Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play


As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells mental_floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. With a new Collector's Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, mental_floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.


After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details. 

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.


Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film. 

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene. 

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had. 

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy. 

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.


After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

All images courtesy of Scream Factory.

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
The 1925 Cave Rescue That Captivated the Nation
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

This week, the heroic rescue of a Thai soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave dominated the news. But it wasn’t the first cave rescue to do so: In 1925, when Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins became trapped underground, the epic effort to rescue him gripped national headlines and transformed into a battle between heroism and folly, selflessness and selfishness, life and death.


Floyd Collins traipsed over damp leaves and thawing snow and stepped into the shadow of a cave. It was an unusually warm Kentucky winter morning—January 30, 1925—and a thick curtain of icicles hung from the lip of the cavern like the pipes of a church organ. The cave's mouth, a bow-shaped rock overhang that resembled a band shell, dripped with water.

Collins paid it no attention. This was a normal day at the office.

For weeks, the 37-year-old cave explorer had spent up to 12 hours every day clearing gravel, sandstone, and limestone from the narrow passageway winding below his feet, and today was no different. Collins removed his coat and hung it over a nearby boulder. He fiddled with his kerosene lamp and slung a rope over his shoulder. Then he dropped into a manhole-sized cavity in the ground.

When Floyd Collins emerged, he'd be one of the most famous people in the world.



Collins dropped to his hands and knees and charged through muddy pools of snowmelt that numbed his fingers and soaked his trousers; behind him, the last beams of sunlight gasped. At five yards deep, he encountered a 4-foot drop and gently lowered himself down. He extended his kerosene lamp. The walls quivered orange.

Ahead, the cave clamped into a narrow shaft of jagged, loose rocks; Collins dropped to his belly and army-crawled under them. At 50 feet, he encountered the cave’s first squeeze, but Collins was unfazed: With proper technique, a man his size could squirm through a crack with less than 8 inches of clearance. He pressed his arms against his sides, exhaled deeply to flatten his chest cavity, rocked his hips and abdominals, and propelled his body forward with his toes.

Floyd Collins navigates a tight spot in Crystal Cave.
Floyd Collins navigates a tight spot in Crystal Cave.
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

On the other side, the cave widened. Collins crawled like a toddler until the earth pinched closed again. He wiggled through more body-hugging squeezes and emerged at a sloping pit barely wide enough to accommodate his body.

The pit dropped 10 feet and curled horizontally into a small cubby hole that terminated at a tight crack. His brother Homer would later describe it as “a chimney no bigger around than your own body, lined with projecting rocks that dig into your flesh and tear your clothing." Collins had spent the previous days removing rocks from here, and the crack at the bottom finally looked passable. He eased down feet first and carefully rung his body through the enclosure. Rocks compressed his torso. Above, loose stones dangled millimeters from his neck.

The crack dumped Collins on a ledge. He brought his kerosene lamp forward and revealed a large room that dropped approximately 60 feet. Hungry to explore, he lassoed a rope around a boulder and repelled into the depths.

Then his lantern began to die. The explorer decided to turn back.

Collins pulled himself back to the ledge and carefully inched toward the horizontal crack. He laid down, flipped on his back, and pushed the lantern in front of him. He squeezed his arms against his sides, exhaled, and snaked forward into the squeeze.

Suddenly, the cave plunged to black.

Collins had knocked his lantern over, and the darkness was unfathomable. (Sight is so meaningless in these conditions that the fish living in the underground rivers of Kentucky’s caves have no eyes.) Collins, however, did not panic. He’d been caught in the dark before. He wormed toward the bottom of the 10-foot pit and dug his foot against what he thought was the cave wall.

He lunged forward. Behind him, a rock crumbled. His left ankle suddenly throbbed.

Collins instinctively paddled his feet, bucking the fallen rock with his right foot. Torrents of gravel tumbled around his legs and waist. The guilty stone wedged itself deeper into a crevice near his foot.

Collins heaved forward. He heaved backward. He did not move.

The explorer tried to breathe. He was effectively blind. His head sat directly below the 10-foot pit, and the cave hugged the rest of his body like a straitjacket. His left arm was pinned under his torso, his right by the rock ceiling above. He could not reach behind or ahead, nor could he roll over. Whenever he struggled, rocks tumbled into the abyss behind him or piled onto his feet. Under him, razor-like shards dug into his skin.

With his body wrapped in this stony cocoon, Collins clawed at the cave walls. Blood seeped from his fingernails. He began to sweat—and then shiver—until exhaustion swept him to sleep. He began a tormenting routine: sleep, wake, scream; sleep, wake, scream; sleep, wake, scream. Minutes melted into hours. His voice disappeared. His arms tingled numb. Pain radiated up his ankle.

For the next 25 hours, Floyd Collins received only one visitor from the world above: trickling beads of snowmelt that slowly, methodically, dripped onto his face drop, by drop, by drop.


Cave entrance, cave

Floyd Collins might have been a farmer, but he knew from an early age that the riches of Kentucky’s land lay not in the soil but in the tunnels below it. His family’s log cabin sat four miles from Mammoth Cave, an international tourist attraction that contained a palatial system of caverns bigger than most mansions. Dozens of smaller private caves dotted the landscape. Growing up, Collins dreamed of discovering his own.

Collins began exploring Kentucky’s caves alone when he was 6. As a kid, he’d ride to the Mammoth Cave Hotel with his father, Lee, and sell tourists rocks and arrowheads he had found underground. By 10, he had dropped out of school and was scouring local caverns with a lard-fueled lantern in pursuit of Native American relics. By 12, he had memorized the turns of the nearby Great Salt Cave and was venturing off established paths, discovering moccasins, tomahawks, beads, footprints—and even the occasional body of explorers who came before him.

Floyd Collins with bones
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

In 1910, when Collins was 14, a geologist from New York paid the young explorer $2 a day to be guided around this labyrinth. For two years, the farm boy taught the geologist the rudiments of caving as the geologist taught the farm boy the rudiments of geology. Those lessons later convinced Collins that all the caves in the region were connected.

As a teen, Collins regularly squeezed through cracks that made other explorers blanch, and his reputation as Kentucky's best caver spread across the county. Locals spun wild stories about Collins diving into caverns and emerging miles away, popping his head out from an unsuspecting landowner’s hayfield like a gopher. Naturally curious, he once discovered a cave and taught himself how to play church hymns on the stalactites like a xylophone.

In 1917, Collins discovered a magnificent underground canyon with sheer vertical walls, a ceiling smooth as plaster, and a “flower garden” of white, orange, and brown gypsum formations. Convinced it could enrich his family, he named it Crystal Cave and began promoting it to tourists. Sadly, they never came: Beautiful as Crystal Cave was, it could only be reached via a tooth-shattering wagon trail that nobody dared to drive. Collins bought a taxicab to transport anxious visitors, but he was, unfortunately, a terrible driver. (Once, he literally hit the broad side of a barn.)

It didn’t help that other cave owners were busy playing dirty tricks. They regularly told tourists that Crystal Cave was closed. They blocked the road with boulders and wagons. One time, five goons demanded Collins hand over the lease to the cave—and beat him bloody when he refused. His brother Homer had to chase them off with a shotgun.

By late 1924, Collins was determined to discover a cave that could beat the competition and erase his family’s troubles. A few years earlier, a man named George Morrison had dug a new entrance into Mammoth Cave so close to Cave City, that, according to Roger W. Brucker of the Cave Research Foundation, it successfully “siphoned off one-third to one-half of Mammoth Cave’s revenue.” Collins wanted to find one even closer to town—and he knew just where to look.



On Saturday afternoon, Floyd Collins heard a voice call his name.

“Come to me,” he replied, waking from his stupor. “I’m hung up.”

Few people had worried about Collins when he didn't return home Friday night. Earlier that same week, he had spent nearly 30 hours in the cave. He had been bunking at three different homes, and when he didn't return, his host for that night simply assumed he was sleeping elsewhere. It wasn’t until late the next morning that locals realized he might be trapped.

The first person to brave the cavern, which was soon given the name "Sand Cave," was 17-year-old Jewell Estes. Lithe but inexperienced underground, Estes never reached Collins—he froze at the last squeeze—but he got close enough to call his name. Estes scurried to the surface when the trapped man yelped a response.

One by one, men attempted to reach Collins. Each emerged soaked in mud, solemnly swearing to never enter the godforsaken hole again. By mid-afternoon, dozens of locals from Cave City had gathered outside. All failed to reach the trapped man. “I wouldn’t go back in there for a cold thousand, bad as I need money,” stuttered one rescuer, Ellis Jones.

Floyd Collins's prison
Infographic by Sarah Turbin. Images: iStock

“Most Kentucky caves are dissolved out of solid limestone and are perfectly safe, whether small or large,” Roger Brucker told Mental Floss in an email. “By contrast, Sand Cave is a pile of sandstone and limestone breakdown blocks with mud fill holding the matrix together.” It was more tunnel than cave, and a loose ceiling of tumbling, crumbling rocks scared all who dared enter.

At 4 p.m., Collins’s 22-year-old brother Homer arrived from Louisville and saw dozens of men bickering outside Sand Cave. Homer ignored them, crept into the cavern still wearing his city clothes, and was greeted by the smell of cigarettes and alcohol that had been brought inside. When he stalled at the 10-foot pit above his brother’s head, he removed his pants, shirt, and shoes and slithered down in his underwear. According to Brucker and Robert K. Murray, authors of Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins, the sight made Homer shudder:

"A problem immediately confronted Homer that frustrated every subsequent rescuer. If a person came into the chute headfirst, he was forced to work upside down and was compelled upon leaving to push himself feet-first up the sharp slant and then backpedal twenty feet more before he could turn around. If he dropped in feetfirst, as Homer had just done, he could not bring the upper part of his body down to Floyd’s level without contorting himself into almost impossible positions."

Worse yet, Collins blocked his own rescue. Pinched from the chest down, his hands and feet were out of view. Homer called up to have some food brought into the cave and fed his brother by hand, pouring a pint of coffee down his throat and bringing nine sausage sandwiches to his lips. Immediately, he began trying to remove the loose rocks clamped around Collins’s body, but new rocks tumbled to take their place.

Homer emerged hours later shivering violently, skin dangling from his fingers. As he recuperated near the cave's mouth, dozens more men attempted to navigate Sand Cave. All failed. Nobody would reach Collins until Homer re-entered at midnight.

For approximately eight hours, Homer Collins white-knuckled a crowbar and hacked at the rocks clamped around his brother’s chest. The cave did not yield. By sunrise, Homer’s arms and back ached, his lungs burned, and his mind despaired. As Homer foisted himself into the dawn sunlight on February 1, he was greeted by a sea of unfamiliar faces. The smell of moonshine wafted gloomily through the damp winter air.



One genius suggested that Collins try to untie his shoes. Another suggested they send a contortionist down with a mallet and chisel. They talked about TNT and argued over cave-ins. They talked about gas torches and argued over gas poisoning. They talked about amputation and argued over blood loss.

Approximately 100 men stood outside Sand Cave drinking, squabbling, and failing to turn words into action. Floyd Collins couldn’t understand why. “Why does everybody just stay up there and talk?” he reportedly complained.

Men waiting near the entrance of Sand Cave.
Outside the entrance to Sand Cave.
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Collins seemed unaware that he was the victim of his own talent. Trapped just 60 feet below the surface at the end of a 140-foot corkscrewing tunnel, Sand Cave was, to him, an easy journey. But every man who attempted to needle through the cavern emerged pale from exhaustion and fear.

It disappointed Homer deeply. After his night shift underground, he had asked some teenage boys to deliver food and drinks to his brother, but even the teenage ego was no match for Sand Cave—the food and blankets were shamefully stuffed into cracks in the cavern walls. Grown men were just as unreliable. Countless self-professed heroes descended into the cave with food and supplies and returned with positive progress reports: Floyd is in good spirits! He’s wrapped in his new blanket! He devoured everything I brought!

All of them lied. With the exception of Homer, nobody reached Collins on February 1.

Homer would spent Sunday night removing rocks from Sand Cave. The following morning, as he dried off near a low-lying campfire, a baby-faced reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal approached him.

“I hear you are the brother of the fellow who is trapped in the cave,” the reporter said.

Homer looked the kid up and down, glared at his fancy khaki suit, and answered his questions with snorts, harrumphs, and other non-committal grunts. Finally, he gestured to Sand Cave. “If you want information, there’s the hole right over there,” Homer said. “You can go down and find out for yourself.”

Homer underestimated the kid. His name was William B. Miller, but he went by “Skeets”—a nod to his wiry mosquito-like physique—and, as a 21-year-old reporter, he earned only $25 a week and rarely received a byline for his work. Frankly, he was more interested in singing baritone than in doing his usual chore of writing police briefs. So when the editors of the Courier-Journal mentioned that a man was imprisoned in a cave 80 miles south of Louisville, Miller jumped at the opportunity to tell the story.

And he wanted that story. So when Homer challenged him, Miller removed his suit, draped himself in coveralls, and grabbed a flashlight.

A portrait of William "Skeets" Miller.
William "Skeets" Miller
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Weighing just 117 pounds, Miller slowly slinked passed the squeezes. His muscles trembled and his teeth chattered. He imagined being suffocated under a crush of rocks. He felt water pooling below him. (People above had lit campfires near the lip of the cave, causing more snowmelt to pour in.) At the last tight spot, his heart thundering like a drum, Miller called for Collins and heard somebody groan “Uh uh.” Miller closed his eyes, inhaled, and slid haplessly down the 10-foot pit.

He landed awkwardly on Collins’s head, who grumbled his annoyance. The newsman apologetically scurried back up the pit, repositioned, and carefully slid down a second time. He tried asking the trapped man questions, but Collins was incoherent. So Miller took mental notes and skedaddled. It took him half an hour to reach the surface.

The physical and psychological toil of climbing out of Sand Cave would exhaust Miller, but it would also benefit his reporting: He immediately grasped how talented and fearless a caver Collins was—and just how difficult it would be to rescue him.

And when Homer saw Miller return to the surface muddy and numb, his suspicions ceased and hopes reignited. This boy, he thought, might be useful after all.



Earlier that night, Floyd Collins had seen angels. Wrapped in cloudy white linens, the messengers rode blazing chariots and left a trail of mouthwatering fragrances in their wake: The scent of liver and onions hot off the griddle, freshly frothed cow’s milk, and steamy chicken sandwiches. These sights and smells were hallucinations—products of Collins’s own deteriorating mind—but they were more pleasant than the nightmare reality he’d endure later that evening.

Monday, February 2 marked the arrival of a second outsider: Lieutenant Robert Burdon, a lean 33-year-old Louisville firefighter who walked and talked with a tell-it-like-it-is swagger that blurred between confidence and arrogance. Like hundreds before him, Burdon came to save Floyd Collins. Unlike hundreds before him, he, like Miller, was able to crawl within reach of the trapped man.

Upon seeing Collins for the first time, Burdon gaped in astonishment. “We’ve got a helluva problem here,” he said, shaking his head, “but I think we can get you out with a rope.”

Collins consented.

Burdon then peered into the hole clasping Collins’s body and grimaced. “We might pull your foot off.”

“Pull my foot off,” the trapped man said, “but get me out.”

It’s unclear if Burdon knew that Collins had lost touch with reality earlier that day, but the firefighter returned to the surface and insisted to the crowd that Collins had approved the rope-pull idea. The crowd muttered disapprovingly. Muscling Collins out sounded medieval—it would certainly break his foot, if not amputate it—and many worried that he might bleed out. Others advised that the knife-like rocks lining the cave walls might fillet his body. A doctor in the crowd offered a second opinion and professed that a rope-pull would stretch Collins’s internal organs like taffy.

Burdon was truculent. There was no other option, he said. The locals, whose well of ideas had dried up days ago, agreed. At 5 p.m.—Hour 79—a special body harness was brought to the cave. Homer Collins, Skeets Miller, and Robert Burdon slid into the darkness with a 100-foot rope.

Homer led the way. To calm his brother’s nerves, he fed the trapped man ham sandwiches, coffee, and whiskey. Relaxed by the company of food and family, Collins confessed that he didn’t actually want to lose his foot. Homer listened patiently. Then he spooned Collins a sedative that, in Burdon’s words, was designed “to build up his vitality to stand the shock if we did pull his foot off.”

Homer strapped the harness around Collins’s chest and knotted the rope. Above, Miller crouched at the top of the pit. Burdon clutched the cord further up the cave. Several other men assisted near the cave’s mouth.

On Homer's count, the rope went taught.

Collins gasped as his body elevated from the rubble. Burdon clenched his teeth and snarled at the men to tug harder. Miller jerked the rope and the trapped man wailed. Because Collins was trapped supine in a horizontal position with his lower body wrapped by rocks and gravel, his back warped into a letter “L.” Sand Cave filled with screams.

“Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

Homer couldn’t stand it. He began pulling in the opposite direction and somehow mustered the strength to wrench the cord from the other men’s hands. The rope, like Collins’s body, lay limp on the cave floor. No progress had been made.

Homer Collins is carried out of Sand Cave.
Homer Collins is carried out of Sand Cave.
The David Jones Collection

The team decided to leave and reevaluate. Everybody was shaken by the experience. Burdon fainted as he crawled toward the exit. Most of the men had to be carried away.

Outside, a growing crowd murmured. Milling among the throng was the only person left who could liberate Floyd Collins: His boyhood friend, Johnnie Gerald.



When Johnnie Gerald first heard that Floyd Collins was stuck in a cave, he shrugged, boarded a yellow school bus, and spent his evening chaperoning the local high school boys’ basketball team. The news did not trouble him. Gerald had explored caves with Collins. He knew that if anybody could wiggle out of a jam, it was his friend.

But after two days, Gerald felt a creeping dread and visited Sand Cave. The scene—a drunken crowd of now 200 people, nearly all of whom had no caving experience—appalled him. He was especially disgusted with Lieutenant Burdon and his plan to reel in his friend like a fish. Gerald knew more about cave rescues than most people. In fact, that previous summer, he had helped untangle Collins from a snag in Crystal Cave. When the rope crew left, all eyes fell on him.

Gerald slipped into Sand Cave and was disgusted to find bottles and clothes and, in the words of the Collins family patriarch Lee, “enough sandwiches in the cave to feed the whole crowd.” When Gerald reached earshot of the trapped man, Collins’s voice leapt with joy. “Let him down here!” he hollered. “He’ll get me out.”

Gerald was a stocky man. He weaseled by the squeezes but could not fit down the 10-foot pit. For three hours, he pried rocks away. Around midnight, he managed to slink down to his friend and began removing the gravel around Collins’s body.

Gerald would spend the next six hours trying to enlarge the trap. Collins’s torso appeared, then his hips, then his upper thigh. For the first time, Collins could wiggle his right leg, though it pained him to try. (The same was true of his arms and hands.) And while Gerald was still too big to reach beyond Collins’s knees, he succeeded in removing a half-ton of rock.

Before Gerald left, Collins reportedly told him “not to let anyone come down there but [him] and [his] party.” Gerald vowed to keep his word. He was convinced that outsiders with no caving experience, sincere as their intentions might be, were going to cause a cave-in. So when a team of professional stonecutters—who had been standing in the chill for five hours waiting to volunteer—approached Gerald with a plan to survey the passageway and chisel the limestone above Floyd’s head, Gerald pointed to the road and told them to leave.

When Gerald slept, the crowd acted as his gatekeepers. Lieutenant Burdon returned Tuesday morning around 10 a.m. and pitched his rope-pulling scheme again. (The previous night, he had wired his fire department and requested a fire hose hoist. “I thought that if I could get it down in the passage and get it working, I was sure that something was coming out, if it was Collins, minus a foot,” Burdon later told the Courier-Journal.) This time, the crowd assaulted him with obscenities. With Gerald in charge, Burdon’s authority was neutered.

This had consequences. Burdon might have been bellicose, but he was also a capable rescuer. Gerald and Homer Collins were incapacitated from exhaustion. “Skeets” Miller had stories to file. And nobody else in the crowd could lead a competent rescue. So as Burdon grumbled at the tipsy crowd outside the cave, Collins spent the morning of Tuesday, February 3, alone in a dark hole under their feet.

As he waited, newspapers plopped on doorsteps across the country. By the time most Americans finished sipping their coffee, Floyd Collins would be a household name.


HOUR 103

The morning of February 3, the AP newswire picked up “Skeets” Miller’s reports from Sand Cave and distributed it to hundreds of member newspapers. For a young unknown reporter, it should have been a banner day. Instead, Miller spent it planning a rescue mission.

At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Miller descended into Sand Cave. His plan: A chain of a dozen men would pass food, equipment, and rocks up and down the passageway. When their hands weren’t full, they’d reinforce the cave walls with boards. Like Homer Collins and Johnnie Gerald before him, Miller would attempt to remove the loose debris clamped around Collins’s body.

But there was one vital difference: Miller was small. Thanks to Homer and Gerald, the hole around Collins’s torso had about 5 inches of clearance. Miller still could not poke his head in, but he could prop his legs past Collins’s head and wiggle hip-deep into the tomb. From this awkward position, he could paw past Collins’s knee.

Earlier that day, the team had strung light bulbs through the cavern, and an orange glow now warmed the cubby hole. Over the next two hours, Miller passed up buckets of dirt and rocks. Eventually, he took a break and asked for some milk and whiskey to be passed down. As Miller fed the trapped man, Collins began to spill his heart out.

“I believe I would go to Heaven,” he said, “but I can feel that I am to be taken out alive and—with both of my feet.”

The next morning, the ensuing transcript would appear in another AP dispatch:

Monday was the first day when strangers came back to me. I kept working around, whenever I felt strong enough, thinking I could twist myself free. But each time I could hear pebbles falling into the deep hole right behind me. It caused me to shudder. I kept thinking what would happen if the rock above me would fall. I kept trying to drive my mind to something else, but it wasn’t much use … I couldn’t do much to help those who came to help me, but I knew a lot of people were willing to do all in their power. This gave me courage.


“Tuesday morning,” I thought to myself. “Four days down here and no nearer to freedom than I was the first day. How will it end? Will I get out or—” I couldn’t think of it. I have faced death before. It doesn’t frighten me. But it is so long. Oh God be merciful!


I want you to tell everybody outside that I love every one of them and I’m happy because so many are trying to help me. Tell them I am not going to give up: That I am going to fight and be patient and never forget them. You go out now, but don’t leave me too long. I want you with me and I’ll keep helping all I can to move some of this rock.”

Thanks to this interview, the Floyd Collins story transformed from a marginal curiosity to a nationwide event. From Los Angeles to New York, front-page headlines described the Kentucky man’s plight in sensational detail, using giant typefaces usually reserved for declarations of war.

An illustration of newspaper headlines about the Floyd Collins rescue.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Had “Skeets” Miller never reached Floyd Collins, readers might have treated his story the same way they treated every other tragedy—as an abstraction. But they couldn’t. This interview peeled back Collins’s humanity and revealed a man with worries, courage, hope, and fear. “His patience during long hours of agony, his constant hope when life seem nearing an end, is enough to strengthen the heart of anyone,” Miller wrote.

“Amplifying this was Miller’s reporting of his OWN feelings of fear, horror, and determination to rescue this human being," Brucker says. "Reporters are not supposed to report their own feelings, but Miller did." In other words, Miller gave readers somebody to root for. “[E]verybody KNEW Floyd Collins when Skeets Miller told the story. You pray and cry and chew your fingernails for a friend like that!”

Admittedly, the story was also delicious gossip. Floyd Collins’s entrapment was the sort of national event that ignited debates across the bars, streetcars, barbershops, and dinner tables of America; it was the kind of story that allowed readers to bask in the righteous glow of their own opinions: If I were in charge, I would have done THIS!

In New York City, pedestrians crowded around department store windows to read the latest bulletins. Playhouses interrupted scenes to update audiences. In the nation’s capitol, President Coolidge and his Secretary of Commerce, the geologist Herbert Hoover, followed the story closely. Congress managed the feat of becoming more unproductive than usual. “[L]eaving the raging debates on the floor, Senators and Representative pause to ask about the latest news from Cave City,” Ulric Bell reported for the Courier-Journal. An opinion piece in the same paper called the situation “the most gripping story of a Kentucky event since the assassination of Gov. William Goebel.” That had been 25 years earlier.

At one point, Collins received a proposal from a Chicago booking office offering him $350 a week to star in a vaudeville show. His father, Lee, griped he wasn't sure if that "that boy of mine will take the offer seriously.”

The one person immune to all of this hysteria, it seems, was the person who created it—"Skeets" Miller. On Monday morning, he had come to Cave City to tell a story. By Tuesday night, he was resolved to end it.


HOUR 108

“I believe we can get to him,” Miller told his readers. “I believe we can save him yet. I know it.”

Just hours after his life-changing interview, Miller and his human chain were back in Sand Cave. The reporter planned to crawl feet-first on top of Collins, wedge a crowbar against the rock, and use a jack to lift the stone off Collins’s foot.

It did not go exactly as planned. The team couldn't find an appropriately-sized jack. Miller settled on an undersized instrument and resorted to piling wood blocks against the cave ceiling, grasping the blocks with one hand while wrenching the jack with the other.

Shortly before midnight, Miller began his rescue attempt. The tool expanded. The crowbar clenched. Then it listed to its side and slipped loose. Miller immediately learned that performing this activity in such an awkward position caused tremendous pain in his abdominals, back, neck, wrist, fingers, and forearms. He resolved to ignore the pain until his muscles gave out.

When the next attempt suffered a similar fate, Miller tried a new angle. He clenched the loose wood blocks and twisted the wrench. The jack pressed into the crowbar. The tension increased. The rock lurched. Collins looked back and saw the stone tremble.

“Keep turning, fella!” He yelled. “It’s comin’ off!”

Lieutenant Burdon, who had joined the human chain, recalled, “I never heard anything so glad in my life as when he told 'Fellow,' as he called Skeets, that the rock was coming off his foot.”

Miller stared intensely at the rock. With each turn, the stone shifted. His body rushed with adrenaline. His fingers trembled. His back screamed. Rivulets of sweat burned his eyes. His heartbeat sped as one of the wood blocks began to slip and the sandwich of blocks began to teeter sideways. Suddenly, the rock settled back to its place on top of Collins’ foot.

Miller would try again. And again. And again. He added wood blocks. He removed wood blocks. He repositioned the crow bar. He used every crevice, cranny, and angle to secure a stable hold. The trapped man offered encouragement the whole way. “You can do it, fella,” he said. “I believe in you, fella.”

The one thing Collins could not offer—and what Miller truly needed—was a third hand. Around 1 a.m., he collapsed from exhaustion. The rock had not moved. “We all felt like sitting down right there and crying,” recalled Burdon. “It was awful.”

Before leaving, Miller adjusted Collins’s covers and looped a light bulb around his neck for warmth. When he crawled out of Sand Cave, his hands purple and bruised, he saw dozens of soldiers standing on the bluff over the cavern. The National Guard had arrived.


HOUR 112

“Cave City is ‘Skeets crazy,” the Courier-Journal crowed the next day. “In fact, if Cave City were a kingdom, ‘Skeets’ could be the reigning monarch, without the slightest hint of revolt among his loyal subjects.”

Nearly everybody at Sand Cave would shower Miller with praise for his bravery. “Skeets Miller is one of the nerviest boys I ever saw,” Burdon said. “He not only deserves all the credit he has been given, but a whole lot more.” In the words of one fellow reporter: “The kid’s heart is really bigger than his shirt.” Whenever Miller left his hotel, tourists swarmed him to hear the latest. Soon, an informal bodyguard had to accompany him around Cave City.

But as Miller recuperated Wednesday morning, a new figure took command: Henry Carmichael.

Carmichael, the General Superintendent of the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company, had been at the site since Tuesday, and he was appalled at how primitive the rescue attempts had been. Days earlier, he had sent men to help shore the cave with wood boards. At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, shortly after Miller’s failed jack attempt, Carmichael sent two men into Sand Cave to assess the structure's stability.

Cave map
Infographic by Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock

Of all the people who crawled into Sand Cave that week, these men likely had the easiest time traveling the first 100 feet. The opening of the cave was wider than ever thanks to the removal efforts of the human chain, and new wood shoring kept the entrance stable. But as they descended deeper, the wood supports disappeared and the cave tightened more than usual.

Generally, the caves of Kentucky are remarkably stable. The rocks neither expand nor contract because the caverns maintain a constant temperature of 54 degrees. Not so in Sand Cave. The campfire snowmelt pouring into the tunnel and the presence of the human chain had caused the temperature and moisture content to fluctuate. Near the final squeeze, large cracks had formed. The ceiling was beginning to droop.

One of the volunteers saw this and felt woozy. He heard Collins moaning ahead, but he also heard the slow rumble of sliding rocks, and he insisted on turning around. The second volunteer, named Casey Jones, heard the same sounds but trudged onward. He arrived at the 10-foot pit, looked down at the trapped man, and tried to ignore the pebbles crashing behind him.

Miller once wrote that, “A minute seems an hour in there,” and it appears that’s what happened in the mind of Casey Jones. He’d later claim that he was near Floyd Collins for nearly two hours, but reports from the surface say it was just 15 minutes. What happened, exactly, is hazy. In their book Trapped!, Murray and Brucker attempt to reconstruct it.

As Murray and Brucker tell it, Collins begged Jones to come down. Every moral instinct told Jones to help. But every mortal instinct told him to turn around.

Self preservation won out at first. “Can’t now, Floyd,” Jones said. “But I will when I come back.”

Behind him, Jones's partner begged to leave. Below him, Collins plead for company. “I’m thirsty,” he said.

Jones took the bait. He slid headfirst into the pit and hastily ladled Collins some coffee. But the trapped man, apparently still disheartened from the failed jack attempt, rejected it. With the rumbling intensifying above, it dawned on Jones that Collins wasn’t actually thirsty—he was lonely.

A voice cried from above. “For God’s sake, Jones come on! Come out! You’ll get us killed!”

Jones looked into Collins’s eyes, set the coffee down, and pulled himself out of the pit. He wiggled underneath the sagging ceiling and crawled toward a space that allowed him to look behind. He was terrified to see the passage closing like a vice.

Hours earlier, the bulb wrapped around Collins’ neck had illuminated this part of the cave like a beacon. But around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, February 4—Hour 114—the walls clamped and Sand Cave, once again, went dark. Collins’s sobs could be heard muffled behind the rocks.

“Stay with me," he cried. "Oh please don’t leave.”


HOUR 118

Miller and Lieutenant Burdon woke Wednesday morning confident they could save Collins that day. Miller planned to use an acetylene torch to burn away two rocks that had previously blocked his way. After that, jacking the rock would be much easier. He did not hear about the breakdown until he reached Sand Cave.

Miller was incredulous. But when he dove into Sand Cave and faced a pile-up of orange-gray rocks, his heart dropped. He attempted to move some of the stones, but each adjustment led more rocks to tumble. A large chunk of clay crashed onto his feet. “I managed to slide back over it,” Miller wrote, “but it frightened me.” When he returned to the surface, his nose was bleeding.

“He wouldn’t tell me what was the matter,” Burdon recalled, “but told me for God’s sake not to go back in there and to see that Homer Collins didn’t go in again.”

He needn’t worry about Homer, who was sidelined by a cough. He did, however, need to worry about Johnnie Gerald. Collins’s friend was infuriated. Gerald had warned everybody that putting dozens of people into Sand Cave would cause a collapse. Much of Wednesday would be wasted as grown men screamed over how to handle the cave-in.

A group of men bickering.
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

By the evening, under Carmichael’s orders, Gerald assembled a small crew and delivered an ultimatum: “There’s death down there,” he said. “The walls and ceiling are crumbling. Unless you are determined to take the biggest chance you ever took in your life, tell me now and stay outside.”

Over the next eight hours, Gerald would enter and leave Sand Cave at least five times. In the woods, men sawed trees and chopped logs to shore the cave walls. Underground, Gerald’s crew reinforced cracks and wobbling boulders with fresh strips of wood. Gerald assessed that about four barrels of rocks would need to be moved.

The first time Gerald descended, Collins could hear his friend crawling toward the pit and asked him to bring down a cheese sandwich. When Gerald explained that there had been a breakdown, the trapped man began to cry.

Motivated by the muffled sobs of his friend, Gerald surgically removed the fallen rocks. Within hours, a pillar of light was piercing the pile—the bulb around Collins’s neck illuminating the way. Soon, there was enough room to squeeze through. Gerald returned to the surface to gather equipment and told the men huddled outside that Collins would be joining them in an hour.


HOUR 132

At 10:30 p.m. on February 4, Johnnie Gerald entered Sand Cave for his final time. He hunched past the newly shored walls, ferreted around the first squeeze, and crawled through the mud toward the breakdown. As he lurched downward, Gerald focused on his plan: He’d squirm past the rockfall and feed his friend. Then he’d use a grease gun to coat the rocks around Collins’s leg with Vaseline.

But as Gerald approached the cave-in, he gasped. Light no longer twinkled through the stones. The cave ceiling had crumbled again.

Laying on his hands and knees—frozen by shock and despair—Gerald stared motionless at the pile for more than 15 minutes. It’s difficult to imagine what spun through his mind as he tried to process what this meant for his friend. He began to yell.


Suddenly, a rock tumbled onto Gerald’s head. He rubbed his scalp and called out again. “Floyd!”

This time, a moan rumbled from the other side.


“I’ve done gone home and gone to bed,” Collins mumbled.

Fearing that his friend was slipping out of consciousness, Gerald willed himself to clear the passage. He ignored the pain pulsating through his skull and began clawing at the stones before him.

Then a sharp, heavy rock dropped from the ceiling and landed squarely on his back.

No more than 15 minutes later, Johnnie Gerald returned to the surface and said: “I would not go back in that derned place if they’d deed me the State of Kentucky.”


HOUR 142

“We’ve ended all hope of reaching Collins by the easier method—through the cave’s mouth,” Lieutenant General H. H. Denhardt bellowed [PDF] to the engineers and miners assembled outside Sand Cave. “It is now up to you men to drill through the ground directly to Collins’s side. Spare no expense. The pursestrings of Kentucky are open. Ask what you want.”

On Thursday, February 5, the state assumed control of the Collins rescue. Lieutenant General Denhardt, a pugnacious man who reportedly told Homer that it would take “men with brains” to get Collins out, was placed in charge. His first directive was to ban everybody from entering Sand Cave. His second order: Dig a shaft.

Denhardt asked Henry Carmichael to lead the dig. Carmichael enlisted his employees from the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company and received volunteers from a handful of other organizations: The Louisville & Nashville Railroad, The Southern Signal Company, the U.S. Mines Rescue Team, engineers from the State Highway Commission, and representatives sent directly from the Governor of Kentucky. Local townspeople were mostly excluded.

This stirred palpable resentment. When a geology professor visited the cave to assess the best place to dig, locals groused that he had picked the wrong spot. They complained as trees were felled and rocks were removed to clear away a dumping site. They complained as officials waited for equipment to arrive. They complained that digging a shaft would take too long. Homer resented the fact that “the chief exponents of the shaft were mostly men who had not been down to Floyd.”

Men digging a shaft—which is covered by a tarp—to Collins.
Tarps were placed over the shaft to protect it from the rain.
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Even Miller, once a sunbeam of optimism, despaired. “[A] few hours ago, an undaunted man lived on his faith and hope,” he wrote. “Through the hours of agony he kept his eyes on an imaginary ray of light, but the light is dark forever.”

(Other reporters, however, saw the general’s arrival more positively. “For the first time since Collins had been trapped, work was going ahead in a systematic manner,” wrote an anonymous colleague. “Everybody around the entrance of the cave seemed to have something to do and was doing it in the most expedient manner.”)

Yet tests soon proved what the locals already knew—that all of this fancy heavy machinery was useless. The cave inhaled exhaust from the gas-powered engines; the fumes would kill the trapped man. The engineers and miners, who had wasted hours assembling a heap of state-of-the-art equipment, realized they’d have to dig a 55-foot shaft with picks and shovels.

At Hour 146 on Thursday, the first ounces of earth were moved. Carmichael, who had no knowledge of caves but placed his faith in his quarrying experience, estimated that his team of 75 volunteers could dredge up 2 feet of soil per hour. If they worked around the clock, they would be digging a lateral tunnel into Sand Cave within 30 hours.

The first ton of dirt and clay was moved easily. To maintain efficiency, Carmichael closely monitored his workers and yanked them from duty the instant their progress dragged. But by evening, their pace was already lagging. At 10 feet, the shaft narrowed. Only two men could work at a time. At 15 feet, shovels thumped against boulders. A system of pulleys and buckets was assembled. Mules hoisted rocks out. Railroad tracks were laid to ferry refuse to the dump site.

The sun set and rose. On an unusually warm Friday, melted groundwater seeped into the shaft and softened the walls into a crumbling morass. The pace of digging fell to a wimpy 6 inches per hour. Carmichael’s 30-hour timetable passed unceremoniously with the shaft just 17 feet deep.

Locals watched helplessly from the wings. Collins’s father Lee paced, limped, and prayed. Lieutenant Burdon, worried that the trapped man was dying of hypothermia, earned permission to use a 75-foot hose to blast warm air into the cavern, a decision that made Johnnie Gerald erupt. He accosted Carmichael and essentially accused him of murder. General Denhardt responded by banning Gerald from the rescue site and directed the National Guard to escort him away. This inflamed the locals further, who chattered about chasing the troops with their varmint guns. Talk of an armed insurrection, however, eventually cooled into resigned grumbling.

By the time Gerald returned home, cars with unfamiliar license plates were clogging the roads. A wave of humanity was careening toward Cave City that these parts of Kentucky had never seen.


HOUR 215

Over the previous week, reporters, photographers, sketch artists, telegraph operators, radio operators, and other members of the media had stormed Cave City. Miller’s reporting appeared in more than 1200 newspapers across the country. Silent film crews captured footage. Most notably, radio operators posted regular bulletins from the site.

“The Floyd Collins story was one of the very first stories that started being broadcast by radio,” Jackie Wheet, a park ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park, says. “Instead of newspapers gradually trickling from city to city, people were instantly hearing about it. And it stirred people up more than normal.”

In 1925, radio was a relative novelty—the first commercial station was not yet five years old—but news of Collins’s entrapment revealed the power of this new form of media. Broadcasting information in real-time, radio reports helped draw more than 400 automobiles to Sand Cave by Friday. By Sunday, the number of cars increased tenfold.

At least 10,000 people visited Cave City (pop. 690). For two miles, a centipede of vehicles clogged the road leading to Sand Cave. Pastures transformed into mud parking lots. Cash nearly evaporated from banks. Restaurants ran out of food. Homes converted into temporary hotels. Accommodations became so limited that visitors paid luxury rates to nap in bathtubs.

The scene resembled a carnival. Vendors hawked hot dogs, hamburgers, and tawdry knickknacks. Dainty families stretched blankets on the grass and held picnics. Snake oil salesmen sold miracle potions. Moonshiners peddled white lightning. Scattered religious groups sang hymns and whispered prayers. Pickpockets waited for the faithful to close their eyes. As Reverend James Hamilton delivered a sermon to 5000 people, con artists roamed the crowd asking for “donations” to aid the work crew. A juggler appeared.

People gather near Sand Cave on what came to be called "Carnival Sunday."
From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

In his dispatch to the Courier-Journal, Miller spun the festivities positively. “If Floyd Collins could have looked from his underground prison today he would have seen thousands of strangers trying bravely to get a ringside seat in the fight being made to save him.” It’s true. Approximately 2000 people huddled around a barbed wire fence circling the rescue site. But most of these tourists—much like the smaller crowds that had assembled outside Sand Cave since Collins’s entrapment—did not come to help. They came to see Floyd Collins pulled worm-like from the earth, dead or alive.

As darkness fell, it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. By 5 p.m., the funhouse atmosphere dissipated. Most visitors left without ever attempting to approach the cave.

As able-bodied men gripped steering wheels and puttered out of Cave City, volunteers at the shaft wiped away sweat and applied bandages to blistered hands. As families left Cave City smiling about newly-made memories, a grieving family paced the muddy woods dreaming of a day when they could escape a living nightmare. As the sun set and horns honked, a celebrity nobody knew lay underground in lonely silence, a fading light bulb as his only memento from the surface.

Above him, children clutched blue balloons. These, too, were mementos—each stamped with the words SAND CAVE.


HOUR 228

Under a ceaseless gray drizzle, mud oozed languidly down the walls of the excavation site. A large white tarpaulin hung above the shaft and gutters ringed its edges, but it didn't stop pools of frigid water from soaking the ankles of men working at the bottom. Above, generators rumbled as pumps slurped water.

As Sunday waned, rainclouds swarmed. The shaft carved 25 feet deep—still not halfway to its goal—and descended at a vexing rate of 4 inches per hour. Earlier that day, Carmichael resorted to dynamite, but the explosives barely chipped the boulders blocking the way.

But morale was steady. Among the throng of Sunday gawkers, flappers, and picnickers were dozens of volunteer reinforcements. Some were calloused engineers and miners. Many were not. Ten students from the Western Kentucky Normal High School, a handful of them football players, would arrive that week with excuses from class. (“Six hundred other students stand ready to come if additional aid is needed,” a school spokesman said.) Even the trusty Brotherhood of Hobos sent aid. One drifter lifted spirits by wailing on his harmonica.

The scale of the operation was impressive. “It would surprise Floyd Collins if he could see the electric lights, where before he has seen only stars,” Miller wrote. “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.”

Some of these volunteers believed Collins was still alive. A radio amplifier had been jerry-rigged to the wire that connected Collins's light bulb. (A scientist believed the amplifier could detect vibrations whenever Collins moved.) Indeed, the amplifier crackled 20 times every minute, a hopeful sign that Collins might be breathing.

Men testing a radio.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But the attitude at the rescue site did not reflect the progress, which was woefully stagnant. Boulders tilted from the shaft’s slimy clay walls and teetered against the timber shoring. Carmichael worried these rocks might crush his workers and suspended the dig for eight hours as the walls were secured.

Monday and Tuesday passed. On Wednesday, February 11—Hour 288—rain showers hardened into snow flurries. Fingers and mud froze. When temperatures rebounded, the shaft walls moldered again, and new tests showed that Collins’s light had winked out. The shaft plumbed 44 feet.

As old dramas replayed in the shaft, new dramas unfolded above ground. On "Carnival Sunday," Lee Collins had been seen begging visitors for donations, a sight that sparked the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Cynics claimed that Floyd Collins wasn’t trapped at all. Rather, the family, the newspapers, the railroad, and Cave City were staging a money-grabbing hoax. Many newspapers, which were running out of things to say, reported on these rumors. Some conspiracy theorists went so far to attempt discrediting the rescue by sending telegrams from "Floyd." Take this message from Kansas.


These theories were easy to dismiss. New accusations of criminal negligence, however, were not. One rumor suggested that the Collins family, intoxicated by publicity, were deliberately delaying Collins’s rescue. Others charged that Johnnie Gerald had intentionally blocked rescuers from entering Sand Cave because he worked in real estate and had a financial interest in Crystal Cave—and therefore an interest in Collins’s demise. A resentful Robert Burdon told papers that Johnnie Gerald was “guilty of nothing short of murder.”

These accusations could not be ignored. Cajoled by the Governor of Kentucky, General Denhardt convened a military court of inquiry. For the entire week leading up to Valentine's Day, as Floyd Collins lay squeezed in a catacomb below, a panel of military brass interrogated dozens of rescuers and witnesses: Homer Collins, "Skeets" Miller, Johnnie Gerald, Robert Burdon, and more. (Their testimonies, as well as Miller’s reports, were important primary sources for this story.)

The inquiry showed that Gerald did indeed reject help. But so had Burdon, Carmichael, and Denhardt. They were not hungry for publicity, but starved of trust. Each rescue team believed that the competing rescuers were incompetent. Which was partly true: The people with knowledge of caves lacked organizational skills; the people with organizational skills lacked knowledge of caves. The resulting tension—a cocktail of mistrust, pride, and exhaustion—caused the rescue to sputter from the start.

On Valentine's Day—Hour 360—the court concluded that no foul play had been involved. By that point, 55 feet of dirt and rock had been excavated. Carmichael gave the order to burrow sideways into Sand Cave.


HOUR 411

Seventeen days trapped underground. Twelve without food or water. Four without heat-giving light. While the odds were not in Floyd Collins’s favor, rescuers held out hope that he was alive. Newspapers circulated old stories of miners who’d survived underground for longer periods of time. Churches sent donations to the rescue workers and readers mailed letters of encouragement. One Chicago fortune-teller sent sketches of coffee grounds that had settled at the bottom of her mug. They formed the shaped of a heart—proof, she said, that Collins was alive.

Reporters pressed against the barbed wire fence surrounding Sand Cave. More than two dozens telegraph operators stood by. Seven airplanes idled in a pasture, waiting to transport photographic negatives to distant newsrooms. At 1:30 p.m. on Monday February 16, a chisel penetrated Sand Cave.

Workers frantically tugged at rocks to widen the hole. Finally, a rescuer named Ed Brenner flashed his light into the gloom and, upon confirming that they had broken through the 10-foot pit, gripped a shoring board and eased into the cave.

According to Miller, “For the next five minutes those remaining in the shaft proper watched that hole without blinking." Inside, Brenner aimed his light toward the trapped man and watched the cave sparkle. Cave crickets scurried. He trained his eye on the glimmer and saw the source. Collins had a gold tooth—it was shimmering in the light. It did not move.

Brenner hollered to be helped out and shook his head: “Dead.”

The coroner would later claim that Collins had been dead for approximately three days. If accurate, Collins died shortly after his lonely light bulb, his last link to the world above, had darkened.


Cave entrance, cave

The following morning, officials decided to keep Floyd Collins entombed between the limestone jaws of Sand Cave. With the shaft walls buckling, wrestling the body out was too dangerous. “It seems that earth, using the corpse as a bait, is waiting to crush anyone daring enough to venture in,” Miller wrote.

On Tuesday, February 17, motion picture cameras captured the weary Collins family as it said goodbye to their son and brother. A choir sang "Nearer, My God, To Thee"—the same hymn Collins loved playing on his old stalactite xylophone. Cave City soon emptied, soil filled the shaft, and the name of Floyd Collins, which had monopolized front pages for two weeks—unprecedented coverage for a non-political event in the United States media—faded.

Contrary to rumors, the Collins family returned to farm life no richer. After the National Guard packed up, locals saw old man Lee scouring the rescue site for glass bottles. Meanwhile, the owner of Sand Cave, Bee Doyle, erected a sign on the highway.


For 50 cents, curious visitors could stare at the gaping hole that swallowed a man Doyle had once called friend.

Hundreds of rescuers returned home without any compensation. A handful lucked into vaudeville contracts and toured theaters across the country, tantalizing audiences with heroic first-person accounts. For his efforts, William “Skeets” Miller received an offer of $50,000 from the Chautauqua lecture circuit. He turned it down. Instead, he returned to his job reporting for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The next year, his coverage of the Collins tragedy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in reporting.

Workers pray over the exhumed body of Floyd Collins.
Workers pray over the exhumed body of Floyd Collins.
The Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Homer Collins toured vaudeville stages for eight months, regaling crowds with stories of his brother’s childhood. The performances, however, were not for personal gain. Ever since his brother was declared dead, Homer vowed to get him out. “I kept thinking of Floyd lying in the muck where he had suffered beyond our power to imagine,” he wrote. “I would never have peace of mind if he remained there.” Homer used the profits to retrieve his brother’s body: On April 17, seven miners re-dug the shaft and penetrated Sand Cave—this time behind Collins’s corpse—and removed the rock pinning his leg. It weighed just 27 pounds.

On April 26, 1925, Collins was lowered into a grave in the family cemetery. A stalagmite headstone marked his plot.

He did not rest there long.

In 1927, a struggling Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave to a dentist named Dr. Harry B. Thomas. Times had been tough. Tourism plummeted after Collins died—the same publicity that had lured unimagined numbers to the Kentucky cave region convinced thousands more to avoid it—and as profits shrunk, the sleazy tricks of local cave owners intensified. Numerous cave explorers followed Floyd Collins’s path as they sought out “the next big cave.”

The federal government noticed. Shortly after Collins died, Congress authorized a prior motion to convert Mammoth Cave into a National Park. “The government realized that as locals continued trying to discover more caves that could compete with Mammoth Cave, you’re going to have to make more rescues,” Jackie Wheet, a national park ranger, says. One solution was to purchase the land and control who went underground. “In my opinion, the Floyd Collins tragedy was a huge catalyst in making Mammoth Cave a National Park.”

Unfortunately, Lee Collins would sell his stake in Crystal Cave before Washington began aggressively purchasing land. And in his deal with Dr. Thomas, he agreed to a morbid clause: that his son's body could be exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered coffin inside the cavern. In return, Lee earned $10,000.

The gimmick would work. To the horror of the rest of the Collins family, visitors flocked to Crystal Cave to view the embalmed body of “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.” In 1929, grave robbers stole Collins’s corpse and attempted to chuck him into Kentucky's Green River, but the body got tangled in a bush. Dr. Thomas recovered the remains and locked a chain around the coffin.

The coffin of Floyd Collins rests in the Grand Canyon of Crystal Cave.
The coffin of Floyd Collins rests in the Grand Canyon of Crystal Cave.
The Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Thirty-two years later, in 1961, the U.S. government finally purchased Crystal Cave—with Collins still inside—and eventually closed public access to the cavern. In 1989, the body was re-interred in a Baptist cemetery.

By that time, 64 years after his death, many of Collins’s beliefs about the Kentucky cave region had been vindicated. Crystal Cave was valued at the life-changing amount he believed it deserved. The National Park had bought it for $285,000—more than $2 million today. Professional cavers also confirmed Collins’s hunch that the caves in the region were, in fact, connected. With 405 miles of passageways, the Mammoth Cave system is now the world’s longest.

One cave, however, remains isolated.


Cave entrance, cave

Near the sign welcoming visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park is a short and pleasant wooden boardwalk that gently curves under a canopy of oak trees. The woods are quiet and the path is often empty. Whitetail deer nibble at plants feet away. An overlook gazes upon a sinkhole ringed by a conspicuous lip of crescent-shaped rock. Moss and lichen dangle from the ledges. Below looms the dark chamber of Sand Cave.

“Sand Cave is still separate,” Ranger Wheet says. “It has never been connected to the rest of Mammoth Cave.”

In 1977, Roger Brucker went into Sand Cave. “It was the scariest cave I have ever been in,” he says. His crew found some bottles and cans, pieces of wood shoring, a steel poker, fragments of an army blanket, and a pair of electric wires. A few years later, the cave entrance was permanently sealed with a steel gate, bolted and welded shut.

The entrance of Sand Cave today.
The entrance to Sand Cave today
Nicholas Frost, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, hundreds of professional cavers continue to explore the 400-plus-mile Mammoth system. To this day, they still stumble upon evidence of Floyd Collins's famous early cave explorations, sometimes finding the letters “FC” scratched into rocks. “[Collins] was doing all of this decades before us with a rope and some bean cans,” Wheet says, “and here we are with all of our fancy gear today, just rediscovering what this guy was doing with very primitive gear.” So far, these explorers have discovered tunnels wriggling below Sand Cave but have failed to find a passage connecting it.

They probably never will. Geologically, it’s likely that Sand Cave is connected to the rest of the Mammoth Cave system. But the truth is, after what happened here in 1925, nobody is determined to search for the missing link. Once upon a time, there lived a man fearless and talented enough to find it—that man, sadly, is gone.

Interested in learning more about the Floyd Collins tragedy? Mental Floss recommends Roger W. Brucker and Robert K. Murray's excellent book Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins and the visually stunning book The Floyd Collins Tragedy At Sand Cave, part of the Images of America series. Fans of theatre should seek out performances of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Obie-winning musical, Floyd Collins.

Jean van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
The Enduring Mystery of the Ghent Altarpiece, the World's Most-Stolen Painting
The Ghent Altarpiece open
The Ghent Altarpiece open
Jean van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Oscar van Bouchaute watched nervously as hundreds of strangers trampled over the crime scene inside Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

Earlier that day, on the morning of April 11, 1934, van Bouchaute—a church steward—had stepped off the cobblestoned streets of Ghent, Belgium, and into the cathedral to begin his daily rounds. He lit candles, rang the bells, and unlocked doors to prepare for the morning service. He was surprised, however, to find that one parishioner had already made her way inside the church. Somebody, he realized, had left a door open overnight.

According to a contemporary report in the newspaper Het Volk, van Bouchaute panicked and hurried to the cathedral’s sacristy, where the church’s jewels and articles of worship were kept. He counted each precious item and sighed with relief when he realized nothing had been stolen. False alarm, he thought.

He carried on with his duties. At around 7 a.m., he stepped into the cathedral’s Joos Vijd Chapel, home to The Ghent Altarpiece, a 12-panel painting that was widely considered Belgium’s national treasure. A giant shroud was draped over the artwork, protecting it from light and dust. Van Bouchaute began to diligently set up a table of tickets, postcards, and photos for the oncoming wave of art-loving tourists. Then he lifted the drape over the artwork and felt his heart drop.

Two panels—one depicting Saint John the Baptist, another depicting an equestrian scene called The Just Judges—were missing.

Within hours, news of the theft had leaked, and the chapel teemed with members of the public. One journalist estimated that 1500 people showed up. As gossip-fueled whispers bounced off the cathedral walls, church officials watched helplessly as strangers poked and prodded the scene of the crime.

The police did little to stop them. They did not clear the crowd out of the chapel or seal the premises. They did not photograph the crime scene. They did not look for fingerprints or footprints. Instead, when the crowd got too big, Commissaire Antoine Luysterborgh and four other investigators abandoned the chapel entirely. They decided to visit the scene of a different robbery: A nearby cheese shop.

When federal authorities arrived shortly after, they were no more helpful, and their police report equated to little more than a shrug. Three weeks passed with no progress made on the case.

Then Ghent’s bishop, Honoré Jozef Coppieters, received a green envelope in the mail. The writer of the letter inside claimed to have the two paintings—and he wanted a million francs for them.


The lack of interest by the authorities was notable considering that The Ghent Altarpiece is arguably the most coveted painting ever made. Started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, the painting—which also goes by the name Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—has attracted religious pilgrims and art aficionados since the day it was revealed six centuries ago. It has since been stolen, censored, nearly burned, smuggled, and sold countless times.

The Altarpiece’s allure is partly rooted in its size and religious imagery. Originally consisting of 12 panels, the painting sits inside a nearly 12-foot-high hinged framework larger than a garage door. When the gates are closed, the exterior panels depict portraits of the painting’s donors, as well as Old Testament prophets and grisaille (gray-scaled) depictions of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Near the top, the angel Gabriel delivers news to the Virgin Mary that she will bear a son, an event called The Annunciation.

When the gates of the Altarpiece are opened, viewers are greeted by a sunburst of color. On the wings, Adam and Eve, frail and unidealized, stand nude. Clusters of angels sing and play instruments. At the top, God sits on a throne flanked by Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Below, a field of saints, martyrs, clergy, and hermits assemble in a pasture. A group of judges and knights sit on horseback. All are making a pilgrimage toward the painting’s centerpiece: a lamb standing on an altar. Blood gushes from its chest into a chalice. Below its feet, a stream trickles from the Fountain of Life and flows toward the viewer.

The Ghent Altarpiece was the first major artwork to utilize oil-based paint, a medium that allowed for unprecedented clarity and vivid coloring. Erwin Panofsky, a 20th century art historian, famously said that van Eyck’s eye functioned “as a microscope and as a telescope at the same time.” His attention to tiny details in faraway objects has been interpreted to symbolize the all-seeing vision of God.

“Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail,” art critic Noah Charney writes in his book Stealing the Mystic Lamb. “Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers.”

"Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)" by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)
Jan van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The painting’s uniqueness, however, has invited threats that have made it one the world’s more well-traveled pieces of art. In 1566, Calvinist militants rebelling against Catholic idolatry rammed a tree trunk through the doors of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and attempted to burn the Altarpiece. Guards ferried the painting up to the church tower before the mob arrived. For the next 18 years, the painting was protected in a fortified town hall.

In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed Belgium, censored the panels depicting the naked Adam and Eve, which were replaced with copies covering the couple in bearskin cloths. Then came the French Revolution. During the tumult of those years, France conquered Belgium. The invading French confiscated fine art—symbols of the ruling classes—and sent the central panels of the Altarpiece to the Louvre, which had recently been transformed into a public museum. In 1815, the original panels returned to Ghent after Louis XVIII assumed the throne.

They didn’t stay there long. The following year, six of the panels were stolen again, this time by Saint Bavo’s own vicar-general. The panels traveled down a chain of salesmen and eventually landed in the hands of a Berlin-based art collector, who gave them to the Prussian Kingdom, the forerunner of modern Germany. A few decades later, in Ghent, the bawdy depictions of Adam and Eve were sold to a museum.

At the outbreak of World War I, Germany attempted to reunite the whole painting by stealing the remaining panels from Ghent. They failed thanks to the heroics of a church custodian who hid the panels between the walls and floorboards of the bishop’s residence. In 1918, that same custodian re-smuggled the panels to a safer location in the countryside.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to return the six panels to their original home and the Belgian museum returned the nude Adam and Eve. The Ghent Altarpiece was united for the first time in more than a century.

But by April 1934, it was on the move again.


Bishop Coppieters must have felt a chill run through his veins as he unsealed the envelope.

It is our privilege to inform you that we possess the two paintings by van Eyck which were stolen from the cathedral of your city. We feel that it is better not to explain to you by what dramatic events we now possess these pearls. It happened in so incoherent a manner that the current location of the two pieces is known only to one of us. This fact is the only thing that should concern you, because of its terrifying implications.

In the letter, the ransomers claimed they’d return the Saint John the Baptist panel if the church agreed to send one million Belgian francs. The cash was to contain no traceable serial numbers and to be wrapped in brown paper, sealed with the insignia of the diocese. “We understand that the demanded amount is high,” the letter stated, “but a million can be regained, whereas a van Eyck can never be painted again.”

To signal his agreement to the deal, Bishop Coppieters was asked to publish this ad in the classified section of the local newspaper, Le Dernière Heure: “D.U.A. In agreement with the authorities, we accept your propositions totally.”

(If that scheme sounds straight out of a crime novel, that’s because it was. Years earlier, the French author Maurice Leblanc had introduced the literary world to the character of Arsène Lupin, a cunning burglar and master of disguise who communicated ransoms through newspaper ads, signing each deal with his initials: A. L.)

Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Maurice Leblanc, Wikimedia (Image 1) and (2) // Public Domain

Bishop Coppieters alerted the police to the extortion scheme. According to Charney, crown prosecutor Franz de Heem stepped in to lead the ransom negotiations and refused to give the criminals a dime. So did the Belgian government. De Heem advised the bishop to place a classified ad telling the ransomers that their proposition was “exaggerated.”

A few days later, a new letter arrived in the bishop’s mail. The ransomers threatened to slice up the paintings and mail in the shards. De Heem and Bishop Coppieters decided to feign compliance, and on May 25, 1934, the bishop published the requested message in the classified section of the newspaper. It was a risky move, but de Heem believed his team had an advantage: The ransomers had made a perplexing, if not foolish, proposition by promising to return the painting of Saint John the Baptist before receiving the money.

On May 29, a third letter arrived at his home. “We have read your answer in the paper of 25 May and take full note of your obligations,” it read. “Observe them conscientiously, and we will preserve ours.” Inside was a ticket for the luggage check at a Brussels train station.

Attorney de Heem and his accomplices rushed to the Belgian capital and presented the ticket at the luggage check, where they received a giant, flat package wrapped in black wax paper—the Saint John the Baptist panel.

Any suspicions that the ransomers were pulling a hoax immediately evaporated.


With a honeycomb of brass gates concealing his identity, an anonymous man sat inside the confessional booth at the Church of Saint Lawrence in Antwerp, Belgium, and confessed to nothing. Instead, the man began asking the priest a favor. On the other side, Vicar Henri Meulepas listened patiently.

A prominent Belgian family needed some special letters delivered in secret, the anonymous man said. Could the church help deliver them? Father Meulepas agreed.

With that, the man left. Father Meulepas did not know that he’d just been duped into assisting the activities of a criminal.

On June 1, a fourth letter arrived at Bishop Coppieters’s residence explaining how Father Meulepas would be roped into the scheme.

“We ask you to personally hand over the package that contains our commission to Father Meulepas, Saint-Laurentius Church, Antwerp,” it said. “You could let him know that it concerns a restitution of papers and letters involving the honor of one of the most dignified families.” Inside the letter was a vertically torn page from a newspaper, which was to be used as a key for the transaction.

De Heem decided to play along. He visited Antwerp and handed Father Meulepas a package of ransom money, wrapped in brown paper and stamped with the seal of the diocese just as the thief demanded. He also gave Father Meulepas the vertical strip of newspaper.

On June 14, a taxi driver pulled up to the vicarage in Antwerp, knocked on the door, and asked Father Meulepas to show the torn piece of newspaper. The priest handed it over. The driver revealed a second slip of newspaper and pieced the two together. They matched. Satisfied, the driver accepted the holy man’s parcel and drove off.

Within hours, the ransomers—wherever they were—would be seething in rage. De Heem did not put one million francs in the package as the crooks had demanded. Instead, the package contained a piddling (and traceable) 25,000 francs.

A photograph of Arsène Goedertier with images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Arsène Goedertier among images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Arsène Goedertier: Wikimedia // Public Domain. St. Bravo; Ghent: iStock.

The ransomers were indignant. “It is incomprehensible,” one of them wrote back. “We risked our lives to come into possession of these two jewels and we keep thinking that what we ask is not excessive or impossible to realize.” In other words: We went through so much trouble stealing these! Have you no respect?

The police did not. Over the following weeks, the authorities and the thieves communicated back and forth, but negotiations sputtered. De Heem did not mind. Believing that time was on his side, he stonewalled every demand and waited for the ransomers to make a mistake. The thieves wouldn’t dare destroy The Just Judges now—that would be like stuffing money down a shredder.

But time was, in fact, running short.

On November 25, 1934, Arsène Goedertier, a plump stockbroker with a curly waxed mustache and poor eyesight, collapsed at a meeting of the local chapter of the Catholic Political Party in Dendermonde, Belgium. Goedertier was by all accounts known to be a good Catholic man. An activist and a philanthropist, he was involved with his local church, had co-founded a Christian health service, and helped run two Catholic charities.

Goedertier was rushed to a local inn and then to his brother-in-law’s house. A physician, believing Goedertier had suffered a heart attack, gave him an injection. A priest arrived to offer confession, but Goedertier waved the padre away. “My conscience is at peace,” he reportedly said.

Then, unlike most people with a “conscience at peace,” Goedertier asked his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to step into the room and close the door.

Fifteen minutes later, de Vos emerged. Without saying a word to the people assembled, he walked to his car, drove to Goedertier’s home eight miles outside of Ghent, and stormed into the man’s study. If de Vos had scanned the bookshelves, he would have noticed an impressive collection of Lupin crime novels by Maurice Leblanc. Instead, he turned to the desk and picked up a file labeled Mutualité.

Inside were carbon copies of ransom notes, each ending with a special signature—D.U.A.


“I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is,” Goedertier had muttered to de Vos, his breathing labored. “The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked Mutualité …”

With that breath, Goedertier died. He was probably still warm as de Vos began rifling through his office.

De Vos found nothing indicating where the missing painting might be located. The only notable object was an incoherent, incomplete handwritten ransom letter—more of a complaint letter, really—that Goedertier had never mailed. “I am the only one in this world who knows the places where The Just Judges rests …” it said.

The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
Wikimedia // Public Domain

According to Charney, de Vos then made a series of odd decisions. He did not inform the police about Goedertier’s deathbed confession or his ransom notes. Instead, he met with four legal colleagues. These men—a district attorney, two court of appeals presidents, and Franz de Heem, the crown prosecutor who had been leading the ransom negotiations—started their own investigation. Their reason for excluding other authorities from the inquiry remains a mystery, and none of them were ever punished for not informing the police.

The lawyers did not find much: There was a fake passport under the name Arsène van Damme. They located the typewriter Goedertier used to type his ransom notes. (Instead of stowing the typewriter away as evidence, the magistrates used it to write their reports.) They found that, days after the initial crime, Goedertier had opened a new bank account and deposited 10,000 francs. They also discovered a key, which was found, years later, to open the rood loft of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

None of it made sense. Goedertier didn’t need money. He died with 3 million francs in the bank. He was closely connected to Ghent’s Catholic church and was the type of person who might be expected to give money to the diocese, not take it. Plus, he was in no physical shape to steal two large paintings. He could barely see. There was no chance that he could have stolen the painting. But no clues indicated who his confederates might be.

When the police were notified of Goedertier’s deathbed confession one month later, they took up the case and bumbled it further. For one, they neglected to interview the man who heard Goedertier’s confession, Georges de Vos. They also failed to inform the diocese about the confession for another four months.

This sloppiness seemed to be part of a pattern. They failed to interview a woman who told newspapers that she had seen lights flicker inside the Vijd Chapel the night of the theft. They never investigated the local post offices, despite knowing where the ransom letters came from. They never examined any of the 13 ransom letters for fingerprints. Nor did they ever question the men who were with Goedertier the day he died.

They did, however, interview Goedertier’s wife.

She admitted that her husband had made strange comments about The Ghent Altarpiece. “If I had to go looking for the panel,” he once said, “I would look on the outside of Saint Bavo.” On another occasion, she heard him mutter something about the painting being moved, not stolen. (Decades later, another investigator discovered that Goedertier had made a similar statement to a fellow broker: “If you move something, it is not stolen.”)

These utterances mirrored a tantalizing sentence in Goedertier’s last unmailed letter: "The Just Judges are in a place where neither I nor anyone else can take it without drawing the public's attention." This convinced the police that the panel might be hidden in plain sight, but their searches of the cathedral showed no trace of the painting. In 1937, they closed the case and officially deemed the panel “lost.”

But a single utterance from Goedertier’s 13-year-old son, Adhemar, ensured that the intrigue would not fade.

A year before the case was closed, Adhemar Goedertier died of chronic health issues. The death was a tragedy for a family still mourning the loss of a father and husband. It also introduced a new wrinkle in The Just Judges mystery. As the ailing teenager dozed in and out of consciousness on his deathbed, he kept muttering the same words: Police … thieves … police … thieves.


On the night the Saint John the Baptist and The Just Judges panels were stolen, Cesar Aercus was reportedly busy stealing cheese. According to Charney, at approximately 1 a.m. on April 11, 1934, Aercus was strolling toward the scene of his own crime when he stopped near Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. A black car was parked outside. A large man, shrouded by an overcoat, paced nervously by the vehicle. Aercus knew suspicious behavior when he saw it and watched from the shadows. Suddenly, a second man emerged from the church with a shrouded plank tucked under his arm. The men hurriedly stuffed the slab into the backseat and the driver turned the key.

The car faltered.

Aercus took this as his cue. He strolled across the street, approached the men, and asked if they needed help starting their car. The duo grumbled and told Aercus to buzz off. The car jumped into gear and sped away.

The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right
The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right

At least, that’s the story Aercus told the police 13 years later, in 1947, during a plea bargain. It’s unknown if his story is true. Aercus was a crook and had good reason to tell a juicy story; providing this kind of compromising information could shorten his jail sentence. But an investigation years later revealed information that corroborates some of his story: That same night, a shopkeeper reported hearing a car sputtering around that same time at the same place.

Whatever the story’s validity, police did nothing with Aercus’s report. Perhaps by 1947 the authorities weren’t interested in reopening a closed case. After all, just a few years earlier, the Germans had attempted to re-open it—and they had failed.

At the dawn of World War II, the Belgian government sent the entire painting—with the exception of the missing The Just Judges—to a hideout in southwestern France. In 1942, Germany stole it. The Nazis believed they had a legitimate claim to the painting and wanted to give the complete work to Hitler as a gift. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, assigned Oberleutnant Heinrich Köhn of the Nazi Art Protection Department to search for the final missing piece.

Köhn traveled to Ghent and interviewed dozens of people, including Goedertier’s family and Georges de Vos [PDF]. (Shortly after his interview, de Vos mysteriously died in a movie theatre. It's unclear whether foul play was involved.) Regardless, after years of searching, Köhn failed to find The Just Judges. He was sent to the front lines as punishment.

Had Köhn known about Aercus, perhaps his fate might have been different. Because when Aercus walked over to the car on that fateful night, he reportedly recognized both of the faces inside. In 1947, he revealed at least one of their identities during his plea bargain. One man was named Polydor Priem, a local smuggler. The identity of the second person, however, has vexed people ever since. There’s evidence that it could have been Goedertier, but we can never be sure—the police never wrote a name down.


From 1956 to 1991, Commissaire Karel Mortier—Ghent’s chief of police—investigated the mystery of the missing The Just Judges panel during his free time. He’s the person responsible for discovering the files on the Aercus plea bargain and Köhn’s report to Nazi leadership. Over decades, Mortier collected so much information on the The Just Judges heist that it took up a reported 26 feet of filing space. But some of the most interesting information came out of what he didn't find.

When Mortier searched the Ghent city archives for records of the theft, he could not find most of the files relating to the case. The same was true when he searched the cathedral archives. It’s possible that the records were lost or destroyed during World War II, but the lack of a breadcrumb trail led Mortier to another conclusion: a cover-up. Local authorities and some members of the church, he believes, might have been complicit.

But complicit in what, exactly? Nobody is sure. In his book, Charney expounds on one popular theory. As a patron of the Catholic Political Party, Goedertier had special access to the movers-and-shakers of Belgium's church. In fact, as a boy, he attended the same school as Bishop Coppieters. Charney suggests that a group of wealthy Catholic investors—Goedertier was a stockbroker, remember—had lost money in a bad investment. With the help of police, church members stole the painting in hopes that Belgium’s government would step in and pay the ransom.

The theory explains the amateur and bookish nature of the heist and the reason the ransomers never threatened to sell the panel to a different bidder—the church members wanted the painting returned to Saint Bavo’s. And perhaps that’s why Goedertier never considered it stolen: It was in the hands of a church member who cared about it.

But that’s just a theory. Critics have poked holes in the logic of that story. (For one, a ransom request of one million francs seems awfully low considering how much money could have been lost in a group investment—especially since the painting was valued at 12 times that.)

Other theories are more colorful: Along with further conspiracies of police collusion, there are theories that say the painting is buried in the tomb of Albert I near Brussels. Some say there’s a secret code written in Goedertier’s ransom letters. Others say the plot involves the Knights Templar, Nazi grail hunters, and a secret treasure map that could lead to the Arma Christi: the nails, whip, and other instruments used to crucify Jesus.

“I have been confronted with the wildest theories,” Mortier once told De Morgen.

The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium
The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral

Armchair investigators have looked tirelessly for the missing panel. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral has been searched at least six times since World War II. Mortier himself supervised a partial X-ray of the cathedral and found nothing. In 2008, investigators searched an old well below a parking garage. In 1995, an amateur detective illegally dug up Goedertier’s skull and questioned it during a séance. (When interrogated, his bones held their ground.)

The truth is, there are too many potential avenues to explore because there are too many unresolved facts that raise eyebrows. Take this one.

In 1938, a lawyer approached the Belgian minister of the interior, Octave Dierckx, claiming to represent an anonymous client who possessed The Just Judges. In exchange for the panel, the anonymous person demanded half a million francs. Belgium’s Prime Minister turned it down.

One year later, a Belgian art conservator named Jef van der Veken began making a copy of The Just Judges, a replica he’d eventually give to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral as a replacement. It sits there today.

Some detectives think it’s odd that van der Veken chose to work on the missing panel without any prompting from the church. Weirder yet, he began working on it just months after the failure of the 1938 ransom attempt. Was van der Veken the lawyer’s anonymous client? Was this ransom attempt some scheme to pass a forgery off as the original? Did van der Veken have access to the original panel and use it as a reference for his painting?

The questions go on. There is, however, one thing about van der Veken’s copy that everyone agrees is baffling: On the back of the panel, written in Flemish, is this cryptic poem.

I did it for love
And for duty
And to avenge myself
I borrowed
From the dark side.


Additional Source: The Disappeared Judges.


More from mental floss studios