He was buried eight-feet underground, but ‘Captain’ Frank Allen was very much alive.
The time frame was the 1963 West Virginia Centennial and Ripley’s Fourth of July Celebration. A 54-year-old resident of Beckley, Allen had multiple motivations for his stunt.
His plan was to establish a new world record for being buried alive. A consummate showman, Allen had previously been buried 62 days in Texas. He thought the right time to surpass that record was during West Virginia’s century of statehood observance and the right place was Ripley. He was aware of the town’s crowd-pleasing Fourth of July Celebration and thought the town’s name might gain attention from the folks from “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”
Allen’s other catalyst was money. Times were slow for his regular occupation as an entertainer in carnival side shows. He attempted to live up to his self-title of “World’s Most Unusual Man” by eating fire, light bulbs and razor blades, throwing knives at human targets, and pulling a car by his teeth. At other times he served as a human xylophone, tapping out tunes by striking his skull with spoons.
He managed to pocket a little cash that spring by appearing as a clown at business openings around Beckley.
In addition to covering household bills, he was desperate to generate funds to finance his 2-year-old son’s sight-saving eye surgery. That was the most intriguing aspect, according to Doug Skeen, who documented the story in 1993 for the Jackson Star News.
“That was the most fascinating angle for me,” Skeen said. “He loved his son, Rodney, enough to do this in order to raise money for the operation he needed.”
Arriving in town with his publicist, Charles Nary, Allen built his make-shift coffin out white spruce acquired from JCo Lumber. It was six-feet long (Allen was five-feet, four-inches), 23-inches tall and 25-inches wide. A small mattress somewhat cushioned his stay.
Ripley Little League supporters were hired to staff the admission gate. A one-by-two-foot top-side opening allowed meals to be delivered and essentials to be removed via rope and bucket. Radio personality Rex Osborne occasionally lowered down a microphone for WMOV’s broadcast interviews.
Food was prepared by the Village Cafeteria and J & J Truck Stop, which was near his “burial” site along Route 21 on the edge of Ripley. He dug in on land owned by Ken and Gladys McIntyre who ran a welding and machine shop.
Allen lasted beyond Memorial Day, West Virginia Day, and the Fourth of July, but crowds began to lag and his scheme started to unravel. Slightly more than halfway through his target of 100 days, the burial act had realized only $300. He was competing for attention with mainstays such as the carnival and a newcomer to Jackson County tourism. The summer of ’63 brought the first Mountain State Art & Craft Fair to Cedar Lakes.
His publicist packed his camper and left town on July 23. Allen thought he had been abandoned, but Nary later told a Charleston Gazette reporter that he went to drum up more interest.
Allen had intended to remain in the box until Aug. 18. While he managed to surpass his previous record set in Houston, he would give up on day 73.
Feeling weary, he asked property co-owner Gladys McIntyre to get help and a shovel. She was quoted in the Gazette stating that a small crowd gathered to watch, but she did the bulk of the digging herself. Employed as a “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II, she was accustomed to hard work, according to her daughter Dorma McIntyre Hughes.
Little is known about Allen, nor the fate of his toddler, Rodney. “The World’s Most Unusual Man” departed Ripley still owing JCo $70 for building supplies.
Although he longed for a more stable career in furniture repair, he more than likely returned to his carnival roots and to hear “send in the clown.” Having been born on a circus train to parents who wobbled through their high wire balancing act, that was the life Frank Allen knew best.