Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839–1869

Examining the diverse body of cultural artifacts against the backdrop of Mammoth Cave as a site of American slavery.

By Dr. Peter H. West
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
Adelphi University


Mandeville Thum, Mouth of the Cave, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1876–1877

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave was a popular tourist destination for travelers from around the United States and beyond. The cave also functioned during these years as a dynamic symbol in the national imagination, appearing in travel books, lyric poems, private diaries, love letters, gothic novels, and even a moving panorama. Peter West examines this diverse body of cultural artifacts against the backdrop of Mammoth Cave as a site of American slavery. As this essay reveals, black slaves such as Stephen Bishop were the cave’s most popular guides and its most celebrated explorers.

While writers have often depicted Bishop and his fellow guides as heroic figures of slave self-determination and power, West complicates this interpretation by revealing how the symbolic authority of the Mammoth Cave slaves served the white imagination. The theatricality of antebellum cave tourism—which included costumes, optical illusions, sing-alongs, and complex games of racial and sexual role-playing—emerges here as a way of containing the haunting spectacle of black authority and reaffirming conventions of white domination.


Geologically, Mammoth Cave is a network of underground caverns in central Kentucky believed to be the world’s largest cave system. Understanding Mammoth Cave as a social and political space, however, means grappling with its singular place in the history of American slavery. During the War of 1812, the cave was an important source of saltpeter (used in the manufacturing of gunpowder), and African American slaves provided the principal labor for its mining and extraction. Following the war, when the price of saltpeter dropped dramatically, mining became unviable. In the decades that followed, as the cave emerged as a popular tourist destination for US and European travelers, its economic value continued to depend on slave labor.[1] Though it was by no means unusual that male and female slaves worked as cooks, laundresses, porters, and chambermaids in the hotel located near the cave entrance, Mammoth Cave slavery was noteworthy: the guides who led visitors on tours of the cave during the antebellum era were black men either owned by the cave’s proprietor or leased out by a neighboring slaveholder. In a compelling racial scenario largely overlooked by historians, these slaves were responsible for the conduct and well-being of the many white men and women who journeyed through the cave in the decades leading up to the Civil War.[2]

Stephen Bishop, Map of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1845. From Alexander Clark Bullitt’s Rambles in Mammoth Cave. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

By far the most famous of these cave guides was Stephen Bishop, who began working at Mammoth Cave when his owner, Franklin Gorin, purchased the property above the cave in 1838. The next year, in 1839, Gorin sold the property, along with Bishop and another slave, to Louisville physician Dr. John Croghan.[3] Until his death in 1857, Bishop accompanied thousands of visitors on cave tours, explored miles of the cave’s passages and chambers, and produced detailed maps of the caverns still lauded for their accuracy. In the dozens of first-hand cave narratives that appeared in the 1840s and 50s, Bishop was often celebrated for his handsome and exotic appearance, his extensive knowledge of the cave’s topography and history, and his bravery and winsome personality. Today, Bishop continues to capture the imagination, appearing as a central figure in a 2000 Yale Younger Poets volume of poetry, a 2004 children’s novel, and a work of historical fiction.[4]

Roger W. Brucker, Cover Image, Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar, 2009

Recent treatments of Bishop tend to represent the celebrated guide and explorer much as he is depicted on the cover of Roger W. Brucker’s 2009 Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar—as a forgotten romantic hero of the nineteenth century, a figure of black accomplishment and self-determination who overcame the dehumanization of slavery. In truth, the complex nature of slavery inside Mammoth Cave defies easy categorizations. Despite the fact that Bishop was often labeled the “Christopher Columbus of the underground,” the exploits of he and his fellow cave explorers were always in the service of the cave’s development as a capitalist venture—so that his celebrated accomplishments must also be understood as a form of slave labor. Similar contradictions defined the slave’s role as cave guide. Given the treacherous nature of the underground landscape, guides held practical authority over white tourists, even as their status as legal and social inferiors was acknowledged. When Bishop famously traversed a giant chasm in the cave floor known as the “Bottomless Pit,” was he a brave adventurer in a national tradition, or was he providing labor according to his status? When admonishing a visitor attempting to remove a piece of the cavern wall for a souvenir, was Bishop asserting authority, or protecting his master’s property?

This essay examines how racial dynamics shaped Mammoth Cave in the mid-nineteenth-century national imagination. Throughout the 1840s and 50s, as tourism flourished, Mammoth Cave emerged as a popular and dynamic literary symbol. Lyric poems invoked the cave’s “deep gloom” and ruminated on the “Indian mummy” supposedly taken from the cave by Nahum Ward in 1816; pseudo-archeological narratives described long-lost civilizations of human or near-human races living deep underground; ghost stories and legends told of Indian spirits haunting the cave after it had been used as a Native American burial ground; and gothic novels used the cave as a setting for sensational stories of murder, sexual betrayal, and revenge.[5] Mammoth Cave appears in the work of two of the era’s most canonical writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Illusions” includes an extended description of the cave’s “Star Chamber,” and, in chapter LXXIV of Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ishmael imagines taking his reader “with a lantern [. . .] into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave” of the Sperm Whale’s stomach to have a look around.

Horace Martin, Gothic Chapel, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1851. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

In dozens of mid-century writings about the cave—published travel narratives, short stories, unpublished diaries, private letters—the subjection of white tourists to the guides’ practical authority embodied a range of social, political, and economic meanings.[6] Writers invoked Mammoth Cave to articulate white anxieties about the instability of racial distinctions, to enact melodramatic fantasies of white supremacy, and to envision apocalyptic nightmares of racial revolution. Faced with the disorienting spectacle of black authority, celebrity, and heroism, some portrayed the tourist environment of the cave as gothic theater, where identities could be slipped in and out of without apparent social or political consequences. Others fictionalized the cave in sensationalistic novels and stories that imagined the United States as an exclusively white republic unthreatened by the linked nightmares of industrialization and racial equality. Still other writers sought to efface any trace of slavery from their representations of Mammoth Cave, even as their work retained the racial logic that saw the cave as a realm of besieged white subjectivity.

Because the archive I am working with exclusively comprises the work of white authors, it is problematic to use these documents to reconstruct Bishop and other cave guides as avatars of slave self-empowerment. While these historical figures found ways of confusing the behavioral codes of slavery in their everyday interactions with cave visitors, my ultimate subject is the way that the mid-nineteenth-century consciousness witnessed and imagined Mammoth Cave as a racial, sexual, regional, and national space. As I trace a “white” way of seeing Mammoth Cave during these years—or, rather, as I chart the shifting, slippery, but persistent effort to delimit such a category—whiteness stands as a rhetorical fabrication bound up in the political contingencies of the age; for what makes these varied, even contradictory texts “white” is the way each articulates the cave as a darkened space that threatens the integrity and survival of the non-dark subject.

Ultimately, there is no one “Mammoth Cave” contained by these words and images. While the illustrations that appeared in antebellum travel books take a wide-angle perspective in portraying a space where human figures are seen from a distance, if at all, many of the narratives rely on a close first-person point-of-view, presenting cave travel as an intense psychological drama. In written accounts, the guides play a central role: manipulating torchlight to produce the cave’s famous effects, instructing tourists how to crawl through narrow corridors, or carrying men and women on their backs across shallow rivers. Visual representations of the cave, however, sought a broader frame of authority than that of the cave guides, implying a mode of national spectatorship that transcended the fraught model of white subjectivity enacted by cave tourism.

Broadside advertising, George Brewer’s Panorama of Mammoth Cave, c. 1849. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

A work such as George Brewer’s moving panorama of Mammoth Cave and other “American wonders” (including Niagara Falls) staked a claim to national representativeness by subsuming the knowledge and authority of cave guides. An 1850 exhibition pamphlet is careful to report that these sites of national importance were “transferred to the glowing canvas . . . by an American artist.”[7] While the canvas does not survive, a broadside states that the cave “was illuminated by 500 lamps, burners and torches” to allow Brewer to capture the caverns with an unprecedented fidelity and realism. Such illumination opposes what the pamphlet describes as the limited perspective of the firsthand tourist: “The dim torch which the visitor takes with him into that inky darkness, does little more than render the darkness visible; it falls far short of dispersing the gloom, so as to enable the spectator to form anything like an adequate idea of its great dimensions, its various halls, or the singularity of the objects they contain” (4). Ultimately, the pamphlet declares that “we can therefore form a more correct opinion of the form and appearance of the different chambers, avenues and halls, by an inspection of this Panorama, than can be obtained by a visit to the Cave itself” (5).

By turning on the lights, Brewer asserts the authority of his own “great national production” over the perspective of visitors who travel under the authority of a cave guide. In the panorama, Bishop becomes merely one of the dozens of cave sites: “Stephen,” the pamphlet reads, “the most complete of guides, the presiding genius of this territory . . . deserves more than passing notice” (33). Yet, passing notice in the panorama is what Bishop gets, even as we are told that “his services are quite indispensable” (34). Typical of panoramic exhibitions, Brewer’s narration utilizes the present-tense second person (“The Cave is about two hundred paces from the Hotel. As you advance towards it you pass down a beautiful and picturesque dell” [18]). Such an approach invites his audience to experience this “national production” depicting “great national objects” as part of a “we” looking on in unity.

As in many depictions of Mammoth Cave from this era, Brewer’s panorama renders Bishop’s authority as entertainment for white consumption. The panorama asserts the racist logic of US slavery by making black labor “indispensible” to the nation. This use of Bishop as symbol complicates any celebration of the cave guides as figures of black agency and autonomy, opening up a more nuanced approach to Mammoth Cave history —one that attends carefully to the place the cave held in the nineteenth-century imagination. As we shall see, Mammoth Cave was continually re-imagined in ways expressive of racist logic at a time of great social and political upheaval.

The Cave as Gothic Theater

In the mid-nineteenth century, the nearest railroad was eighty miles from the entrance to Mammoth Cave. Most visitors traveled by coach from Louisville or Nashville to Three Forks, then journeyed the final eight miles over rough and poorly maintained roads.[8] The cave’s mystique stemmed from this seeming disconnection from the industrial and economic development that was transforming the northern states. Noting that “in Mammoth Cave nothing has been done for several years,” the Reverend Robert Davidson in 1840 celebrated a “wild grandeur” in the cave that resisted commercial or economic exploitation(49).[9] As Joseph Parrish would write in 1852 of the region surrounding the cave, “The scenery . . . is wild and beautiful, the hand of art, and the spirit of enterprise having never tamed its beauty” (4).[10] In many accounts, the relics from the days of saltpeter production, which still greet today’s visitors near the cave’s entrance, represent the economic dormancy of Mammoth Cave, as if the cave functioned as a philosophical or spiritual symbol precisely because it was no longer valuable as a manufacturing site.

Ben Hains, Old Saltpeter Pipes, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1812, 1889

As Mammoth Cave was valued for its economic inutility, visitors also cherished the escape it offered from political and social controversies. Writing in the contentious 1850s, the well-known poet and travel writer Bayard Taylor reported in At Home and Abroad that the lands surrounding the cave entrance “present . . . much the same aspect of comfort and repose as the country homesteads of Pennsylvania and Virginia” (181).[11] After portraying the cave region as a blend of northern and southern charms, his description of the weather seems to invoke the developing storms of sectional conflict: the day was “intensely hot and sultry. Heavy thunder-clouds were piled up on the northern and southern horizon” (181). Describing local Kentuckians gathered for a county election, he narrates a conversation about “Know Nothing” party politics with a local voter. Then Taylor heads underground: “For in the cave you forget that there is an outer world somewhere above you. The hours have no meaning: Time ceases to be: no thought of labor, no sense of responsibility, no twinge of conscience intrudes to suggest the existence you have left. You walk in the limbo beyond the confines of actual life, yet no nearer the world of spirits” (214).

The opposed images that appeared on the title page of At Home and Abroadrepresent the role of the cave as national symbol in Taylor’s narrative. While one side of the page depicts the titular lands “abroad” with a picturesque “German home,” his native United States is represented with an image of one of Mammoth Cave’s underground halls: though the large chamber appears gloomy and foreboding, the tourists, clearly at ease, appear as if they are strolling through a museum. Indeed, the tension of the picture is between the ominous image of the caverns themselves—in dialogue with the smooth borders of the German home, the cave’s stalactites appear like the teeth of a monster—and the refined and relaxed manner of the visitors. Perhaps acknowledging the eventful four years between Taylor’s account of his 1855 visit and the publication of his book on the eve of the Civil War, the cover page’s Mammoth Cave is a layered national symbol. While the tourists chatting cordially support Taylor’s claim that “in the cave you forget there is an outer world above you,” the image recasts this attitude as an obliviousness to violence and terror.

Bayard Taylor, A German House, title page from At Home and Abroad, 1859. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society
Bayard Taylor, The Mammoth Cave, title page from At Home and Abroad, 1859. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

In another account that sees the cave as a politically neutral space, Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote after his 1852 visit that “Mammoth Cave is as large as a county, but having another county on top of it, it is not represented, I believe, in the Kentucky Legislature. In the country’s literature it will be strongly represented, some day—for there is scenery for a magnificent poem—a new Dante’s Inferno—in its wondrous depths. It is a Western prairie of imagination—still wild and unoccupied” (157).[12] Opposing the political nature of the region aboveground with literary and philosophical renderings of the cave, Willis conceives it as a “Western” space, supposedly unsettled and apolitical. In reality, the sectional conflict over slavery, as well as the situation of Native Americans, meant that all western territories were fraught with political meaning. If the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny was bound up with the question of slavery’s expansion, Mammoth Cave offered a symbolic space, naively imagined as beyond controversy.

Mammoth’s embodying of ahistorical and apolitical meanings helps explain the emergence of the cave as a gothic symbol. Gothic conventions carry illusions of escapism from the social, political, economic, and racial specificities of a particular age. Scholars of the American gothic have exposed these conventions as encoded ways of exploring white anxieties about black rebellion, miscegenation, and the instability of racial taxonomies.[13] In the antebellum treatment of cave tourism we witness white imaginations marshalling the language of gothic storytelling—psychological terror, philosophical darkness, moral ambiguity—while evading its racial and political implications.

Such works often focus on the theatrical nature of cave tourism. As John Sears points out, “There was no ‘natural’ way to see or hear the cave since its natural state was absolute darkness and absolute silence. The cave had to be created” (47).[14] Visitors were more than happy to play along. After spending the night in the well-appointed cave hotel, they changed into mustard-colored flannel “costumes”—coats and trousers for the men, and for the ladies petticoats, bloomers, and “stuffed skull-caps”—that were meant to protect heads from painful bumps against the cave ceiling. Tourists would walk down from the hotel to meet their guide at the cave entrance, where each traveler was provided with a “Bengal light” torch.

Horace Martin, The Star Chamber, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1851. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

By treating Mammoth Cave as a stage, complete with costumes, music, props, and illusions, writers framed the underground specter of black authority as an entertaining, but ultimately fleeting unreality, and the guides as stage managers and performers.

Following a description of the “Star Chamber,” for example, Bayard Taylor writes that “[t]he fascination of that scene would have held us there for the remainder of the day if the guide had permitted it. After indulging us for what he considered a sufficient length of time, he took our lamps, and descending into a branch cavern that opened from the floor, treated us to some fine effects of light and shade. By a skillful management of his lights he produced the appearance of a thunder-cloud rising and gradually spreading over the sky” (200–201). Highlighting the carefully managed illusions of the cave’s many sites, Taylor simultaneously describes for readers the tourist’s experience of the cave and defines its halls as a carefully constructed exhibition.

In attempting to negotiate between the cave as natural wonder and staged exhibition, Davidson disapprovingly informs his reader that its owner, Dr. Croghan, “contemplates clearing out the [underground] avenues, and making them accessible for an omnibus to the distance of three or four miles, for the convenience of the ladies, and erecting a sort of hotel in the temple” (62–63). As Davidson argues, “Man seldom meddles with these sublime works of nature, except to mar them . . . there seems to be an incongruity in introducing the artificial refinements of social life, and thus destroying the very attributes which give interest to the scene. It would be as preposterous as to light up a camera obscura with gas, or to exhibit a wild Pawnee Loup in a full suit of broadcloth, without his feathers, his arrows, or his paint” (63–64). This seemingly muddled logic—the cave must remain as authentic as the kinds of contrived exhibitions the antebellum tourist might have encountered in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum—suggests that Mammoth Cave fed the era’s appetite for properly staged productions.

It is theatricality that mars Ralph Waldo Emerson’s experience underground. His essay, “Illusions,” opens with a paragraph-long account of the day he spent in the “black miles” of the cave, boating along the “Echo” River, crossing the “Lethe” and the “Styx,” and visiting the cave’s many rooms and passageways. Describing the “Star Chamber,” Emerson writes: “[O]ur lamps were taken from us by the guide, and extinguished or put aside, and, on looking upwards, I saw or seemed to see the night heaven thick with stars glimmering more or less brightly over our heads, and even what seemed a comet flaming among them” (290). Ultimately, he confesses, “I did not like the cave so well for eking out its sublimities with this theatrical trick” (291).

Alexander Clark Bullitt, River Scene from Rambles in Mammoth Cave, 1845. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

Visual representations similarly framed cave tourism in ways that highlighted its careful construction and management. In an illustration from Alexander Clark Bullitt’s 1845 Rambles in Mammoth Cave, the boat in which a guide rows a visitor is offset by another group ascending to the viewer’s left and by a lone spectator in the central foreground. While the problem of lighting would make such a panoramic view of the caverns nearly impossible, here each guide’s authority over their charges is placed in a broader visual context that renders such authority local, partial, and illusory. Similarly, a picture from Horace Martin’s Pictorial Guide to Mammoth Cave (below) balances the image of a boat following an underground river around a corner (and heading out of view) with a group in the foreground preparing to board a second boat. If the disappearing party in the background suggests the idea of unseen dangers around the bend, the presence of this second group recasts the cave as a proto-amusement park, where the playful illusion of danger is continually produced and exploited by stage-managing.

Horace Martin, The River Styx, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1851. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

Within this theatrical environment, visitors often dressed and behaved in ways that would have been considered inappropriate or dangerous aboveground. The 1847 journal of Thomas Kite, from Cincinnati, describes the clothing a touring party wears on their underground journey: “Our appearance when about entering the cave was certainly peculiar. Joseph with his head tied in a pocket handkerchief, habited in an Indian Hunting short, and an old pair of cloth pantaloons, without neck handkerchief or collar. Thomas similarly equipped but substituting for the hunting shirt and old fireman’s coat provided with capacious pockets. Rebecca and Abby with their sunbonnets and short dresses reaching some distance above their ancles [sic] presented a quite youthful appearance” (10–11).[15] As they go underground in their peculiar costumes, Kite describes the cave opening as a kind of theater entrance.

Such an environment fostered a playfulness that flouted racial and gender propriety. Rusling describes a woman named Nancy Jane looking “Bloomerish” in the cave costume, and gleefully worrying that “her friends at home would be frightfully shocked to see her!” (6). And as Charles Wright wrote in 1858, “Every lady carries a lamp, and in no case, except that of illness, should she take a gentleman’s arm. It is fatiguing to both parties, and exceedingly awkward in appearance.”[16] Because individuals were often out of sight of the rest of their traveling companions, even if only a few feet away, male tourists were encouraged to pay special attention to codes of decency and decorum.

Despite this nod to sexual propriety, writers often celebrated Stephen Bishop’s notoriously flirtatious ways. As an 1843 piece by abolitionist and author Lydia Maria Child reports, Stephen “is extremely attentive, and peculiarly polite to the ladies” (419).[17] Flirtatious behavior on the part of female visitors was often encouraged. Dillon Mapother recorded in his 1855 diary that he and his male companions “resolved [. . .] to leave ‘Stephen’ as the best guide for the party which had ladies among it,” as if the guide’s flirtations were part of the role-playing that understood Mammoth Cave as an underground space where sexual and racial etiquette could be challenged.[18]

In an 1851 letter from the Louisville Courier editor and founder George Dennison Prentice to Anne C. Lynch, Prentice expresses his regret that Lynch could not accompany him on a trip to the cave: “I hoped to commune with you, to interchange thought and feelings with you, in the awful solitudes of a subterranean world. And I hoped, that, in that mysterious realm, where the silence is so profound, that every heart-throb is distinctly and fearfully audible, I might hear such as your poems as are dearest to me uttered in the soft sweet tones of your own voice. And I hoped, that, while floating with you upon the ‘Echo River,’ I might hear your music-shout caught up and so echoed from point to point in the far distance even as the spirit-call of your beautiful verse will be reechoed from age to age in the far future.” Prentice’s acknowledgment to Lynch that his wife was to join them on their proposed visit underscores the way the cave environment represented to the midcentury imagination a bold freedom from standards of propriety.[19]

If cave visitors imagined themselves as actors in underground dramas, the star of the show was Bishop, often presented as a spectacle unto himself. The name “Stephen” often appears in quotation marks, highlighting his reputation. Descriptions of him play up his hybrid racial identity and his atypicality as representative black slave.[20] Here is Willis’s oft-cited account of his first view of Stephen Bishop:

The ladies of this party were talking with a very picturesque-looking personage, after breakfast, and he was presently pointed out to me as the charon of the Kentucky Styx—the remarkable ‘Stephen’. As this was the man who was to take me to ‘Lethe,’ (and bring me back again!) ferry me over the ‘Styx,’ and show me, on the way, such wonders as ‘Purgatory,’ and the ‘Bottomless Pit,’ . . . I was interested to see him. I stepped up and joined the group, and the first glance told me that Stephen was better worth looking at than most celebrities.

Introduced as an exhibition on display, to the ladies that surround him and to the author, Bishop (like Davidson’s “wild Pawnee Loup”) exists in the world of staged representations. Telling us that he “stepped up and joined the group,” Willis narrates the scene as if he were standing in a museum, witnessing a spectacle of great interest.

Ben Hains, Echo River, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1889

There was a feeling of undefined danger and oppression, and heavy melancholy; until the mind readily converted the fantastic, scarce-seen outlines of jagged rocks into the forms of lurking enemies, or crouching savage animals. No one spoke, until the guide, apparently influenced by the same feelings, poured forth, in his deep rich voice, one of the wild songs of his Indian fathers […] The words spoke of the Indian when he had fallen and wasted before the white man, and struck a melancholy chord in the already excited heart. (303)

Bishop’s reputed combination of African and Native American identities colored the way white visitors experienced the cave as exoticized entertainment. In describing his traveling party’s passage down the “Echo River,” a writer in The Knickerbocker in 1849 places himself and his companions in the unexamined position of vulnerable white settlers: “The silence of eternal solitude reigned over all; the deep waters flowed sluggishly beneath our bateau, and far into the air shot the bold precipitous cliffs of the shore. It reminded one of floating at midnight, through the midst of Indian enemies, down one of the wild rivers of the Far West” (303).21 The reliable white narrative of Indian attack becomes even more suggestive as he shifts his attention to Bishop’s singing:

The narrator’s fear of Indian violence is portrayed as an illusion produced by “the mind,” which transforms lifeless rocks into sources of “danger and oppression”—whether “lurking” Indians or “savage animals,” for they are both equal in their unreality. Once the white narrator recognizes the violent and dangerous Indian as a nightmarish projection of “the mind,” the imagined Indian transforms from perpetrator to victim, a reversal that vividly captures the racist undertones of the cave’s brand of gothic terror.

In the paragraph that follows, after Bishop completes the Indian lament, Barnwell claims to hear “groans and lamentations, as if it were wailings from the spirit land; sinking feebler and feebler, until the last faint sound had passed away” (303). Next, amid what he describes as a “midnight of silence,” the author fires his revolver, “waking a scream from every angle of those vast, awful vaults” (304). As the echoes of the gunshot subside, Stephen sings again: “Then the guide struck up a familiar negro melody of the South, and broke the charm, at once converting our feelings into those of hysterical mirth. We knew the chorus, and rarely did those subterranean labyrinths ring to a merrier peel poured forth by more powerful voices” (304). How quickly the narrator moves from projections of the white terror of Indian attack, to a romanticized lamentation of Indian suffering, to Bishop’s minstrel-like performance of well-known slave songs—playing the white tourists’ “feelings” with the slipperiness and vagueness of a gothic excess that evades racial history and politics.

“Trying the Dark”

The cave also offered a participatory form of tourism shaped by the racial dynamics of the visitor/guide relationship and the reality of slavery as a defining presence. As Child’s 1843 narrative moves deeper into the caverns, she describes the rivers—first the “Styx,” then the “Lethe,” and finally the “Jordan.” While the first two names are borrowed from classical mythology, the Old Testament “Jordan” invokes slavery.[22] “The guide usually sings while crossing the Jordan,” writes Child, “and his voice is reverberated by a choir of sweet echoes” (415). We know that Bishop and his fellow guides would often sing spirituals while rowing visitors on the river Bishop named the “River Jordan.” At one spot along the Jordan, the cave ceiling hung so low that “[p]assengers are obliged to double up, and lie on each other’s shoulders, till this gap is passed” (414).

Mandeville Thum, River View, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1876

On the far shores of the Jordan, Bishop would play a notorious trick. As Bullitt describes in Rambles, Bishop set up the long-awaited supper for travelers along the river shore.[23] When some among the group of exhausted and well-fed (and often, slightly inebriated) visitors inevitably resisted the suggestion of heading back to the cave entrance, Bishop would casually comment, “we had as well be going, for the river might take a rise and shut us up here” (99). The risk was real, but guides had a supply of boats stowed within easy reach. Travelers, as described by Bullitt, had no knowledge of this: “In a second we were all in motion, and hurrying past beautiful incrustations, through galleries long and tortuous, down one hill and up another” until they finally reach the Jordan, “which we found to our great relief had not risen” (99–100). When they realize that they have been tricked by Bishop, “we were too happy in having our fears relieved, to fall out with him” (100).

Given that Child’s one explicit mention of slavery—in the final line of her article she hopes that Bishop’s “last breath may be a free one” (419)—is removed by every writer who borrowed liberally (sometimes without attribution) from her, we might read the “Jordan” River as a site where Bishop and his fellow guides attempted to bring the vocabulary of slavery into a place that its proprietor sought to depoliticize. It was known among visitors that Bishop had named most of the underground chambers, hallways, and rivers. And it is on the “Jordan” that visitors were forced to pile on top of one another in positions evoking the Middle Passage, while Bishop would sing to them. Some accounts describe boatfuls of tourists joining in the singing of slave spirituals and minstrel songs.

Whatever Bishop intended by christening the waterway the “Jordan”, it was apparently the only name to trouble Croghan. For even though Bishop’s other names would survive, in Bullitt’s 1845 Rambles (which was either ghost-written or commissioned by Croghan himself, and is still available today in cave souvenir shops) the “Jordan” has been renamed the “Echo” River. Perhaps the name was seen as a transgression by those who wanted to place the cave beyond the whiff of political controversy.

Racial power and its reversibility is a motif in cave accounts. Charles Peterson’s 1852 “Two Days in Mammoth Cave” evokes a nightmare in which the white mind is subjected to the presence of dark power.[24] Using second-person voice, he invites readers to identify with the narrator’s perspective, when he describes the cave’s nihilistic solitude. “Suddenly you see before you a huge sarcophagus, apparently hewn from the solid rock. It is a size to suggest thoughts of the Titans who warred against Saturn, or those mysterious giants who are said to have lived before the flood. Yes pause with strange awe before it. . . . [the] “imagination whispers that, within this mighty tomb, reposes perhaps some wizard of colossal race” who might, if properly provoked, “drag you down to darkness and death” (156).

Allen Glennon, Rotunda Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 2005

One oft-repeated story from the realm of white nightmare involved a region of the cave called the “Haunted Chamber.” As told by the Rev. Horace Martin, a young miner wanders off alone to dig up some underground salts. When he fails to reappear, six black miners were formed into a company to go in search of the miner (who is presumably white).[25] “They were Negroes,” Martin writes, “and previous to starting on their errand of mercy were stripped half naked. It may, therefore, be imagined how extraordinary was their appearance” (33). Here Martin switches back to the perspective of the lost miner, describing the terror and madness of his solitude: “He thought that he had quitted earth—was disembodied—in fact, that he was in the place of torments said to be reserved for sinners” (33). Seeing the black bodies of the six miners in the rescue company, he imagines they are demons: “He had never seen anything like them. They were spirits, sent to drag him to his punishment. He hears their yells. [. . .] Nearer and nearer they come. He is conscious of their hot and hissing breath” (34).

Many Mammoth Cave writers described “trying the dark,” a trial that involved the cave guide leaving a visitor deprived of any lamplight for a few minutes of tortuous solitude. In William Lyman Fawcett’s account of a trip to the cave soon after the Civil War, he describes a conversation with the guide Nick Bransford about what Fawcett calls the “ordeal of darkness” (678).[26] “Is there any danger,” Fawcett asks, “and from what?” At the only moment in the entire piece where Nick’s voice appears, the guide replies, “Nobody knows, massa . . . only some people’s nerve can’t stan’ it, dat’s all” (678). “The mention of that odious word, ‘nerve,'” writes Fawcett, “sounded so much like the familiar solicitation, ‘Try your nerves, gentlemen?’ from the electrical-machine man,—who is found on the curb-stone of some thoroughfare in every city,—that for one brief instant the prestige of the great cave was gone” (678). Urged on by the soft-spoken Nick (who calls the author “massa”), Fawcett decides that perhaps the experience of total darkness is “only claptrap after all”—an underground version of some cheap carnival gimmick.

After Nick leaves him alone, Fawcett describes visions before him, those “subjective creations of the brain, outlined in the dark” (678). The terror of perfect blindness and solitude is overwhelming, heightened by a sense of reversed racial power: “It began to be terrifying to think that release from this hell of silence was dependent upon one man’s will, and he too a man I had never seen until within a few hours. Where was he now, my dark-faced guide?” (679) Finally, Fawcett hears “the firm, substantial sound of a mortal footstep,” and the closing words capture his relief: “There he is at last! Blessed be his black face! how unlike the pale, phosphorescent forms I fancied just a little while ago! How foolish seem all those dreadful fancies now, so terribly real then!” (679).

Mandeville Thum, Gothic Chapel, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1876

The gothic terrors of the cave are experienced by the white author entangled with racialized power. If the white tourist is at the mercy of a black man he has only met hours earlier, how does white identity remain coextensive with superior authority? Fawcett blesses the appearance of Nick’s “black face” because its “firm, substantial” reality allows him to duck the darker question. The nihilistic implications of “total darkness” are more suggestively captured in other accounts. Barnwell melodramatically laments, “White and black were, as some philosophers prove, all the same. How little could I ever before conceive of blindness! Oh! the oppressive stunning weight! The feeling of unknown, unavoidable, invisible danger!—utter inability to defend one’s-self, entire subjection to those who possess this invaluable gift!” (309). As his group waits in darkness for Stephen’s return, Barnwell concedes the utter dependence on their guide: “Our feelings were getting somewhat unpleasantly excited, and our conversation, for some time forced, had dwindled away to silence, ere Stephen appeared. The light displayed three pale countenances and three pairs of eyes that had rather more than a natural brilliancy; and yet in daylight danger there could perhaps scarcely be found three more reckless fellows. Stephen laughed when he saw us stretched along the rocks, and withal so doleful, and walking to one side, covered his lamp in a measure with his cap, and told us to look above us” (309).

Here Bishop played his famous trick in the hall known as the “Star Chamber,” the most famous of the cave’s many illusions. “[W]hat was our astonishment,” Barnwell writes, “on seeing the stars shining brightly in the dark heavens” (309). These “stars” are the embedded pieces of polished mica on the cave ceiling that give the “Star Chamber” its name. That this experience immediately followed the ordeal of “total darkness” suggests that the cave’s illusions were, like its darkness, fraught with questions of dependence and power. When the guide walked away, visitors were left to despair; when he returned they enjoyed the beauty of a virtual night sky. Without Bishop scripting their experience the white tourists have no way of knowing who or where they are.

While these accounts highlight the role of the guide, the illustrations of the “Star Chamber” in Martin’s and Bullitt’s books portray an effect produced without the aid of the guide’s manipulations and tricks. Though tourists, under the sway of the guide’s authority, playfully imagined themselves in an underground drama, the pictorial representations elide the guide’s role.

Alexander Clark Bullitt, Star Chamber from Rambles in Mammoth Cave, 1845. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

The experiences of “trying the dark” and the “Star Chamber” appear more wrapped up in antebellum racial politics when one considers the brief description of Mammoth Cave in Russell Lant Carpenter’s Observations on American Slavery [1852].[27] Carpenter, an anti-slavery British Unitarian Minister, devotes a long paragraph to Stephen Bishop, whom he describes as “[t]he most intelligent slave that I ever met” (46). Framing his own experience of “total darkness” within a book-length critique of American slavery, Carpenter is explicit about what is at stake when the white tourist is left alone by the black guide: “The confidence which we repose in one another flashed vividly on my mind, when I found myself several miles from the entrance alone with him, a complete stranger. I was of course completely in his power—yet I felt no fear. The solitude was very awful in that immense cavern, especially when he left me for a few minutes to arrange some lights” (47).

Instead of following through on what other writers portray as a moment of gothic terror, Carpenter uses the remainder of the paragraph to praise Bishop for the unique model of autonomy he represents: “I was conscious of some reverence for a man who raised himself from the degradation to which human laws and prejudices would consign him. How much more enviably free is such a bondsman than those who are burdened with nothing—no bonds of affection, no weight of knowledge” (47). While the vast majority of antebellum writers portray “total darkness” as a scene of white racial anxiety, Carpenter renders it as a symbol of a rare model of black “freedom” under the degrading institution. “Free,” I have suggested, is a problematic way of describing any slave, and yet Carpenter’s characterization brings to the surface the political undertones of the other portrayals we have encountered. That a British abolitionist would see the slave guide as an embodiment of agency suggests that the many American commentators sensed these guides as symbols that threatened traditional racial hierarchies.

American writers were careful to depict moments where guides lowered themselves—both literally and figuratively—for reasons of cave etiquette and visitor well-being. Only a few paragraphs before celebrating Bishop as a “Christopher Columbus” of the underworld, Bayard Taylor describes a boat journey down the Echo River: “Mat waded out and turned the craft, which was moored to a projecting rock, as near to us as the water would allow, after which he and Stephen carried us one by one upon their shoulders and deposited us in it” (209). Upon arriving at the Echo River, Taylor reports, “Twice again were the guides obliged to carry us on their shoulders through the shallows, and once we succeeded in passing along a narrow ledge of rock overhanging a deep pool, only by using Stephen’s foot as a stepping-stone” (210). Other narratives make clear that in addition to carrying cave visitors on their shoulders, Stephen and his fellow guides would routinely lie down on their backs in mud, offering up the bottoms of their feet to allow men and women safe and clean passage through challenging sections of the cave. These scenes offer a symbolic reconciliation of the paradox of the guide’s combined authority and subjection.

A related example of the paradoxical nature of guide authority centered on the meals that visiting groups enjoyed while underground. Willis repeatedly expresses a desire to peek inside of Stephen’s basket, which was filled with various provisions; he jokingly writes that “at Stephen’s request” he “duly recognized” the noteworthy sites as they passed and identified by the guide—”hoping, all the while, that the next announcement would be the kindly rock on which we were to dine” (176). The nominal power that Bishop held over the appetites of cave visitors was answered, in Willis’s text and elsewhere, by the guide’s status as a racial inferior. During their meal, Willis reports, “Our guide modestly remembered that he was a slave, and, after spreading the repast under the weight of which he had toiled so far, he seated himself at a distance; but remembering his merits and all the geology and history he had given us on the way, we voted him to ‘the first table,’ by an immediate and general remonstrance” (178). Such is the idiosyncratic balancing act between Willis’s playful subjection before the tyranny of Stephen’s basket, and the authority that the tourists held over the slave.[28]

Ultimately, cave visitors were invited to “try the dark” not only by testing themselves in the face of total blackness, but by playing dependent to the slave’s staged authority. Bishop’s naming of the “River Jordan” and the various games that were staged on or beside the river—the flooding hoax, the stacking of tourist bodies, the singing of slave spirituals—suggests that cave visits involved the contained reversal of traditional racial roles.

The Staging of White Masculinity

The playful subjection of male tourists took many forms underground. Having paid for the experience of giving themselves over to the practical authority of black guides, many men reenacted the bold and adventurous exploits of these guides, who would urge them, sometimes even goad them, into physical challenges.[29] Antebellum drawings of cave tours appear to depict tourists struggling to climb the cave’s steep inclines as a guide overlooks the scene. In 1861, an anonymous writer for the Dublin University Magazine captures this subjection of the tourist body: “[W]e thread our way with much physical contortion and mental anguish, and emerge with gratitude into a roomy chamber” (47).[30] As he and his fellow travelers ride an underground boat and approach a particularly low archway, the guide “shouted to us to crouch in the boat. . . . Lower and lower grew the archway, till at last there was but eighteen inches from the water to the roof; and as we lay squelched, like flounders, in the bottom of the boat, pasted with mud and sand, and our backs grinding against the rock, our feelings were novel in the extreme” (48).

Alexander Clark Bullitt, Chief City or Temple from Rambles in Mammoth Cave, 1845. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society
Alexander Clark Bullitt, Entrance to the Gothic Avenue from Rambles in Mammoth Cave, 1845. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

Describing his adventure through the cave, Davidson compares himself to “a chimney-sweep clambering through a chimney,” and, after wondering if he will ever be able to make it back up again to the main cave floor, reports, “encouraged by the guides and ashamed to retreat, I persevered, and was richly rewarded” (58). The traveler’s experience of the cave’s gothic terrors and thrills is framed here as both a game and a form of subjection; the darkness of Davidson’s journey is connected to the challenge of “exploring” those regions that the intrepid guides have already encountered hundreds of times.

The cave’s gendered environment functioned as a proving ground. The northern abolitionist John Fowler Rusling describes a “nice young man—a Boston exquisite—fit only for a lady’s band box” (21), who drops out of a cave tour and is forced to wait with an elderly women until the cave party passes them on the way back to the cave entrance.[31] Against the compromised ideal of this “fopling,” Rusling watches Mat crawl on his belly into Gorin’s Dome, “as if wantonly tempting providence.” Mat turns around and pressures Rusling into following him: “I’se has’nt watched ye all fru de Cave for nuthin! You’s got a true eye and a sure foot, dat’s certain” (34). After reflecting that he cannot fail the attempt “without losing prestige in the old man’s eyes,” Rusling is rewarded with a view of “wild and unearthly splendor,” and then proudly stands with Mat as they look down on the rest of their group, gravely warning them not to risk the dangerous passage: “The way was bad and diabolical enough for even trained men, and women have no sort of business in places so thoroughly infernal” (35).

Many writers saw in Mammoth Cave the horrifying specter of a besieged, even moribund white masculinity. The Dublin University Magazine piece described a visit to the cave as a journey into a “city of the dead” whose “darkness and stillness . . . cannot be imagined” (46). Dramatically adding to this effect was a region of the cave that Dr. Croghan had earlier used as an underground hospital for consumptives. Believing that the cave’s pure and humid air would prove salubrious to these patients, in the mid 1840s Croghan brought several of them underground for an extended stay, during which time they were waited on by cave guides. The experiment was a notorious failure, and the abandoned hospital became a regular feature of tours. After highlighting the extent to which the tourists’ bodies were forced to conform and adapt to the demands of the cave, the Dublin writer describes the bodies of those patients who had lived (or died) in Mammoth Cave fifteen years before: “The appearance of these persons, on coming into the light, is said to have been ghastly in the extreme; the pupil of the eye had dilated till the iris was not visible, and their faces were bloodless and almost transparent” (51).[32]

C. Frank Dunn, Consumptive Hut, Edmonson County, Kentucky, 1900–1954

The haunting image of a small group of white consumptives, ghostly and dying while being attended by black slaves, added drama to the tourist experience. Bayard Taylor quotes the guide Alfred (who served Croghan’s patients) as saying that “There were fifteen of them, and they looked more like a company of skeletons than anything else” (199). As Taylor reflects, “the idea of a company of lank, cadaverous invalids wandering about in the awful gloom and silence, broken only by their hollow coughs—doubly hollow and sepulchral there—is terrible” (199). Juxtaposed alongside this image of a cadaverous, physically afflicted whiteness is the Dublin author’s reminder that the cave guides, “who have been from ten to fifteen years in the service, and generally spend most of the day under ground, enjoy excellent health” (51). That the white tourists’ bodies function as one collective body, subject to the authority of the black cave guides, links them to the consumptive patients, whose frail, skeletal bodies loom like the artifacts of a dying race.

By the time of the Dublin piece, the cave had already taken on new symbolic dimensions expressive of the social and economic contrasts between North and South. Describing a visit in May of 1856, Carlton H. Rogers portrays the Mammoth Cave region as if it were being left behind in the progress of the industrial North.[33] Like many other writers, he bemoans the poor condition of the rural roads visitors had to take to arrive at the cave entrance: “[W]e started for the cave in an old-fashioned Kentucky ‘carry-all’ without springs, and after riding for two hours over the worst road imaginable, reached our place of destination, pretty effectually shaken up” (277). Rogers describes the cave hotel as “a large, irregular, rambling sort of building, somewhat out of repair, and not particularly attractive in its appearance” (277). Underground, Rogers describes the cave as “a small subterranean state of itself, which might almost claim to be admitted separately into the Union, if it had any population save ‘rats, bats, and eyeless fish,’ to legislate and enjoy the rights of suffrage” (278). Ultimately, the cave’s southern landscape is portrayed by Rogers as “an empire in ruins,” with its “half buried palaces, halls, and domes” (295).

During the Civil War, abolitionist Rusling would highlight the inadequacy of the South to keep up with the industrial progress of the North. While Rusling is sensitive to the plight of Mat Bransford, who leads him into the cave on consecutive days, Rusling relegates his interview with the slave guide (in which he learns that three of Mat’s four children have been sold away from his wife and him) to an extended footnote.[34] The main body of his cave narrative is devoted to a description of the cave, his adventures underground, and the social and economic inferiority of the South. As the cave came to represent an afflicted and compromised white masculinity, it also became more associated with a pre-industrial South, turning Mammoth Cave into an archaic novelty within a rapidly modernizing nation.

The Literary Invention of Mammoth Cave

Montgomery Letcher, Cover of Wonderful Discovery, Edmonson County, Kentucky, 1839

As Mammoth Cave came to represent a variety of social, racial, and political nightmares, authors fictionalized the cave as an archeological site linking the mid-century US South to an aboriginal white civilization whose purity and supremacy staked a claim to the American continent that was both pre-Indian and pre-enslaved. One of the earliest examples is an 1839 New York pamphlet by a “Montgomery Letcher,” purporting to chronicle a “Wonderful Discovery” made in the “celebrated Mammoth Cave.”[25] Employing the convention of the literary hoax, and indebted to Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which had appeared a year earlier), “Wonderful Discovery” claims to prove the theories of John Cleves Symmes, Jr., who famously theorized that the earth is both hollow and inhabited. Reporting that the cave terminates, “after ramifications hundreds of miles in extent, in a new country inhabited by human beings, advanced in civilization, and marking a new era in the progressive discoveries of man!!,” the pamphlet states that “the world must now rank [Symmes] with Columbus and Galileo” (3).

The writer describes the mythical underground region as a “new country”—counter to the social and political conditions of the antebellum United States. Letcher is joined on his exploration by Dr. Rowan, his friend Professor Simmons, and a group of “eight able-bodied negroes” from Letcher’s plantation, whose job it is to carry the party’s extensive provisions (4). The eight slaves speak in exaggerated black southern dialect, and represent the racial burden of southern whites, which the exploring party escapes upon making their remarkable discovery. Here is how the narrator describes the group’s progress through the “Haunted Chambers”: “It was really ludicrous to witness the contortions of the negroes, and hear their exclamations, at length they all fell flat on their faces, out went our lights, and our laughter was turned to anger, while their stifled screams of ‘de debbil,’ formed a euphonious compound, which taken in connection with the darkness around might well put one in mind of the infernal regions” (5). The slaves may carry the lights, food, and other provisions of the three white explorers, but in such narratives white men bear the burden of a dependent and inferior race portrayed as ignorant, comically unheroic, and dangerously inept.

Reversing the well-established dynamic of cave tourism, the “Wonderful Discovery” pamphlet offsets the heroism of white exploration with the ignorance of the bumbling slave. Upon realizing that all three white men nearly slipped to a certain death in an underground abyss, Letcher reflects that their fate would have remained unknown, “for I doubt if the negroes would have had courage and sense sufficient to have found their way back” (6). Even when one of the slaves agrees to explore a remote cave opening, the scene is framed as a triumph of white manipulation and black depravity: “Jim consented to be lowered down for the consideration of an extra glass of peach-brandy. Accordingly, we fastened a rope to his body and lowered him down together with a torch, when he soon disappeared through the opening in the wall”(6).

Photographer unknown, River Styx emerges from the cave, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 2007

On the fifth day of their underground journey, the party encounters “a vast plain . . . covered with verdure, beautiful pastures and trees” (12). As they explore this terrain, they “perceived nothing that betokened the near existence of any of our race” (14). Soon, however, they discover “some twenty or thirty birds of the most enormous size,” each carrying a human being on its back. (16). These humans “were small in stature, the tallest among them not exceeding five foot seven, their skin clear and fair as the whitest of our own country, their hair light and falling to the waist, eyes blue” (16). When the gaze is reversed, the eyes of the strangers size up the underground visitors. “The negroes,” we are told, “attracted their greatest notice; they would examine them attentively, rub their skins hard, as if they expected to find the black color of their faces was merely a species of paint” (17). In stark contrast to Letcher’s bumbling and inept group of slaves, the enormous “ostriches” (as Letcher calls the birds) are described as ideal servants: “They were under perfect subjection, and at a word from their masters, left their meal, and came towards us, bending themselves as much as possible, as if expecting us to mount” (17). The three white visitors mount the birds and embark on an airborne tour of the idyllic countryside: “Up we went, soaring higher and higher into the rainbow sky, until having reached the desired elevation, our ‘Om-mos’ formed themselves into regular lines, so well trained were they, and flew as near as possible on a direct level toward the north” (19).

Later, the white visitors are taken on a tour of the “pretty little town,” where everything appears “very civil and orderly” (20). Men are happily and efficiently engaged at their various employments: “we went into several shops where we found the men engaged at work; some as tailors, who by the by plied their needles . . . with great dexterity and neatness. The cutlers completed their work to great perfection. . . . We also visited the shops of the various mechanical branches, the manufacture of which would have done honor to any country on the globe” (20–21). If this underground country is portrayed as an idealized manufacturing center, where artisans happily and efficiently go about their business without the aid of black labor, the narrative further racializes the contrast by juxtaposing the economic production of white workers with a portrayal of the black slave as a mere performer, innately unsuited to economic productivity. While the three men take their tour, the slaves are left “to follow their own inclinations” (20). Upon returning, Letcher and his friends find “the negroes gratifying a large concourse of spectators in dancing ‘Juba’; from the shouts of the auditory we thought they were highly amused” (21).

Just as the “Om-mos” are presented as the ideal servants, a final scene describes a group of fisherman using a species of perfectly domesticated otter-like creatures to carry out the task of collecting fish: “They appeared to be very tame, following around their masters with all the playfulness of dogs, and eager for their duty. They were now taken along the bank and spread at an equal distance apart; when one of the fishermen clapped his hands and gave a shrill whistle as a signal. Instantly they were let loose, and dashed into the water where they quickly disappeared. Scarcely a minute had elapsed before one of the otters reappeared, bearing a fish in his mouth, weighing, I thought, fifteen pounds” (24). While the three white southerners are burdened with their own human slaves, the underground “country” they discover is idyllic in part because their white counterparts are unchallenged masters of various species of perfectly servile beings, all of which understand their roles perfectly, neatly reaffirming an untroubled whiteness that Letcher and his southern crew are searching for.

Mandeville Thum, William the guide, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1876–1877
Mandeville Thum, Mat, the oldest guide, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1876–1877

In the Letcher story, mid-century Mammoth Cave fiction trades in racial caricature on the margins, but places at the center a white drama of mythological proportions, rendering any African American presence in the cave fleeting and immaterial.[36] A mock-scientific narrative published in an 1850 poetry collection by Henry Parker tells of the underground discovery by a Professor Biglie, who claims to have encountered deep within the cave a race of white, dragon-like creatures—”winged and scaly men” whom Biglie names “anthropoptera.”[37] The narrator, traveling in the cave with Biglie and Stephen Bishop, reports that “[f]rom head to foot, and through and through, the tall attenuated creatures are of an almost colorless transparency” (158). Calling to mind both Croghan’s consumptives and the white, translucent, and blind fish that populate the cave’s underground rivers, the appearance of this strange race suggests the slipperiness between whiteness and colorlessness, betraying antebellum anxieties about the instability of whiteness as a viable racial identity. This racial instability informs many aspects of this strange tale. Calling to mind the white fish of Mammoth Cave, whose lack of eyes was often cited as a small lesson in biological evolution, these flying creatures have developed scales and other fish-like characteristics, a development that speaks to the adaptation of species to their surroundings. With only the cave’s fish for sustenance, the creatures’ fish-like characteristics speak to “the pliant adaptation of Nature to that exigency by which, without fishing apparatus, they are obliged to plunge into the water and pursue their prey” (160).

Eventually, however, it is the adaptation and mingling of races that emerges as the most troubling implication of the history of the Anthropoptera. For the last three thousand years, the reader is told, eleven specimens of this species have been enclosed in a remote corner of the cave, following an earthquake that “sank an immense amount of rock, completely and forever closing up the avenue by which they had entered” (161). These eleven mummies “exhibit not one of the fish and bat characteristics of their descendents,” a detail that convinces the professor of the human origins of the dragon-like cave-dwellers. Of even more consequence is a series of cave drawings found in the barricaded chamber where the mummies were found: “[W]e have decided that the breast of the large figure represents America; the figures in motion, six emigrants, perhaps escaping from pursuers; the long neck, the supposed former isthmus that connected the West Indies (or South America) with Africa; the head, surrounded with stars, the dark or night-like color of the Ethiopean; and the short horns being emblems of the pyramids of Egypt” (168). Professor Biglie concludes that the drawing tells a far-reaching story of human history. Egypt, he reports, is “the vicinity of which the first inhabitants of this continent perhaps these very mummies may have emigrated, the neck of land between the hemispheres having afterwards disappeared.” While scientists had long theorized that the earliest settlers of North America emigrated from the African continent, “[t]his theory may now be considered a settled truth.”

The deeper meanings of Parker’s story are not scientific but political. As in the Letcher story, this underground region is repeatedly described as a “nation” or continent of nations. In the northern region, King Nono reigns as an “absolute monarch,” while in the south (where Parker and his party enter), “a multitude of the Anthropoptera constitute a republic, electing their officers annually by the acclamation of their wings” (167). As suggestive as this geographical formulation is, the most explicit connection with the antebellum United States occurs when Parker reports that one of the dragon-like Anthropoptera has been taken from the cave, put in a cage, and studied to see how he adapts to solar light and human food. “The results are wonderful. . . . his body has increased in bulk, is assuming our proportions and fleshy opacity, the scales seem to be loosening, and the wings are withering away” (164). Parker suggests that an “asylum” will doubtless be erected for the assimilation of the entire species, and “thus the Anthropoptera will be restored to the world, and advanced to the dignity of American citizenship” (164). They are not a different species at all, but another race of humans—one whose origins are in Africa, but whose future lies in the “dignity of American citizenship.” While Parker’s narrative is told as mock-science, the story he tells uses Mammoth Cave to explore the white nightmare of racial nihilism and political assimilation, a nightmare he can verbalize and then dissolve in the piece’s final sentence, when he blithely acknowledges the discovery to be a sham.

In 1853, a work entitled “Esther Livingstone” appeared in Philadelphia, a gothic story of murder, reanimating bodies, racial violence, and sexual treachery.[38] At the heart of the anonymously published novella is Henry Baldwin, who narrates the story and appears in the opening paragraph “in respectable poverty,” his mother and two sisters depending “upon me, and only me, for support” (7). Over the course of the story, Henry’s white masculine authority is transformed into a nightmare of powerlessness and victimization at the hands of Esther, a woman who tricks him into marrying and eventually murders Henry’s mixed-race slave concubine and the child the slave-woman bears him.

Artist unknown, Esther’s leap into The Bottomless Pit, from Startling Disclosures! Mysteries Solved! On the History of Esther Livingstone, and Dark Career of Henry Baldwin, 1853. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

In the gothic nightmare of Esther Livingstone, Henry’s identity is threatened by a chaotic social and economic landscape in which he can only achieve financial independence by marrying Esther, whose money is itself of disreputable origins; can only assert sexual dominance by impregnating a woman of “animal loveliness” who “had been raised by her slave mother with but one purpose: that she might become . . . worthy of the embraces of some rich master” (29); and can only become a racial hero by killing a “huge” and “brawny” slave who is in the act of raping a defenseless white woman, and whose lifeless body Henry sees as “two thousand dollars lying dead by the roadside” (41). Any possible route to white masculine power for Henry depends on the symbols of nineteenth-century life—money, race, gender—that gothic storytelling views as hollow and merely spectacular. Given how much Henry’s doomed quest for a stable white male heroism sounds like that of an emasculated Mammoth Cave tourist, it does not surprise that the narrative’s central action takes place in the cave, where Henry attempts to force Esther to a suicidal leap into “The Bottomless Pit.” But while Henry imagines the cave as an escape from the social fictions of the 1850s, where he can rid himself of the racial and sexual forces that torment him, Mammoth Cave functions in the novella much as it functioned outside the pages of fiction—as a realm of racial and sexual politics. Esther returns in the final pages while Henry ends the story a “hopeless madman” in a state insane asylum.

Lillie Devereaux Blake‘s 1858 “A Tragedy of the Mammoth Cave,” the only work of cave fiction from the era known to have been authored by a woman, is another narrative about sexual power.[39] The southern-born and northern-educated Blake, who after the Civil War would become a prominent suffragist and reformer, presents her narrator and protagonist, Melissa, as an embodiment of white southern femininity: “I was the daughter and only child of a Kentucky planter, and the blood of the South flowed in my veins . . . I imagined our State the finest country on the globe” (111). Her greatest “pride and glory,” she tells the reader, “was in that world’s wonder, the Mammoth Cave,” where she “knew every winding of its intricate passages, and often spent whole days in wandering alone through its mysterious vaults” (111, 112). When she reaches the age of seventeen, Melissa falls in love with her tutor, the son of a Boston merchant, despite the fact that she “had been brought up to look with contempt on the whole [northern] race” (112).

What follows is a story of sectional conflict encoded as a sentimental narrative of unrequited love and revenge in which Melissa’s obsessive love for Mr. Beverleigh, the tutor, is portrayed in the language of enslavement: “I studied and strove to please him, and subdued my quick temper to perfect gentleness. I became his devoted slave, hanging on his words and obeying his slightest look” (114). As she falls for him, she relinquishes “all my former wild habits, and only entered the Cave once during the whole winter, and then it was as his guide, in order that he might see and enjoy its mighty wonders” (113). As a respectable northerner, Beverleigh sees the cave as a realm of gothic terror. “I have never seen anything that has so oppressed me with awe and horror as that place,” he tells Melissa, “and I can conceive of nothing more frightful than to be left solitary in its black vaults” (114). When Melissa finally professes her love to Beverleigh, “endeavoring to kiss his brow and lips—very pale and white,” he rejects her for the more “graceful” Minnie Haywood, and Melissa retreats to a grotto in the cave that she describes as “wholly unknown, even to the guides” (116, 117).

Melissa’s revenge is to abandon Beverleigh deep inside the cave, leaving him alone in the total darkness that so terrifies him: “‘I am going to leave you,’ I said. . . . My heart beat wildly, and I thought my moment of triumph had come” (119). Though she confesses that “I felt a savage delight in the fright, the terror, the despair, into which I had plunged him,” her expectation was that the guides would find him many hours later, frightened but otherwise unhurt. Instead, within a week Beverleigh is assumed dead and Melissa must accept that “the brand of Cain was on my brow, and that I was a murderess” (121). Many years pass, Minnie marries another man, and Melissa lives abroad as “a lone, sad, and unloved woman” (121). In the story’s final lines, Melissa reports that she is dying of consumption, and plans to reenter Mammoth Cave for the first time in fifteen years, “and there I will patiently await the coming of that death, which I hope to me will be a blessed release” (121).

Appearing in a northern magazine at a time of escalating sectional conflict, Blake’s story highlights the violent clash between a white South morally corrupted by slavery and a domestic ideology that Blake equates with the possibility of national cohesion and coherence. While the violently emotional Melissa must go abroad without a husband, Minnie’s grace and beauty is ultimately rewarded with marriage, offering a post-slavery, middle-class stability available to both northern and southern white womanhood. Blake’s invocation of Mammoth Cave depends upon the cave’s multilayered meanings in the national imagination as a symbolic realm of sexual transgression, gothic terror, and racial power. For Melissa tells the reader at the outset that her crime, if confessed earlier, “would have held up my name to eternal infamy as the blackest of my sex” (111), a formulation that anticipates both her symbolic enslavement at the hands of Beverleigh and her role as her would-be lover’s underground guide. According to the logic of Blake’s story, the danger that the undomesticated southern female poses to national cohesion is not simply that her emotions have been too little refined, but that she has been metaphorically blackened by slavery and by her intimate relationship with Mammoth Cave—and made unfit for the white republic.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, Mammoth Cave appeared in fictional works as a symbol of a racialized sectional identity in even more explicitly political ways. Nathan Ryno Smith’s 1869 Legends of the South includes “Legend of the Mammoth Cave,” a story set twelve years before the present day of the narrative, and a few years before the outbreak of war.[40] Smith’s story employs a partial frame to present a narrator who, after arriving at the cave and hiring one of the cave guides, visits a “venerable old person” who resides near the cave, and listens to the old man’s stories of cave history so that the narrator “might commence my exploration properly instructed” (45). The old man tells a story about an old sachem who used to visit the cave, and who described the effects of the “merciless cruelty of the pale faces” to the Indians who had previously inhabited the region.

When the narrator goes down into the cave, having learned a more authoritative history, he declares that “[m]y purpose was to explore beyond the utmost limit of former exploration—not for the purpose of signalizing myself as a tourist, but to satisfy an insatiable curiosity” (50). The white protagonist leaves behind the black guide, who “seemed resolved to resist, even by force, my rash enterprise” (51). The limitations of white male agency in a cave environment defined by the exploits of slave and former-slave guide-explorers leads to a fictional motif in which the white male protagonist achieves an ideal of heroic white manhood by outperforming the black male guide. In Smith’s story, the narrator first finds himself in “total darkness” after his torch falls into one of the cave’s many abysses, a phrasing that invokes the popular experience of “trying the dark” (54).

Horace Martin, Entrance to the Cave, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1851. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

While such total darkness typically led, in nonfictional accounts, to moments of nihilistic self-reflection, in “Legend of the Mammoth Cave,” the protagonist descends gradually to the unexplored cave floor. He encounters the ghost of the old sachem who tells him that the tribe’s “[s]eers, taught by the Good Spirit, foresee in the dim shadows of the future, great and terrible events, in the course of which the red man may have opportunity to recover his own, and re-possess the fair valleys and hills from which he has been so cruelly driven” (59). He clarifies this vision: “The bear of the North shall wage war with the panther of the South, and terrible shall be the conflict” (60). In due time, however, “Nations from the rising sun shall make war upon the conquerors, and then shall the Southern panther rise from his lair, and avenge his wrongs” (61). Linking the defeated South with the vanquished Indian, Smith’s narrative uses the cave to tell a narrative of white southern redemption echoed by underground heroism. Tellingly, Smith’s account of an “oppressed” and “wronged” South that will ultimately regain its proper place depends upon black reenslavement, and the reclamation of white authority.

The story ends with the narrator climbing back up the steep incline of the “Bottomless Pit,” only to find that the black man has proved the perfect servant: upon reaching the spot where he had left the guide and ferryman who refused to accompany him any further, he finds them “almost in despair of me, for they had patiently waited for nearly four hours beyond the appointed time” (62).

Remarkably similar in its racial imagination to the “Legend of Mammoth Cave” is another 1869 work, Mansfield Tracy Walworth’s gothic novel, Warwick; or, the Lost Nationalities of America.[41] Though the entire plot of this long and episodic novel defies summary, Walworth’s story also climaxes in Mammoth’s famous “Bottomless Pit.” Like the narrator of “The Legend of Mammoth Cave,” Warwick‘s protagonist Constant Earle leaves the black cave guide behind as he attempts an unprecedented descent down into the “Bottomless Pit,” having discovered twelve gold plates in a piece of furniture that belonged to his deceased white ancestors. These plates suggest to Earle that an “antediluvian nationality had grown up in America,” and that this lost nation resided deep inside Mammoth Cave, “whose hermetically sealed floors have preserved the bones of lost nations as perfectly as the dry atmosphere of the Egyptian mummy pits” (401, 402). In merging the cave’s archeological symbolism with its racial politics, Walworth sends his hero down into the abyss to simultaneously negotiate a post-slavery white male agency and to articulate a national pre-history on which to found the novel’s narrative of white supremacy; as an explorer-archeologist whose underground feats exemplify and authenticate a model of racial superiority—he outstrips the black guide and uncovers evidence of the white race’s millennia-old claim to continental dominance—Earle reverses the symbolic implications of Mammoth Cave that haunted the white imagination at mid-century.

While nearly all surviving accounts of cave guide Stephen Bishop describe him as literate and well-spoken, in Warwick he is a caricature of the simple-minded, dialect-speaking, obsequious slave who laughably attempts to parrot the refined language of cave visitors. Earle condescendingly listens to Bishop’s tour of the caverns, urging him to “go on and exhibit the rest of your black domain” and inquiring, “What is your next curiosity on the programme?” (413). In Earle’s view, the guide’s authority extends to the cave as stagecraft, while the white protagonist is busily scoping out the pit for the next day’s daring exploits. When Earle descends into “the black emptiness of space” until he is enclosed by “black, horrible immensity,” Walworth rewrites the nihilistic implications of the experience of “trying the dark” as a foundation on which to invent a stable ideal of whiteness. (418, 421). “It could not be possible that the pit had no bottom,” Earle reflects. “The idea was absurd; the coinage of some feeble brain that had exhausted itself in a few experiments with fragments of rocks” (421).

And indeed, after the rope bearing his weight snaps and Earle falls through darkness, his feet land “upon a firm foundation, deeper in the bowels of the earth than any of his race had ever penetrated before” (423). His fall, we soon discover, was alleviated by an umbrella given to him by his deceased grandfather: “The fabrics of the forefathers, and the frames upon which they were spread, were no contemptible friends in struggles with mid-air. The ancestral umbrella had opened and saved him in his descent” (424). What Earle discovers is an underground world, a “magic hall” of “subterranean basilicas” combining almost blindingly white crystals with the purest of gold. Discovering a hidden staircase that allows his return to the cave’s main floor, Earle begins his slow ascent while the faithful Bishop mourns the apparent loss of “[d]e most admirablest gentleman dat ebber visited dis cabe” (441). Earle slowly climbs “through unknown darkness to upper earth, to a cave far, far above him, in which it was deemed certain destruction to wander without a guide” (435). Concluding with Earle’s achievement of unfathomable riches, and with his mysterious dark lover tearing the bandages from her head to reveal “the fairest, purest skin, unharmed and beautiful,” Warwick advances a gothic fantasy of racial and economic supremacy in a world after slavery.

Alexander Clark Bullitt, Bottomless Pit, 1845. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

As allegory, the climactic journey of Constant Earle vividly captures what the mid-nineteenth-century imagination believed was at stake in Mammoth Cave. The cave was simultaneously a proving-ground for the white male adventurer and a symbol suggesting the fictional nature of the categories that white manhood was founded on. More than any other site in the cave, the “Bottomless Pit” epitomized this dilemma: in a famous bit of cave lore, the abyss was first crossed by Bishop, who helped build a bridge and handrail to make it safer and more navigable for visitors. The drawing of the “Bottomless Pit” from Bullitt’s Rambles presents this section of the cave as a structured, symmetrical tourist environment that neatly contains the pit’s gaping void: a huge cave wall resembles an outsized classical column, and visitors peer down in apparent horror, carefully watched by a guide who looms on the other side of the bridge famously built by Bishop. Only in the pages of a novel like Warwick could the paradox of white masculinity be resolved. Sending his protagonist down into, and ultimately through, the nihilism of the cave’s most gothic space—”It could not be possible that the pit had no bottom,” Earle insists—Walworth portrays the philosophical implications of the cave as merely a physical obstacle to be overcome by the physically and mentally superior white race.


In 1866, Charles Waldack took a series of stereoscopic images of Mammoth Cave.[42] In one of these early photographs, Mat Bransford and his fellow guides are depicted outside the cave entrance in distinctly unromanticized poses, seated casually, looking vaguely towards the camera.[43] Another image depicts a section known as “Angelica’s Grotto,” where a young girl reclines as if in her living room. Waldack’s pictures depict the cave as a setting of exotic landscapes but also as a realm of safety and respectability.

Charles Waldack, Mouth of the cave, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 186
Charles Waldack, Angelica’s Grotto [with little girl resting in Angelica’s couch], Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1866

When Waldack arrived at Mammoth Cave in 1866, Stephen Bishop had been dead for nearly a decade. Upon Croghan’s death in 1849, his will stipulated that Bishop should be freed after a period of seven years, so that, when Bishop died in 1857, he had lived as a free man for only one year.[44] Bishop’s absence in these early photographs seems fitting, for it captures his elusiveness as a subject of history. This elusiveness, combined with the romantic outlines of his life story—Bishop as the slave who finds freedom underground—continues to call out to the literary imagination.

Screenshot of National Park Service website for Mammoth Cave National Park: Black History at Mammoth Cave section

Understanding Bishop as a fictional invention is as important as studying or imagining the actual life he lived. The “Stephen Bishop” who survives today is largely the product of white-authored texts from the nineteenth century treating him as the “exceptional slave,” a fiction that is no less problematic than the “typical slave.” To see Bishop simply as an emblem of slave exceptionalism is to embrace the “Stephen Bishop” invented by the nineteenth-century texts considered here—the figure who was valuable because he so readily served narratives of white supremacy.

Today, the National Park Service’s official webpage for Mammoth Cave National Park devotes a section to “Black History at Mammoth Cave,” including profiles of Bishop, Mat Bransford, and Nick Bransford. “African Americans played a vital role in the development of cave tour routes and the vistitor [sic] experience throughout the 19th and early 20th century,” the site reads. “The first black guides were slaves and through their efforts opened up the golden age of cave exploration for Mammoth Cave.” Bishop’s extensive profile celebrates him as “unquestionably one of the greatest explorers Mammoth Cave has ever known.”

By memorializing the accomplishments of these figures as guides and explorers, such histories come uncomfortably close to celebrating their exploitation. Certainly the story of slavery at Mammoth Cave warrants a place in our national memory. But in telling this history we must acknowledge the complexity of slavery as a system of oppression, remembering that the provocative form the institution took at Mammoth Cave does not make it any less reprehensible.[45] For, as we have seen, the figures of black agency and authority marshaled by these white imaginations ultimately reaffirmed the irreversible nature of racial power under slavery.



  1. For a helpful overview of the cave’s nineteenth-century development, see Katie Algeo, “Mammoth Cave and the Making of Place,” Southeastern Geographer 44 no. 1 (2004): 27–47. Algeo argues that “Mammoth Cave is a cultural production, a site whose significance lies in the multilayered interactions of tourists, tour providers, scientists and other visitors, and the body of cultural works about the cave that they produced” (29–30). Given such a critical orientation, it is surprising that her only mention of slavery as a central component of cave tourism appears within a dependent clause: “Cave guides, the most prominent of whom were African-American slaves, pushed the known extent of the cave, discovering new subterranean wonders that could be touted in print to bolster the cave’s reputation and keep it in the public’s consciousness” (35).
  2. For an excellent study of the history of slavery at Mammoth Cave, see Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer, “The Black Experience at Mammoth Cave, Edmonson County, Kentucky, 1838–1942” (M.A. thesis, University of Central Florida, 1994). While Schmitzer cites evidence suggesting “a significant level of content/ment and stability” on the part of the slaves at Mammoth Cave, and suggests that cave guides “enjoyed respected positions of authority and responsibility” that “empowered” them “with a sense of self-esteem that few slaves or free blacks experienced,” my study consciously resists this reading of Mammoth Cave slavery as somehow more benign than other slave experiences. I have not seen, for example, any surviving text that suggests anything about the level of self-esteem of any of the figures Schmitzer discusses.
  3. The man sold alongside Bishop was known only as “Alfred.” Two other well-known guides, Nicholas (Nick) Bransford and Materson (Mat) Bransford, were leased out to the cave’s proprietors by their owner, the Glasgow attorney Thomas Bransford. For a detailed account of the improvements made to the cave facilities by each of the cave owners, see Schmitzer, esp. 12–14.
  4. See Davis McCombs’s Ultima Thule (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), Elizabeth Mitchell’s Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave (New York: Viking Juvenile, 2004), and Roger Bruckner’s Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave: A Historical Novel (Cave Books, 2009).
  5. The anonymous poet of “On the Entrance to the Mammoth Cave” (included in Horace Martin’s Pictorial Guide to the Mammoth Cave [New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851]) writes that “Far over head deep gloom doth sit, / And Nature is asleep” (11–12).
  6. Throughout my discussion of slavery at Mammoth Cave, I attempt to distinguish carefully between my use of the words “authority” and “power.” While I invoke the former term to refer to the carefully limited forms of responsibility given to the slave guides by the cave’s proprietors, the latter term will suggest “power” in the more foundational sense of the word. In other words, while these guides were given significant authority over their charges (given the dangerous nature of the caverns), it is far more problematic to suggest that any slave can be granted power by an institution that requires her or him to be the legal property of another.
  7. Description of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, the Niagara River and falls, and the falls in summer and winter; the prairies, or life in the west, Fairmount water works and scenes on the Schuylkill: to illustrate Brewer’s panorama (Boston: J.M. Hewes and Co., 1850), 4.
  8. Three Forks, Kentucky, changed its name to Glasgow Junction in 1863, and then again to Park City in 1938.
  9. An Excursion to The Mammoth Cave, and the Barrens of Kentucky (Lexington, KY: A.T. Skillman, 1840).
  10. “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky: An Address Delivered Before the Young Mens’ [sic] Association of Burlington, NJ,” (Burlington, NJ: 1852). Quoted courtesy of the Western Kentucky University Library.
  11. Bayard Taylor’s Mammoth Cave narrative was included in At Home and Abroad (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1859).
  12. Willis’s influential account of his visit to the cave was included in his Health Trip to the Tropics (New York: Charles Scribner, 1853).
  13. In her monumental exploration of American literature, for example, Toni Morrison portrays the language of philosophical, moral, and psychological darkness that suffuses American literary history as a reflection of the nation’s racial politics. One important consequence of Morrison’s argument has been a more nuanced understanding of the racial dynamics of the American gothic tradition. Teresa Goddu has revealed American gothic fiction of the nineteenth century to be shaped by a powerful and far-reaching racial logic, in which “slavery was a significant part of the historical context that produced the gothic and against which it responded” (133). Similarly, in his extended analysis of the nineteenth-century American gothic Justin Edwards “locate[s] racial ambiguity in the foreground of gothic expression” (xix). And Eugenia DeLamotte has recently suggested that the nihilism at the heart of traditional gothic narrative might be understood as a literary manifestation of white anxieties regarding the instability of racial categories. “[B]ehind the fears of dark, racialized others on which the Gothic construction of whiteness hinges,” DeLamotte writes, “is the unspeakable Other of that construction: the fear that there is no such thing as whiteness, or even race” (17). To read Gothic literature in this manner is to understand Gothic texts “as documents in the history of racial formation [. . .] that might give us a better sense of what the construction of whiteness involved” (19). See Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993); Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Justin Edwards, Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002); and Eugenia DeLamotte, “White Terror, Black Dreams: Gothic Constructions of Race in the Nineteenth Century” in The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination, ed. Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas L. Howard (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004), 17–31.
  14. The chapter on Mammoth Cave in Sears’s Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) includes an excellent discussion of the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of the cave’s treatment in the popular imagination. His focus on the theatricality on the cave environment has greatly influenced my own account of Mammoth Cave, though I see race and slavery as far more central to the cave’s symbolic meanings.Kite’s Diary is located in the Thomas Kite Collection,
  15. Manuscripts and Folklife Archives, Western Kentucky University.
  16. Charles Wright, The Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (Vincennes, IN: Harvey, Mason, & Co., 1858).
  17. Lydia Maria Child, “Mammoth Cave,” Bentley’s Miscellany 14 (1843): 408–419.
  18. Mapother’s diary is located at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.
  19. The Prentice Letter is located at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. Annie Lynch was apparently an amateur poet, which explains the letter’s reference to her work.
  20. Though many early chroniclers of Bishop’s life suggested that he was part Native American, an 1868 letter by Gorin refutes this claim. National Park Service, “Stephen Site Bulletin,”
  21. “The Mammoth Cave,” The Knickerbocker, April 1849, 301–312.
  22. Spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” invoked the Jordan River to draw parallels between the enslavement of the Israelites and black enslavement under slavery. Furthermore, many historians have traced how American slaves, as well as generations of free African Americans, compared the Ohio River (which separates Kentucky from Ohio) with the Jordan. See, for example, Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1972) and Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Undergound Railroad (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).
  23. Alexander Clark Bullit, Rambles in the Mammoth Cave: During the Year 1844 (Louisville: Morton and Griswold, 1845).
  24. Charles Peterson, “Two Days in the Mammoth Cave,” Peterson’s Magazine, October 1852, 155–160.
  25. Martin, Pictorial Guide to the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851).
  26. Published anonymously as “A Tour in the Dark,” Atlantic Monthly 20 (December 1867): 670–679.
  27. Russell Lant Carpenter, Observations on American Slavery After a Year’s Tour in the United States (London: Edward T. Whitfield, 1852).
  28. Schmitzer cites Willis’s party voting the guide to the main table and his inclusion of Bishop as one of the party’s five “gentlemen” as evidence that “[w]hile underground, race and social status faded quickly, and at times were nearly forgotten” (26). I would argue that such rhetorical moves, far from an escape from the power dynamics of slavery-era race relations, essentially portrayed the underground region as a carefully framed, white-sanctioned suspension of racial hierarchy—but one that was almost entirely symbolic and performative.
  29. In his “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky: An Address, Delivered Before the Young Men’s Association of Burlington, N.J.”, Joseph Parrish describes a guide mocking a particularly hefty tourist as he struggled through a narrow passageway called the “Winding Way” (also known as “Fat Man’s Misery”): ” ‘I told you when you said that you felt especially happy, to wait till you got to the Winding Way, to see how you would feel then!’ The imprisoned gentleman soon broke his bonds, not however without damage to his indispensables, and at length forcing his way into ‘Relief Hall,’ he cried out in the joy of his heart, while stretching himself and wiping the perspiration from his jolly, rubicund face” (13). A rare copy of this document is located in the Kentucky Library and Museum, Western Kentucky University.
  30. “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky,” from the Dublin University Magazine. Pamphlet located in the Kentucky Historical Society Special Collections, Frankfort, Kentucky.
  31. John Fowler Rusling, A Trip to the Mammoth Cave, KY (Nashville, 1864).
  32. Significantly, this description of Croghan’s patients echoes several earlier accounts of the blind, white fish that were known to live in the cave’s underground rivers—Bullitt calls them the cave’s “extraordinary white eyeless fish” (85), and Stephen Dillaye in 1848 describes them as “entirely white and transparent” (12).
  33. Carlton H. Rogers, Incidents of Travel in the Southern States and Cuba (New York: R. Craighead, 1862).
  34. One scene in Rusling’s work has, I believe, been profoundly misread by present-day readers, including the authors of the National Park Service webpage that provides a brief history of slavery at Mammoth Cave. After Mat tells the writer that three of his children have been sold away from him, Rusling replies, “I don’t suppose you missed these children much. You colored people never do, they say” (7). Mat then corrects him, expressing the deep anguish of his wife and himself. The NPS webpage introduces this quotation by stating, “Surprisingly, some abolitionists of the day did not regard such an act as horrendous,” and Schmitzer similarly reads Rusling as uncritically racist. I would argue, however, that these interpretations overlook the way firsthand abolitionist accounts of the South would often use irony to critique southern injustice and inhumanity. Rusling, I believe, is using a common abolitionist device here, inviting an authentic slave to answer one of the racial myths on which the defense of slavery was founded. National Park Service, “Mammoth Cave National Park: Black History at Mammoth Cave”
  35. “Wonderful Discovery!: Being an Account of a Recent Exploration of the Celebrated Mammoth Cave, in Edmonson County, Kentucky, by Dr. Rowan, Professor Simmons and Others, of Louisville, to its Termination in an Inhabited Region, in the Interior of the Earth!” (New York: R. H. Elton, 1839). Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
  36. Sears points out that, before the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, “[g]eology reigned as the supreme science, the field of scientific inquiry that seemed most capable of yielding conclusions about the ultimate nature of the universe” (42). Because of this, he argues, “the cave naturally aroused curiosity about its origin.” Many of the fictional works I explore in this section exploited this curiosity by using Mammoth Cave as the site for ancient civilizations that made a symbolic claim for the white race to the continent.
  37. Henry Parker’s “New Wonders of the Mammoth Cave” was included in Parker’s Poems(Auburn, NY: Knapp and Peck, 1850).
  38. Startling Disclosures! Mysteries Solved! On the History of Esther Livingstone, and Dark Career of Henry Baldwin(Philadelphia: E. Elmer Barclay, 1853).
  39. Published anonymously as “A Tragedy of Mammoth Cave,” The Knickerbocker 51 (February 1858): 112–121.
  40. Nathan Ryno Smith, Legends of the South (Baltimore: William K. Boyle, 1869).
  41. Mansfield Tracy Walworth, Warwick; or, The Lost Nationalities of America (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1869).
  42. For an excellent discussion of stereoscopy see Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), esp. the second half of chapter four.
  43. These stereoscopic images were reproduced a year later in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.
  44. Ever since his death, many commentators have cited Bishop’s decision to remain at the cave after gaining his freedom, despite his oft-stated wish to move to Liberia, as evidence of his “content/ment” and his intense connection to the cave. Significantly, as Schmitzer points out, Croghan apparently offered his slaves the opportunity to resettle in Liberia through the Kentucky Colonization Society.
  45. Many of the most brilliant and influential studies of nineteenth-century racial logic privilege the dichotomy of subjection and agency: Saidiya Hartman, for example, highlights how even the most innocuous-seeming aspects of nineteenth-century southern culture can be understood as “scenes of subjection” that “restored racial terms of social order” (29); while Daphne Brooks traces how black artists and performers, by calling “attention to the hypervisibility and cultural constructions of blackness” (5), articulated both dissent and autonomy from the racial logic of nineteenth-century America. See Hartman,Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). I am arguing that in the pages of so many works invoking Mammoth Cave during the final decades of slavery, we see the vocabulary of power and subjection not as foundational ideals that signify either self-surrender—or self-articulation, but as signifiers that operate within the all-pervading reach of slavery’s symbolic field.

Recommended Resources

Originally published by Southern Spaces, 02.09.2010, republished with permission in accordance with the Budapest Open Access Initiative.