled into separate special service trains to travel to the game from north and south of the city. Two special trains, operated by the “Big Four Railroad” (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway), were chartered to carry over 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis for the annual rivalry game. Purdue’s team train was cobbled together like a patchwork quilt and included modern steel streamliner coaches coupled to older wooden coaches. The Boilermakers football team rode in the wooden cars at the front of the train procession.
wash park baseball for web 1The train was traveling on what would have been the 101st birthday of school founder and namesake John Purdue (born October 31, 1802). Purdue, a wealthy landowner, politician, educator and merchant, was the primary benefactor of the University. In 1903, if you wanted to get to Indianapolis from either school, you had three choices: ride a horse and buggy, walk or take the train. Since these were the days before automobile travel was popular, train travel was the most widely accepted form of transportation.
It was Halloween in 1903; late October in the Hoosier Heartland. It is hard for our modern sensibilities to imagine those pre-electricity rural landscapes dotted by farmhouses scattered in a wide swath like checkers on a checkerboard. In this era, Hoosiers generally lived in small communities and held tight to their neighbors. News traveled slowly and so did the traffic. As the Gilded age of Mark Twain collided with the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt, it became apparent that something’s gotta give. Safety was an issue in this gargantuan game of rock, paper, scissors where iron and steel trumped wood every time.

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Namesake John Purdue.

In West Lafayette, it was a festive atmosphere and the town was buzzingly, excited for the match up against the Hoosiers. Like I.U.’s Bloomington, West Lafayette draws so much of its identity from their University and the entire community was looking forward to the weekend. Purdue was 4-2 on the season with a big win over rival Wabash College, but losses to Chicago and Illinois. Purdue enjoyed a 7-3 overall advantage in the series against I.U. and was feeling confident. Running at the rate of thirty miles an hour, the John Purdue Big Four special was carrying 954 students and spectators, including the football team, University President and star fullback and team captain Harry “Skillet” Leslie.
z Dq2VB3-XQAA21c8Unlike the raucous fans traveling in the 13 plush, modern streamliner train coaches behind them, the Boilermakers team traveled in relative silence, focusing on the task at hand, mentally preparing for their upcoming rivalry game in the cozy confines of an older wooden train car. Unfortunately, the athletes had no idea that a minor mistake would lead to a major disaster. Railroad protocol specified that “Special” trains operate independent of the regular schedule. Timing was everything in the railroad game.
In the early 1900s, the rail service depended on many human components: conductors and their assistants, dining car stewards, ticket collectors, train baggage men, brakemen, and train flagmen on the vehicle itself and yardmasters, yard conductors, switch tenders, foremen, flagmen, brakemen, switchmen, car tenders, operators, hump riders, and car operators on the ground. In 1903, railroad track “switches” were manually operated by lantern carrying tenders fluent in the language of railway lantern semaphore, which, strictly defined, means the act of waving a lantern as a warning.

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Switchman

Switch tenders communicated with brakemen who most often stood atop boxcars waving happily at his railyard cohorts and locals as the train glided past. As the train traveled down the rails, some of these daredevils ran along the top of the cars, adjusting the brake wheels sticking up from each car as they went. The complexities of switching, congestion, and rearranging cars made freight yards a far more perilous workplace and working on a moving train could be downright treacherous. One railyard superintendent, when talking about his workers, once famously said, “Men are cheaper than shingles. . . There’s a dozen waiting when one drops out.”
The trouble was, this apparent dispensability of railway workers could cause havoc in areas where tracks needed to be switched to avoid collisions. As the Purdue Special steamed towards the Circle City at over 30 miles per hour, a clerk up the line from Lafayette failed to inform the yardmaster near 18th Street in Indianapolis that the trains were coming. The first train, carrying the team, rounded a curve at the Mill Street Power House and saw a coal train being pushed back on the tracks. The engineer immediately slammed the engine in reverse, locked the emergency brake, and leapt off the moving train.
Z purdue 2The Boilermakers never knew what hit ’em. The engine slammed into the coal car, splintering apart the first few cars while folding like an accordion. When the two trains collided, the lead car hit the debris, causing it to shoot into the air. This gave the full impact to the second train car, causing all the deaths. The wooden train cars splintered like kindling and were destroyed, and the adjacent cars careened violently off the elevated tracks, tumbling to the ground below like jack straws.
Z purdue 1The Indianapolis star reported, “The trains came together with a great crash, which wrecked three of the passenger coaches, in addition to the engine and tender of the special train and two or three of the coal cars. The first coach on the special train was reduced to splinters. The second coach was thrown down a fifteen-foot embankment into the gravel pit and the third coach was thrown from the track to the west-side and badly wrecked. The coal cars plowed their way into the engine and demolished it completely. The coal tender was tossed to the side and turned over. A wild effort on the part of the imprisoned passengers to escape from the wrecked car followed the crash. Immediately following the wreck the students and the others turned their attention to the work of rescuing the injured, and by the time the first ambulances arrived many of the dead and suffering young men had been carried out and placed on the grass on both sides of the track.”
z LARGE (1)The fans at the rear of the train were unaware of what happened and only felt a slight jolt as the train came to a sudden stop. These rearmost passengers wasted no time in coming to the assistance of the victims up ahead. The erstwhile revelers skidded to a stop at the scene of carnage and were horrified at the devastation before them. Acts of unselfish action made heroes out of athletes and ordinary people alike.
According to Purdue student Joseph Bradfield who was riding in the procession, “We began carrying the people out, the injured ones. There was a line of horse-and-buggies along the whole stretch there for half a mile. We didn’t stop for ceremony; we simply loaded the injured people into the buggies and sent the buggies into town, got them to a hospital…There was no ambulance, no cars…”
z purdue_football_wreck_8Seventeen passengers in the first coach were killed. Thirteen of the dead were members of the Purdue football team. Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, although grievously injured, refused aid so that others could be helped. Team Captain Skeets Leslie was covered up for dead, his body transported to the morgue with the others. It was the first catastrophe to hit a major college sports team in the history of this country. The affects would be felt for decades to come and one of those players would rise from the dead, shake off accusations of association with Irvington KKK leader D.C. Stephenson, and lead his state and country through the Great Depression.

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Harry “Skeets” Leslie.
Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, Hollywood, Museums, Pop Culture, Travel

“Bonnie & Clyde” Part IV

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Original publish date: October 17, 2019

There have been some changes to my “Bonnie and Clyde” story series in the years since I first wrote it. Some nationally, others personally. This past September, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For our milestone anniversary we visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is an odd choice since neither of us gamble. Oh sure, we visited many casinos, but mostly just to say we did it. The casinos on the strip are slick and flashy and a must see but our favorites were the old casinos on Fremont Street where the Vegas legend was born. They ooze with historic personality and, in my opinion, are the real attraction for history loving visitors to “sin city”.
original_whiskey-petesOne of those “must see” old timey casinos is located about 30 miles southwest of the Vegas strip in a desert town called Primm, Nevada not far from the California border. Known as “Whiskey Pete’s”, the casino covers 35,000 square feet, has 777 rooms, a large swimming pool, gift shop and four restaurants. The casino is named after gas station owner Pete MacIntyre. “Whiskey Pete” had a difficult time making ends meet selling gas, so he resorted to bootlegging and an idea was born. When Whiskey Pete died in 1933, he was secretly buried standing up with a bottle of whiskey in his hands so he could watch over the area. Decades later, his unmarked grave was accidentally exhumed by workers building a connecting bridge from Whiskey Pete’s to Buffalo Bill’s (on the other side of I-15). According to legend, the body was reburied in one of the caves where Pete once cooked up his moonshine.
z 70184836_2595583403806240_2376225759279710208_nOh, I forgot to mention that Whiskey Pete’s is also home to the Bonnie and Clyde death car. As detailed in part III of this series, the car has had a long strange trip to Primm. The bullet-ridden car toured carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for decades before being permanently parked on the plush carpet between the main cashier cage and a lifesize caged effigy of Whiskey Pete himself. According to the “Roadside America” website, “For a time it was in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts, then in the 1970s it was at a Nevada race track where people could sit in it for a dollar. A decade later it was in a Las Vegas car museum; a decade after that it was in a casino near the California / Nevada state line. It was then moved to a different casino on the other side of the freeway, then it went on tour to other casinos in Iowa, Missouri, and northern Nevada. nfdbw6-b88265181z.120141120184822000g7f6eg40.10Complicating matters was the existence of at least a half-dozen fake Death Cars and the Death Car from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (which was in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, but now is in Tennessee).” Just in case of any remaining confusion, the Primm car is accompanied by a bullet riddled sign reading: “Yes, this is the original, authentic Bonnie and Clyde death car” (in all caps for emphasis).

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One of the facsimile death cars on display in Gibsland, Louisiana.

The car is encased in a glass cage and guarded by reconstituted department store mannequins dressed as the famous outlaw couple. And, after 85 years, the bullet holes, shattered glass and torn interior are just as shocking to our eyes as they were to those of our Great Depression ancestors. The doors are permanently shut (so there’ll be no more sitting), the bloody upholstery is long gone and covered by plastic and the steering wheel’s bakelite outer casing has been torn to pieces by long dead souvenir hunters . The car’s Swiss cheese exterior is still impressive and cringeworthy, even if you can’t stick your fingers in the holes. 20190908_100429The walls surrounding the death car are festooned with authentic newspapers detailing the outlaw lover’s demise and letters vouching to the vehicle’s authenticity. Cases contain other Bonnie and Clyde relics like a belt given by Clyde to his sister and classic candid photos of the star-crossed lovers and their families.

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The car is a must see, but my interest was equaled by the presence of Clyde’s shredded death shirt, peppered by innumerable ragged holes both front and back. A nearby placard proclaims: “Marie Barrow [Clyde’s sister] has personally signed the inside hem of the shirt to attest to the garment’s authenticity,” while another reads: “Bloodstains are evident throughout the shirt,” it continues, although time has faded them considerably. A closer examination of Clyde’s blue shirt (adorned by a repeated pattern of white snowflake flourishes) attests that the diminutive desperado wore a size 14-32. Sadly, try as I might, I was unable to view the object of my search: the Indianapolis H.P. Wasson’s department store tag. Amazingly, the shirt remains mostly intact. Although cut at the shoulders (giving the shirt a rather macabre looking superhero cape appearance) only a few of the buttons are missing and the single pocket that once covered the law breakers heart is unscathed. The exit hole in the back of Clyde’s collar is sure to elicit a gasp when the viewer realizes that this was the death shot, the one that severed Barrow’s spinal cord.
bcend-realcbA movie, obviously created many years ago, recreates the event using newsreel footage, landscape photography and contemporary interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. Here, it is revealed that the shirt was found, decades after the outlaw’s death, secreted away in a sealed metal box along with Clyde’s hat. The film itself has become a piece of Americana and the images of Bonnie’s torn and tattered body left twitching in the car, resting silently mere yards away, are equally breathtaking. Nearby, although not nearly as shocking as the Bonnie and Clyde death car, another bullet-scarred automobile is on display. This one first belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz and later, Al Capone. Signs around the car proclaim that the doors are filled with lead and, judging by the pockmarks of the bullets denting the exterior, it is true. Although, like every casino, Whiskey Pete’s job remains separating gamblers from their money, both cars are on display 24 hours a day for free.

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Just in case you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to take a side trip to see the death car, there is another stop along the way that is a must see for history-loving Hoosiers. In between Primm and Vegas lies a mostly abandoned mining town (population 229) known as Good Springs. The town is home to, according to legend, the oldest saloon in the state: The Pioneer Saloon (built in 1913). This is the saloon where Clark Gable spent 3 days slamming beers after receiving word of the plane crash and while awaiting confirmation of the death of his beautiful wife, Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. The 33-year-old actress was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s. She died while returning from a war bond tour in Indianapolis on board TWA Flight 3 when the plane slammed into Mount Potosi, which is easily seen in the distance.
adventure-32301-original-1476134635-57fc06eb943f4The interior of the Pioneer Saloon remains unchanged. It is easy to imagine Gone with the Wind star Gable drowning his sorrows at a rickety table or bracing himself against the cowboy bar and it’s brass boot rail. Ask and the bartender will point out the cigarette burn holes in the bar caused by Gable when he passed out from a mixture of grief and alcohol during his somber vigil. The tin ceiling remains as do the ancient celing fans (it gets HOT in the desert) and the walls are peppered with bullet holes left by cowboys who rode off into the sunset generations ago. The bar’s backroom is a shrine to the Lombard / Gable tragedy but sadly most of the relics on display there are modern photocopies and recreations. Locals claim that Carole Lombard’s ghost haunts the saloon in a desperate attempt to contact her grieving husband. The saloon is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of an old “Miner 49er” who appears drinking alone at the far end of the bar before vanishing into thin air. Millennials flock to the bar as the birthplace of the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which also has a small shrine located there.

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Clyde Barrow’s Bulova wristwatch.

Ironically, in the years since I wrote this series and during the month of our 30th anniversary visit, Bonnie and Clyde have populated the headlines once more. On September 20, 2019 several personal items related to 1930s Texas outlaw were sold by a Boston auction house for nearly $186,000. The Bulova watch that Clyde wore when he and Bonnie Parker were killed sold for $112,500 (it had given to his father, Henry Barrow, after he retrieved his son’s body). A sawed-off shotgun that was used by the Barrow gang in 1933 sold for $68,750. A draft of a Dallas police “wanted” poster for Barrow sold for $4,375, a bullet-proof vest used by the gang sold for $ 30,000 and a bloodied bandage from the Barrow Gang sold for $3,000. 2215
The Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun had been found after a gun battle that left two lawmen dead. On April 13, 1933, five lawmen assembled outside 3347 ½ Oakridge Drive in Joplin, Missouri to confront what they believed were bootleggers operating out of an apartment above the garage. Instead, they quickly discovered that they were up against the Barrow gang. While Bonnie, Clyde, and their associates escaped, they left behind almost everything they owned at the time: Bonnie’s poems, a bevy of weapons, and several rolls of undeveloped film. Those photos, featuring images of the nattily dressed couple clowning for the camera by pointing various weapons at each other, hit the newspapers and firmly established the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers on the run. The couple would be killed a year later.

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The Joplin garage hideout today.

After the shootout, Detective Tom DeGraff found the shotgun in the Joplin garage, and took it home as a souvenir. When he registered it under the National Firearms Act in 1946, he included an affidavit noting its origins. What’s more, the same shotgun can be spotted in images printed from the film rolls left behind at Joplin. In one photograph, it leans against one of the Barrow Gang’s cars. In 2012, the same auctionhouse sold several of Clyde’s guns for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a 1911 Army Colt 45 Pistol for $240,000. This pistol was removed from Clyde’s waistband after the duo was gunned down by lawmen in 1934. Frank Hamer, the leader of the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, kept it as a trophy.

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Bonnie Parker’s Colt .38 Special Revolver.

That September 2012 auction also included Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, carried by her at the time of her death. A notarized letter, dated December 10, 1979, spectacularly identified this gun by stating, “My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped.”

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Frank Hamer’s note.

Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reading “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.” Many of the guns carried by Bonnie and Clyde ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer as an unexpected bonus for his service. Hamer was promised that he could take anything the outlaws had in their possession at the time of their capture.

 

Other auction items included five original items collected off the floor of Bonnie and Clyde’s car: a woman’s silk stocking stained with blood on the foot and leg area, an unused .45 caliber bullet and casing from the Peters Cartridge Company with the date of 1918, a side temple from a pair of eyeglasses, a small wood-handled flathead screwdriver measuring 4 1/2″ long and an empty Bayer Aspirin tin; all of which sold for $11,400. This lot was accompanied by a notarized affidavit from the woman whose grandfather originally acquired these relics directly from the ‘death car’ after receiving permission to take them. Letter reads, in part: “My grandfather, Zell Smith, was a traveling hardware salesman who traveled that area of north Louisiana. He was also a friend of Sheriff Henderson Jordan. My grandfather was in Arcadia in 1934 on the day that the ambushed car was pulled into Arcadia. He, like many others, rushed to see the shot up car, and Sheriff Henderson let him and others that he knew ransack the car for souvenirs. My grandfather grabbed a handful of stuff off of the floor of the car, which the outlaws had been living in. He said the car was full of trash.”

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Bonnie Parker’s poetry book.

Last month’s auction included a little black book of 10 poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery. Five of the poems were original compositions drawn from her life on the run with the Barrow Gang. The titles reflect the female outlaw’s life at that time: “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.” Bidding for Bonnie’s poetry book reached about $25,000 before the lot was withdrawn by the consignor.
9334476db7b58cc57c37051c41acec99During the Great Depression, some viewed the duo as near folk heroes, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And, although Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger reportedly once told a reporter that Bonnie and Clyde were “a couple of punks”, he and his fellow gang member Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to their funeral homes. The Barrow gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers. They finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot some 130 rounds into the car. Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. Truth is, proceeds from auctions of items associated with these outlaws over the past two decades (which number in the millions of dollars) far outdistance the proceeds of all of their robberies combined.
wnl5boo20jpzFor my part, when we told our 25-year-old son about our anniversary trip to Las Vegas, he remained nonplussed by saying, “I would only want to go out there to see a town called Primm.” To which we said “been there, done that.” His reply, “I’d also like to go to a little town called Good Springs.” We answered, “Been there too.” He concluded by saying he’d like to see an old dive bar named the “Pioneer Saloon.” He was shocked when we said we went there too. Of course, the reason he wants to venture out there is video game related, not history related. Nonetheless, he was chagrined by our answers. I guess we old folks aren’t so square after all.

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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

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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

Criminals, Pop Culture

“Bonnie & Clyde” Part I

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Original publish date:  May 2014     Reissue date: September 26, 2019

Outlaws Bonnie and Clyde have been in the news again lately, nearly 85 years after they died in dramatic fashion on a dusty backroad in Gibsland, Louisiana. I wrote this 3-part series over 5 years ago and have since added an updated part 4 to the saga. So, here are the first 3 parts as written a hemi-decade ago. Stay tuned for the updates just in time for Halloween Festival weekend.
Bonnie and Clyde. Names that evoke different images to different people. Although their image, like those of Billy the Kid , Jesse James and John Dillinger, have been romanticized over the years; the truth is a little bit more complicated. Without doubt, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are the most famous pair of star crossed outlaws this country has ever seen. On May 23, 1934, 80 years ago this week, they died exactly as they lived: violently. Bonnie was only 23 years old; Clyde a mere 24.

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The Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Spot.

On a dusty, mosquito choked rural road near Gibsland, Louisiana, Bonnie & Clyde were ambushed by a group of six heavily armed hardcore Texas lawmen. The deadly duo never had a chance. When the smoke had cleared, the coroner counted 17 separate entrance wounds on Clyde Barrow’s body and 26 on Bonnie Parker’s. Other accounts say Clyde was shot 23 times and Bonnie 25, either way, they were killed instantly. The wounds included several headshots on each, one bullet snapping Barrow’s spinal column. Undertaker C. F. “Boots” Bailey had difficulty embalming the bodies because of all the bullet holes.
The posse used Browning Automatic Rifles, perhaps better known in gun circles as “BAR’s”, which was ironically also the weapon most favored by the Barrow Gang. The BAR’s were so powerful that some of the bullets went completely through one car door and out the other. A total of 167 bullets were fired, non of which came from either Bonnie or Clyde. The temporarily deafened officers inspected the vehicle and discovered an arsenal of weapons, including stolen automatic rifles, sawed-off semi-automatic shotguns, assorted handguns, and several thousand rounds of ammunition.

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Six-man posse who killed Bonnie & Clyde May 23, 1934. Top row (left to right) Ted Hinton, P. Moakley, B. M. Gault (bottom row), Bob Alcorn, Henderson Jordan, and Frank Hamer

According to statements made by Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputies Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn (both of whom knew Barrow and Parker by sight): “Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns … There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren’t taking any chances.” The lawmen had been hiding in the bushes for a day and a half waiting for the outlaws. They weren’t in a mood to parlay.
z bcdead-car1Word of the ambush quickly spread after the officers drove into town to telephone their respective bosses. A raucous crowd soon flooded the death scene and the car that was still resting there. Two members of the posse were left to guard the bodies, but they quickly lost control of the bloodthirsty souvenir hunters. Locals pushed and shoved their way to the death car; one woman cut off bloody locks of Bonnie’s hair and pieces from her dress. She was later seen back in town selling them as grisly souvenirs. Hinton returned just in time to keep a man from cutting off Clyde’s trigger finger. Arriving at the scene, the coroner observed the following: “nearly everyone had begun collecting souvenirs such as shell casings, slivers of glass from the shattered car windows, and bloody pieces of clothing from the garments of Bonnie and Clyde. One eager man had opened his pocket knife, and was reaching into the car to cut off Clyde’s left ear.” The coroner enlisted Hamer for help in controlling the “circus-like atmosphere” and Clyde’s ear remained intact.

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Texas Ranger inspecting death car with Bonnie’s dead body still inside.

The Ford, with the bodies still inside, was towed to the Conger Furniture Store & funeral parlor located on Railroad Avenue downtown across from the Illinois Central train station (which is now a historical museum containing Bonnie and Clyde artifacts.) The crowds were so unruly, that the caretaker had to squirt embalming fluid on them to keep them back. Preliminary embalming was done by Bailey in a small preparation room in back of the furniture store (it was common for furniture and undertakers to be together back then.) The tiny northwest Louisiana town swelled in population from 2,000 to 12,000 within hours. Curiosity seekers arrived on foot, by train, horseback, buggy, and airplane. Beer, which normally sold for 15 cents a bottle, jumped to 25 cents; ham sandwiches quickly sold out. After identifying his son’s body, Henry Barrow sat in a rocking chair in the furniture section and wept.

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Conger Furniture Store & Funeral Home.

H.D. Darby, a young undertaker who worked for the McClure Funeral Parlor in nearby Ruston, and Sophia Stone, a home demonstration agent also from Ruston, came to Arcadia to identify the bodies. They had been kidnapped by the Barrow gang the previous year in Ruston, on April 27, 1933, and released near Waldo, Arkansas. Bonnie reportedly laughed when she asked Darby his profession and discovered he was an undertaker. She remarked that maybe someday he would be working on her. As fate would have it, Darby assisted Bailey in embalming the outlaws.

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Clyde Barrow in the Conger Funeral Home.

The coroner found $ 500 in cash in Clyde’s pockets and $ 6 and some change in Bonnie’s purse alongside a bullet shattered pocket mirror. All the fingers on Bonnie’s right hand had been shot off, as they laid on a pack of bloody cigarettes. Inside the car, besides the firearms arsenal, other curious items were found, including a saxophone, Hollywood movie magazines, newspapers, a box of fishing tackle and 15 sets of license plates from various states, including Indiana.

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Bonnie Parker

Although Bonnie had famously requested that she and Clyde be buried side by side in her poem “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”, the Parker family would not allow it. Mrs. Parker was quoted as having said, “Clyde had her for two years and look what he did to her.” Mrs. Parker wanted to grant her daughter’s final wish by bringing the dead outlaw’s body home, but mobs surrounding the Parker house day-and-night made that impossible. Parker’s family used the McKamy-Campbell Funeral Home, located on present day Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Dallas, to conduct her funeral. Bonnie’s mutilated hair was waved and curled into its former neatness. Her nails were manicured. More than 20,000 attended Bonnie Parker’s funeral, and her family had to be escorted by lawmen to her grave site.
Bonnie’s brother, Hubert “Buster” Parker, escorted her body from Arcadia to Dallas in the back of an ambulance. Her services were held on Saturday, May 26, 1934, at 2 pm, in the funeral home. Flowers came from everywhere, including some with cards allegedly from Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger, who were still very much alive and on the run themselves. Curiously, the largest floral tribute was sent by a group of Dallas city newsboys. Seems the issue covering the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde sold 500,000 newspapers in Dallas alone. Although initially buried in the Fishtrap Cemetery, Parker was moved in 1945 to the new Crown Hill Cemetery in Dallas.

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The guns of Bonnie and Clyde.

Clyde Barrow’s family used the Sparkman-Holtz-Brand Morticians in downtown Dallas. Thousands of people gathered outside both Dallas funeral homes hoping for a chance to view the bodies. Barrow’s private funeral was held at sunset on Friday, May 25, in the funeral home’s chapel. He was buried next to his brother Buck on a bare slope in a West Dallas Cemetery. The Barrow brothers share a single granite marker with their names on it and a four-word epitaph previously selected by Clyde: “Gone but not forgotten.” As the crowd dispersed, a low-flying plane dropped a gigantic floral wreath near the gravesite.
The life insurance policies for both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were paid in full by American National of Galveston. Since then, the policy of pay-outs has changed to exclude pay-outs in cases of deaths caused by any criminal act by the insured. Those original life insurance policies, obtained by the mothers of Bonnie and Clyde, are displayed at the American National Insurance Company Building in Galveston, Tx. It has been reported that the families of the outlaws made more off their death than the deadly duo ever made off of their short lives of crime.
The six men of the posse were each to receive a one-sixth share of the reward money. Dallas Sheriff Schmid had promised Ted Hinton this would total some $26,000, but most of the state, county, and other organizations that had pledged reward funds reneged on their pledges. In the end, each lawman earned just $200.23 for his efforts. Hamer promised his barber a lock of Clyde’s hair and delivered on that promise by picking a lock off of Clyde’s shirt that had been shorn off by a BAR bullet. The posse, including Frank Hamer, took and kept for themselves all of the guns that were found in the death car. Personal items such as Bonnie’s clothing and Clyde’s saxophone were also taken, and when the Parker family asked for them back, they were refused.

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Frank Hamer.

In July, Clyde’s mother wrote to Hamer asking for the guns’ return: “You don’t never want to forget my boy was never tried in no court for murder and no one is guilty until proven guilty by some court so I hope you will answer this letter and also return the guns I am asking for.” The guns were not returned, and remained with the Hamer family. There’s no evidence Hamer ever answered her letter. The guns were later sold as souvenirs.
Bonnie and Clyde are thought of almost exclusively as Southwestern outlaws from the rough-and-tumble areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. But did you know that the Barrow gang had ties to Indiana? One of those ties marries one of the grisliest of all blood relics ever collected with an iconic Circle City department store not far from where you are reading this article right now.
Next Week: Part II of Bonnie & Clyde-The Indiana Connection

Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART III

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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