In 1925, America was transfixed by the true story of this cave explorer who became fatally trapped while searching for a tourist-worthy cave. Floyd Collins (1887 – 1925) was a celebrated Kentucky caver whose plight became a worldwide media sensation — the first such of the 20th century. Fifty reporters on the scene turned Collins into a national martyr.
The first newsman to go down the tunnel was slim and small William ‘Skeets’ Miller from Louiville Courier-Journal who spent hours trying to pry Collins loose. He pulled a string of electric lights down and he fed and comforted Collins. One Chicago Tribune photographer John Steger succeeded in taking a picture but the picture was unsuccessful because of halation of Miller’s light bulbs. Bill Eckenberg, a photographer for the New York Times, learned that a farmer had a picture of Collins taken 10 days earlier while inside another cave — Crystal Cave — which Collins discovered in 1917.
Bill couldn’t drive, so he enlisted the help of a friend, Eddie Johnson of Chicago Tribune. Shortly after midnight, they struggled over ten miles of dirt roads to the farmer’s house, awoke the farmer and brought the photo for five dollars. They raced to the rail station and there, on the stationwall, they replicated the photo. The next day, both Chicago Tribune and the New York Times ran the photo, accurately described the circumstances surrounding the picture’s history. However, many other newspapers used the picture without an explanation perhaps to heighten interest in the image. One title (the New York World) read, “The haunting picture of explorer Floyd Collins, peering from the Kentucky cave in which he was wedged for 17 days, appeared on the day he was found dead of exhaustion and starvation” .
Indeed, it heightened the media circus. Over 20,000 people from 16 states jammed into the area after reading the newspaper articles. After fourteen days, Collins died of exposure and starvation–three days before a rescue shaft could reach his location. His body was recovered two months later, and buried with the epitaph as “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known”. A movie starring Kirk Douglas as a sensationalist media impresario, Ace in the Hole was made by Billy Wilder.