The Story of Professor Johnstone's Visit to Wind Cave

three men in a sepia photo wearing old fashioned suits posing in a studio against a backdrop
Left to right: Alvin McDonald, Professor Johnstone, and John Moore

NPS Photo

A Mind Reader, A Pin Head, and a Fool; The Story of "Professor" Johnstone's Visit to Wind Cave

By Tom Farrell
Presented at the Dakota History Conference
April 8, 1988

Occasionally an event occurs which blossoms into a happening, a story which becomes more than fact; it becomes legend- a legend retold over the years until the distinction between myth and reality is lost. Swallowed by the passage of time, the events, like its participants, fade into history, the myth and reality becoming one. Such is the case of Professor Johnstone's visit to Wind Cave in June of 1893. If newspapers are to be believed, a clairvoyant "Professor" named Paul Alexander Johnstone wagered he would be able to find, while blindfolded, a pin head hidden within the depths of Wind Cave. Newspapers record that he found it after three days, but did they record the facts, or the legend in the making?

Professor Johnstone, the world renowned mind reader who drove through the streets of Chicago blindfolded, will give an exhibition of his wonderful powers at the Opera House next Tuesday evening, May 23rd.

This was how the Hot Springs Star introduced Johnstone to the Southern Black Hills. Johnstone claimed to be able to read the mind of a person next to him, thus "seeing" whatever they were seeing. His act in Hot Springs included driving through town and finding names in hotel registers, all the while blindfolded. His amazing powers led to additional performances at the Opera House and within a week of his arrival, Johnstone and his manager, M.E. Rice, ventured out to Wind Cave. The cave's chief guide, 19-year old Alvin McDonald, noted exploring with the two on May 28 and finding eleven new rooms.

Historic black and white photographic portrait of John Stabler, a white man with a mustache wearing a dark suit and white shirt.
John Stabler

NPS Archive Photo

Typically, it was John Stabler, co-manager of the cave, who first broached the idea of a blindfolded hunt. After all, this was the same Stabler who, less than a year earlier, commissioned the construction of a plaster of Paris model of a human figure, which after a miraculous discovery, was exhibited at the cave for a nominal fee as a genuine case of human petrifaction. The comparison of Stabler with our present day perception of a used-car salesman is striking.

The guaranteed public appeal of such an undertaking was not lost on Johnstone and Rice, who for immediate monetary reward wagered a local business one thousand dollars Johnstone could find an object hidden in Wind Cave. The object to be hidden would be a golden, scarf pin head made by a jeweler in Hot Springs. From Stabler's point of view, the success of Johnstone's quest was not to be measured by the recovery of the pin head, but by the amount of publicity generated in the excitement.

The contest rules were:

Johnstone is to be locked in a suite of rooms in the Evans [hotel] with two chosen citizens and the doors and windows sealed. Also two guards who are chosen citizens, to be stationed in the hall way preventing any possible agency of confederacy, while Johnstone is thus watched. Another committee are to drive to Wind cave (sic) Friday morning June 2d at eight o'clock, hide the pin head and report at the Evans that night by midnight. The following day, Saturday, June 3d, Johnstone is to be blindfolded by the committee in his rooms, drive to the cave, make the descent, find the pin head and return with same to the Evans. The blindfold is not to be removed during the trial, and the time for finding the pin head is unlimited.

Realizing a good story also sells newspapers, the Hot Springs Star clarified potential hazards:

The cave has now been explored for ninety miles and is literally full of dangerous chasms, dizzy heights and monstrous rooms making it perilous for even the guides, and for Johnstone to undertake the passages blindfolded appears to be simply a guarantee of an awful fate. If the feat is accomplished Johnstone will rightly have the applaud of the thinking world. If he fails he will at least have, like lrving Bishop, a tragic ending.

Friday's edition of the Star reported:

W.U. Germond and J.H. Boomer, constituting the committee to hide the pin head in Wind cave (sic), left this morning and have until tomorrow morning to hide it. Tomorrow morning upon their return, Johnstone the mind reader will start blind-folded from the Evans, drive to the cave and find the pin head, or forfeit one thousand dollars and his national reputation. Personally we have no doubt he will find the pin head. But the question is whether he will be able to endure the severe mental strain. If he succeeds in this, we are of the opinion that for his next Herculean task he should undertake to find the pocket in a woman's dress.

After spending a long night in the cave, Germond and Boomer returned to Hot Spring Saturday morning. In between accusing each other of being lost, they announced the pin head was hidden five hours into the cave.

The undertaking was set to begin on Saturday, June third, but it was delayed a day to await the arrival of H.F. Lancaster, the Elkhorn Railroad photographer out of Omaha. A delay prompting protest from people who felt the hunt was not a "proper observance of the Sabbath." Meanwhile, Johnstone was "kept penned up in his room and was wrought up to a great pitch of excitement until it was hard to keep him quiet."

black and white photo of a stagecoach with Wind Cave written on it drawn by four horses in front of a wooden building
Jensen's stagecoach in front of the Wind Cave Hotel.

NPS Archive Photo

After the "light made an impression of the motley scene on the photographer's plate" Sunday morning, the blindfolded Johnstone rushed through the crowd outside

and without faltering led the way to his carriage, in which were seated committee members N. Germond, J. Boomer, and John Moore, press correspondent. Jumping nimbly to the driver's seat he grasped the whip and struck the horses a cut and they bounded away on a dead gallop, Johnstone handling the lines like a veteran coachman. Many teams were passed without collision. The trip was made without incident until Valertlies (sic) ranch was reached. There the committee man's mind became confused and he allowed Johnstone to wander from the road. With the regaining of the right route almost simultaneously Johnstone swung the team abruptly left, just missing a gully fifty feet deep. He said after the trip that he saw the place in Mr. Gennond's mind and that there was no danger, as he was careful. He did not seem to be however, to the who had all they could do to retain their seats. The only other place where the lives of the party were in danger was the last half mile of the road. There the road winds about the edge of a hill and descends into a narrow, rocky gulch. It is very erratic in its course and studded with big boulders. It is a place where the most careful driver will walk his horses.

Johnstone continued to lash his team into a mad run, despite the prayers and entreaties of his party, who were terror-stricken. During the trip through this gulch the wagon was in the air half the time as were its occupants.

Moore reported it was the most thrilling ride he had ever experienced-with good reason. A normal ride took one and a half to two hours; Johnstone's took fifty-two minutes. The horses used to pull the carriage were the first causalities. One immediately dropped dead upon arrival at the cave, and the other was never any good afterwards. This resulted in Chris Jensen, the team's owner, later suing Johnstone for 75 dollars.

black and white photo of two old wooden buildings along a ravine, a small bridge crossing the ravine has a group of visitors in old clothing standing on it
Wind Cave Hotel and cave entrance - 1890s

NPS Archive Photo

Entering Wind Cave's hotel, the blindfolded Professor found manager John Stabler in the midst of being shaved by his son George. Johnstone promptly took the razor, warned George not to take his eyes off his father, and proceeded to shave a few strokes, greatly exciting Stabler's family. The circumstances not withstanding, John Stabler later remarked that it was as good a shave as he's ever had in a barber shop. The cave register was signed by all before departing the hotel, the party consisting of Johnstone, McDonald the guide, Moore the correspondent, Boomer and Germond of the committee, and Lancaster the photographer. After making their way down the wooden steps behind the hotel, they disappeared into the cave and into a great amount of speculation concerning the events which transpired over the next three days.

At 1:30 the party were at the mouth of the cave, from whence was issuing the wind with a terrible roaring sound, its velocity being 150 miles per hour. The dark opening and the fast rushing wind were enough to stagger the stoutest (sic) hearted, and many tried to deter the mind reader, who was in a terribly nervous state, from making the attempt but he only said, "Come! We must find the pin head!" Before descending he made the party swear to stay with him, to which they agreed ... he bade goodbye to sunshine and started on his perilous trip, his last instructions being that searchers were to be sent to the rescue if the party did not return within twenty-four hours.

Back in Hot Springs a

bulletin board had been fixed up in front of Eaton and Wilcox's store on which were posted bulletins of a more or less exaggerated nature all afternoon. Among them were "Boomer's whiskers have turned gray" and "Johnstone wrote letters to his triads and made his will before entering the cave" etc.

Sepia-toned photograph of a cave room with a ledge in the middle and a ceiling filled with boxwork.
Johnstone's Campground

NPS Archive Photo

Moore later reported:
The trip was a veritable Alpine climb, with the attending danger a hundred times greater. The first twenty-four hours Johnstone went steadily forward, but after that he became delirious and the party become despondent. The despondency grew when the guide, Alvin McDonald, informed the party that they were in an unexplored region of the cave, from which he did not know the way out. For the nonce the pin head was abandoned and the party turned attention to extricating itself. From then until Wednesday morning the party wandered aimlessly about, suffering much from mental anxiety and the numerous hurts received.

Their scant supply of provisions was giving out and the candles were at ebbs. Johnstone became delirious and raved continually. The party only by dint of will power was prevented from becoming crazy. All devices to enliven spirits were resorted to keep spirits up. Whiskers were singed by candles and all manner of tricks were performed to divert the mind from the situation.

Rescue preparations began as Johnstone's self-imposed deadline of 24 hours passed.

Dr. Johnston started early this morning to be there ready to attend the mind reader, should any accident befall him or to resuscitate him in the event of a collapse of his physical powers. The only trouble about the matter is the liability of the committee forgetting the location of the pin. The latest report from the cave is that no word is heard from the party although they have been in the cave for twenty-six hours.

Monday evening things started heating up in Hot Springs:

People are greatly excited here and at Wind Cave post office over Johnstone, the mind reader, who entered the cave thirty-one hours ago in search of a pin head. As yet nothing has been heard from him or party. At 11 o'clock last night a magnesium light was seen on the route known as the Alpine Way ten miles from the mouth of the cave, but as it was some 300 feet overhead and in a different tier of chambers, it was impossible to communicate with him, and at the time all was supposed to be well with him, but as the hours have passed and no further news has arrived all are greatly alarmed and a party of searchers has started. The meager lunch provided will last but a short time, as there are five men in the party.

What some considered Moore's last message was found late Monday or early Tuesday.

The following message, signed John Moore, the press correspondent who accompanied Johnstone, the mind reader in his perilous trip in Wind Cave in search of a hidden pin head, was found by the guides who went in search for the party, eighteen miles from the mouth of the cave: "For God's sake send help, party in terrible condition, wandering about in unexplored portion of the cave unable to extricate us. Guide is badly rattled as Johnstone is almost delirious from a wound in the head, caused by a fall during temporary darkness, the candles being blown out. Johnstone implores the committee to push on with him. Committee wanted to remain here as they say matters only become worse as they proceed further.

Johnstone pitiably requests them to stay by him and save his reputation, crying, 'Concentrate your minds gentlemen, concentrate your minds! Unless help arrives we shall certainly perish. We are now without food or water." Men crowd the streets and discuss the matter and everybody knowing anything of the passages of the cave is on the search.

Regardless of Johnstone's situation. Stabler could not have planned it better, as the Hot Springs Star reported receiving inquiries from across the nation regarding the quest.

Johnstone and his party are still in the cave and no tidings of their whereabouts have yet been received. A party looked all night for them and found the empty dinner pail and coffee pot. They are without food or drink, and the excitement grows more intense every hour. They have been in there now about fifty five hours.


It was early Wednesday morning when Alvin began recognizing where they were in the cave. As the day progressed, they made their way over familiar territory until entering Standing Rock Chamber where

A nervous thrill came over his [Johnstone's] whole frame and he twitched as though an electric current was passing through his system. He immediately declared that the pin was near and after a moment's hesitation headed for the exact spot on a ledge where it lay and after a little mental investigation placed the point of the knife blade which he held in his hand, right on the pin head. He did not suffer any collapse just then as many thought he would, but stood the trip out very well until he was about five miles from the entrance when his physical powers broke down and he collapsed.

While they waited for a stretcher to be sent down, Johnstone "raved continually, his companion having to wrestle with him to keep him from rushing back into the cave."

Years later, Johnstone related:

When they [the search party] arrived in that portion of the cave two members of the party were insensible. I was raving and Moore was the only man in his right mind. He had me down on the floor of the cave, my throat clutched with his hand while in the other hand he held a Colt revolver. We had had nothing to eat for five (sic) days and four nights. McDonald dies soon after that, one of the party was adjudged insane and taken to the asylum. I was almost blind and it was necessary to have an operation performed on my eyes.

When the stretcher arrived, Johnstone was carried out as physicians worked to prevent the onset of brain fever, which many felt was likely to develop. They returned to Hot Springs "covered with dirt and tallow drippings" to a triumphant welcome, as "they had been mourned as dead." The feat was hailed as "unquestionably a genuine test of mind reading, as it was impossible for anything savoring a fake to have been attempted."

But what really happened? Why did Alvin McDonald never mention the hunt in his diary? By 1893, the diary he had "attended to fairly regularly" had fewer and fewer entries, but he was still recording new discoveries, and none of those involved the Johnstone excursion. Alvin thus neglected mentioning the longest cave trip he ever took, let alone descriptions of the supposedly many new discoveries, and what's more, he apparently never revisited the newly explored areas. Coincidently, he made no mention of Stabler's petrified man a year earlier. While he left with Johnstone for Omaha within a few days, and possibly might have been too busy to immediately record his discoveries, Alvin never mentioned the pin head hunt in his diary before dying from typhoid fever the following winter.

five young women with curly hair and old fashioned dresses pose in a black and white photo
Katie Stabler (front row center) was the first woman to explore Wind Cave.

NPS Archive Photo

It is apparent from all the attention they were receiving that sneaking up and sleeping at the hotel each night would have been impossible, but what about supplies being sent down? Katie Stabler wrote years later in her memoirs:

We knew where they were all the time as we sent a guide a distance behind them in case they should get lost. This guide carried blankets to sleep on and food to places he knew they would pass.

This possibly accounts for "search parties" finding notes and discarded lunch pails indicating Johnstone was not in the cave as deep as newspaper accounts stated. Perhaps it also explains why there have never been any signatures of the group found on cave walls. It was a common practice to write, or smoke, the names of members of groups on the walls or ceilings of rooms they discovered. If they spent a considerable amount of time wandering about in previously unexplored areas of the cave, if they were desperate enough to write "For God's sake, send help," it is surprising they never recorded their presence for searchers, or for documentation of their discoveries.

Besides revealing how the party was resupplied from the surface, Katie Stabler also claimed it was not Johnstone that led the party to the room where the pin was hidden, but Alvin McDonald. "They were three days and nights and were getting exhausted, so Alva took them to the place where the pinhead (sic) was hidden."

If Stablers were secretly helping Johnstone, why did their good friend and neighbor, Bob McAdam, insist in a 1957 interview Johnstone found the pin head on his own, like the newspapers claimed? Was McAdam not let in on the secret, or was Katie Stabler making false statements? Perhaps we will really never know for sure what happened, or why, instead of extolling the virtues of Johnstone like others did, why did the press correspondent write in the cave register upon arriving back on the surface "John Moore of Johnstone's party, one of the fools."

Today you can visit Standing Rock chamber where the quest ended and decide for yourself what happened those three days in June, when Wind Cave captured the attention of the country, and Professor Paul Alexander Johnstone found the pin head.

Johnstone later became a medical doctor in Kansas City, Missouri. He died in 1941.


"A Mind Reader in South Dakota." The Daily Star. [Hot Springs, SD], 9 June 1893.

"A Party of Adventurers Lose Their Way in Wind Cave, South Dakota." Omaha Morning World-Herald. 7 June 1893.

"Wind Cave Register, 1890-1893." Located at the Wind Cave National Park Museum.

The Daily Star. 19 May; 2, 5, 7, 9, 23 June 1893.

"He Found the Pin." The Daily Star. 9 June 1893.

"Johnstone Himself Again." Omaha World Herald. II June 1893.

"Johnstone; The Greatest Feat of the Age Successfully Performed." The Daily Star. 8 June 1893.

"Johnstone's Wild Undertaking." The Daily Star. 31 Hay 1893.

Koller, Joe. "37 Years Haven't Dimmed Memory of Being Lost in Wind Cave Chamber." Rapid City Journal. II March 1951, p. 24.

Moore, John. "His Venture at the Cave." Omaha World Herald. 10 June 1893.

Owen, Luella Agnes. 1898. Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970.

McAdam, Robert and Fannie McAdam. Interview with John Bohi in August of 1957. Tape located at the Wind Cave National Park Museum.

McDonald, Alvin F. "The Private Account of A.F. McDonald, Permanent Guide of Wind Cave." Located at the Wind Cave National Park Museum.

"The Paul Alexander Johnstone's Wind Cave Story." The Daily Star. 5 February 1897.

"Scared About Johnstone; Thirty-One Hours in Wind Cave and Not Returned." Omaha Morning World-Herald, 6 June 1893.

Smith, Mrs. George M. and Mrs. Mary Gregory. Interview with John Bohi on 3&7 July 1958. Located at the Wind Cave National Park Museum.

Stabler, Katie. "Katie Stabler's Memoirs." Located at the Wind Cave National Park Museum.
"Still in the Cave." The Daily Star, 6 June 1893

Last updated: September 5, 2023

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