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Following is an article that appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Kentucky Explorer. Readers are welcome to submit articles.


B. J. Palmer: Caveologist, Chiropractor, World Traveler

Details Of His Early Excursions To Mammoth Cave

By Bob Thompson - 2014

For a number of years now, I have had a photo postcard in my collection of B. J. Palmer and his wife, Mabel, taken at Mammoth Cave, Edmonson County, Kentucky. At the time I purchased the postcard, I did not make the connection of who Palmer was. To me, the Palmers were just tourists at Mammoth Cave who had a picture made. It was only after I did some research that I realized that B. J. Palmer was a significant figure in the field of chiropractic.
Bartlett Joshua "B. J." Palmer (September 14, 1882 - May 21, 1961) was a pioneer of chiropractic and was the son of Daniel David Palmer, the founder of chiropractic. Daniel D. Palmer opened the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, in 1897.
On May 30, 1904, B. J. Palmer married Mabel Heath, and they both worked as chiropractors and instructors at Palmer College. B. J. Palmer is given credit for developing the chiropractic profession into what it has become today. He is known as a noted lecturer, world traveler, and author of a number of books.
The Palmers enjoyed travelling. As an escape from the stressful life of running the chiropractic school, the Palmers traveled around the world several times, giving lectures and collecting antiquities for their home in Davenport.
In his travels, B. J. Palmer always sought out caves. It has been said that "B. J. can smell a hole in the ground like a tombstone man smells a newly-made grave."



(Left) A postcard view of Mr. and Mrs. B. J. Palmer and the "cave" donkey at Mammoth Cave, Edmonson County, Kentucky. The photo was taken by Harry M. Pinson, cave photographer, on September 15, 1910.

B. J. Palmer (above) as he appeared in the 1920s. The photo is courtesy of the Palmer College of Chiropractic Archives, Davenport, Iowa.


For 40 years, Palmer made an intensive study of caves. Holding a degree in caveology, Palmer was very knowledgeable of the caves he visited. He studied all the great caves of the world including Mammoth, Luray, Carlsbad, and Jenolan. He occasionally gave talks at the college to his class assembly. Palmer "inspected, and studied the topography, character, level, construction, growths of every well-known cave of importance."
In his 1949 book, Bigness of the Fellow Within, Palmer goes into great detail about many of these caves.
According to a Davenport newspaper, B. J. Palmer and his wife "made several trips" to Mammoth Cave during their travels. "On our trips south, via Kentucky, we make it a point to visit one or more caves-some of them more than once. Mammoth Cave is one that never tires."
The Palmers first visited the cave in 1904 as a result of their honeymoon to Washington, D. C., and the South. They also visited the cave in 1910 and 1950. In his book from 1951, Conflicts Clarify, Palmer talks about some of his trips to Mammoth Cave.
"About forty-five years ago, we made our first trip to this cave country. We came then by L & N train to Glasgow Junction, took stub line railroad engine (Hercules) and one open air coach to the cave ten miles away. Today, we came by car to Cave City (Barren County), then over perfect highway. In former days, all wore bloomers or overalls, heavy boots; now ordinary clothes. Then each person carried his own torch. Today, in large part it is electrically lighted, although torches are also used to throw up to unlighted spots.
"In those days there were rough log cabins and such food as colored folks prepared. Today, there is a modern hotel, cabins and cottages, electric lights, hot and cold water, baths, etc. The dining room is excellent, with fountain and light lunch service. In those days, heirs owned property. Today, it is a U. S. National Park, government controlled. Concessions and their prices are regulated, prices for all things being reasonable.
"'Old Cave' has long been known. In 1938, there was discovered another entrance to Crystal Lake, which cave connected with Original Mammoth Cave. Entrance from old to new is via Echo River, by boat. In event of heavy surface rains, Echo River rises and makes this impossible. On the day we were there, it had risen 11-1/2 feet.
"This new cave in our opinion is one of the most beautiful parts of what is now entire Mammoth Cave. Upon arrival, we contacted Taylor Hoskins. As a result, he arranged for us to see 'The New Discovery' as yet unnamed. Leon Hunt, one of older and most experienced guides, and son of one of the guides present when we were there 45 years ago, took us on this tour.
"Because of this 'new discovery' being so beautiful, and so seldom entered even by guides and not to the public at all, Mr. Lix, naturalist of the park, went with us-only we three. We drove over hills, thru woods, on an unbeaten road, climbed a hill, opened a few locked doors, then down a steep incline cut in rock to permit entrance. This decline was rugged, unfinished. From there on in, one is on his own, up and down, in and around, over rocks and, while going was rough, we liked it.
"Close by the entrance, we saw hundreds of eyeless crickets mating. Leon said they came to entrance to mate-why, he didn't know. After they mated, they go back into depths of cave-why, he didn't know. It seemed we must have walked eighteen miles, but as far as we went-which wasn't to end, by any means-gypsum formations were the most beautiful of any we have seen in any cave anywhere. We suggested the name 'Gypsum Grandaflora Cave.' It fits and is appropriate. We hope it will be completed and opened to the public, and the gorgeous formations will be fully protected against human rats who like to chip, break, and handle things they should let alone."
On May 7, 1908, Palmer presented an illustrated lecture on Mammoth Cave in front of a large crowd at the Duncan's Business College in Davenport. There was so much interest in this talk "even the largest room at the Palmer School was unable to hold the crowd."
According to the Davenport Democrat and Leader from May 6, 1908:
"The lecture promises to be worthy of the good attendance which will be accorded to it and will be illustrated with 121 views of this wonderful place. You will travel on the famous Echo River; see underground waterfalls greater than Niagara Falls, etc.
"We predict a very interesting and instructive time, one not easily forgotten. Dr. Palmer is a man of character, strong personality and sterling worth. He has individuality which will be manifested in his lecture. He is an able lecturer as the numerous calls which he will gratify by an extended tour of 64 lectures."
According to the Davenport Daily Times from May 6, 1908:
"His (Palmer's) ideas and memories are vivid, and his photographs and stereopticon slides are perfect reproductions. He will deliver this lecture, with 121 illustrations, covering 25 miles of this marvelous cave Lovers of nature will have a feast, as every flower in the greenhouse or florist's catalogue will be represented as formed of solid stone; one Martha Washington Statue, which is perfect, and many other phases of rock study will be portrayed."
According to the publication The Chiropractor from May 8, 1908, Palmer delivered a "splendid illustrated lecture on the wonderful Mammoth Cave" to about 200 people. "The lecturer was in his usual fine form and kept his audience fully absorbed and interested for 2-1/2 hours. The views were splendid, and three routes were taken covering 25 miles of this immense and awe-inspiring wonder of the world. It was an education in travel, and set many longing to see the wonderful cave in reality. Dr. Palmer ably described all the interesting details so vividly as to carry the audience with him and forget, for a time, their actual surroundings."
In 1910 the Palmers returned to Mammoth Cave where the photo was taken of them with the "cave" donkey by Mammoth Cave resident photographer, Harry M. Pinson. The Palmers had a number of postcards made from the original negative that were given to family and friends. The original photo from the negative can be found today on the mantel of the Palmers residence in Davenport, Iowa, which is open to the public for tours. The image is a 9"x13" size. According to Alana Callendar, Senior Director of the Palmer Foundation for Chiropractic History, "This photograph has been on the mantel in B. J.'s office for as long as I can remember."
Besides photos taken with the donkey, pictures were also taken of tourists in front of the entrance to Mammoth Cave before they ventured in, but it is unsure if the Palmers had their photo taken there.
The following text of Mammoth Cave and White Cavern was written in B. J. Palmer's 1949 book, Bigness of the Fellow Within. It is unsure if Palmer wrote some of this as he refers to his cave guide as "Old Mat" ("Old Mat" is Mat Bransford, who died in 1886). It looks that Palmer may have obtained his information from an old Mammoth Cave handbook written in 1909 by noted Mammoth Cave author, Horace Hovey. Hovey wrote a number of books and articles on the cave from 1880 to 1912.
Mammoth Cave
"Have traveled more than 120 miles through its channels, sometimes crisscrossing back and forth through its various levels to do so. When this mileage is stated, some remark: 'We didn't think it was that long.' It isn't, but as one wanders back and forth, up and down, much mileage can be stacked up in a small space.
It has the Echo River, one of the few caves that has. It is so named because about its center there is a partition wall that lowers itself, and a call issued at that break echoes back and forth from one side to the other.
"Eyeless fish, crickets, and grasshoppers are found in this cave. They are referred to as 'blind fish.' No fish can be blind that never had eyes. These fish have lived in darkness so long they have lost development of eyes.
"Same is true of crickets and grasshoppers.
"On one of our many trips into the cave with Old Mat, the negro guide who has been there so many years (who is now dead) we discovered Olive's Bower which we named after Miss Olive, the first name of the wife of the manager of the log cabins at that time. It was here we found 'helictites' which we describe later.
"At no time, in this cave, are we ever more than several hundred feet from the surface. This is usual in most caves.
At one time, somebody suggested the air in this cave might be good for tuberculosis cases. Huts were built to live in. That theory soon petered out.
"In several rooms, especially in Violet's Cavern, gypsum hangs from ceilings in forms of white flowers that look like roses, chrysanthemums, etc. Mammoth Cave gets its name from the fact that it was the largest cave discovered as of that date.
White's Cavern
"It is larger than Mammoth, is less known, harder to get to or in. It is back in the hills and has been less exploited.
"It was inhabited by people at some time, either by hundreds of thousands, or hundreds covering thousands of years. Who these people were, when they were, nobody knows.
"Evidence which sustains this conclusion is found in end sticks of what appear to be bamboo-like torches. Evidently long sticks at one time, as they burned down one section after another, they cut off the joint and used the next hollow section. Possibly used bear oil to burn. When they got down to the last stub, they were thrown into one room. There are enough of these torch ends there now to fill 100 box cars.
"In another room is human faeces; eight acres of it, eight feet thick. It is apparent that our conclusion is sound, that to produce this, it was either hundreds of thousands of people for a short time, or hundreds for thousands of years.
"In one part of this dry cave, there is a large, flat, smooth rock which fell off the ceiling and dropped down at a 45-degree angle, that made it possible for people to slide on this smooth rock from one high level to a lower one. In so doing, one can see that they sat with their two hands on each side, with legs bent up. The stone is worn away with a center groove 18 inches deep, with two smaller grooves on each side where they rested their hands to keep their balance.
"This cavern is dry. No water is found. Old Mat (the same guide of Mammoth) and we were hunting here for further remains of human living. In one room we dropped our lanterns down between rocks and saw a wooden dish-what appeared to be one-half of what is similar to our modern pickle dish. It was on the sand bed about 20 feet down. It was one of the accessible places where we could get in, but once in it proved inaccessible to get out. We were there to stay. Mat had to go outside, get extra help with crowbars, to get us out. It was then we realized how lonesome and how dark it could be when one is left alone in a cave. We were not scared because we knew Mat knew his way around.
"In another room we found, for the first time, evidence of human people; a mummified, dried body of a mother with babe clasped to her breast. We had no difficulty bringing it to the surface. This body is now in the Louisville Museum. It is the only body discovered in this cavern so far as we know."
Mabel Palmer died from a stroke in 1949. In 1951, B. J. Palmer purchased a home in Sarasota, Florida, where he lived out his last years. He died in 1961 from intestinal cancer. Soon after, his son, David Daniel Palmer, assumed the role of President of Palmer School of Chiropractic. David Daniel Palmer was known as "the Educator" with his "straightforward leadership and brought greater legitimacy and recognition to the chiropractic profession."

Bob Thompson, 5651 Sterling Lakes Circle, Apt. 208, Mason, OH 45040; bhthompson26@gmail.com, shares this article with our readers.