Thursday, September 23, 2021

Elmer J. McCurdy -- Outlaw & Freak Show Corpse

Elmer J. McCurdy was born on January 1, 1880. He was 31-year-old when he was killed in a shoot-out with police after robbing a Katy Train in Oklahoma on October 7, 1911. 

According to some sources, Elmer McCurdy was born illegitimate. As a young man he left Maine to come West. He learned how to use explosives while in the U.S. Army at the age of 26. While he later became a down-on-your-luck drunk, many believe his drinking was because he suffered from tuberculosis. It is believed his trade was working with explosives. He worked with nitroglycerin in the mines. It was in the mines where he contracted tuberculosis. He later used nitroglycerin to try to make a fast buck. But frankly, he wasn't very good at it.

We know McCurdy was a petty thief, a small-time bank robber, a wannabe train robber who failed at everything he tried. And while some say McCurdy was just a criminal who was lousy at his trade, we know that he turned to stealing and robbing as part of a small gang at some point late in his short life.

The year 1911 would be a horrible year for the wannabe outlaw. While in Kansas in March of that year, McCurdy and three cohorts tried to rob the Mountain-Missouri Pacific because it was said its safe held $4,000. The four stopped the train. After finding the safe, McCurdy put nitroglycerin in the safe door. As was his luck in life, he used too much and completely destroyed the safe and most of its contents. 

In September of that same year, the four set out to rob The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. It sounds like a comedy as the four spent hours breaking into the bank through a brick wall. Once inside, McCurdy placed nitroglycerin around the outer vault door. Of course, the hapless robber again used too much and blew the vault door and the bank's interior to smithereens. That is, without ever damaging the cash safe that sat inside the vault. 

One would think that McCurdy and the others would be running for their lives by then, but that wasn't the case. Instead, he tried to blow the smaller safe door open. Again using nitroglycerin, the men hunkered down in safety, waiting for it to ignite -- but it didn't. It was at that point that they decided to get out as fast as they could. All they got from their attempt was $100 or so dollars that they found in a cashier tray.

The ill-fated McCurdy and his associates attempted to rob a Katy Train near Okesa, Oklahoma, on October 4, 1911. The gang had heard that its safe was carrying $400,000 in cash intended as payments to the Osage Nation. Image that for a moment. If they had actually got away with that, they would have been more significant than any other train robbers in our entire history. 

Of course, instead of the train with all of that money, McCurdy and his pals mistakenly stopped a passenger train instead. Yes, they stopped the wrong train. Their train robbery netted them $46 and a few items of their liking, including a few gallons of whiskey and the train conductor's watch. A local newspaper called the robbery "One of the smallest in the history of train robberies."

Even though the gang had split up, a sheriff's posse tracked down McCurdy, a small robbery or not. Using bloodhounds, the posse found McCurdy. It said that he was drunk by then and made the mistake of opening fire on the posse. The posse returned fire. He was killed almost instantly when two rounds struck him in the chest. 

Thus ended the life of hapless Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy. But, his strange story is that of a failed end-of-the-Old West outlaw whose corpse ended up in a carnival and then finally as a funhouse prop for a television show. That's where in the late 1970s it was discovered that he wasn't merely a paper-mache prop.    

How did he end up there? After he was killed by being shot to the chest after robbing a Katy Train in Oklahoma on October 7, 1911. He was embalmed with an arsenic preparation and put on display at a Pawhuska, Oklahoma funeral home. He ended up on display for almost 5 years. 

It's true, believe it or not, since months went by without McCurdy's body being claimed, the undertaker dressed McCurdy's corpse in clothes that he had on hand, placed a broken rifle in the hands, and stood McCurdy in the corner of the funeral home. As ghoulish as it sounds, at the mortuary, visitors could view him. But only after placing a nickel in the corpse's mouth. 

Imagine that, the undertaker charged visitors a nickel to view McCurdy who he dubbed "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up". For five years, the undertaken displayed Elmer McCurdy's unclaimed body. And yes, the undertaker is said to have made a fortune doing it.

Supposedly, a man showed up after 5 years to claim McCurdy's body. His name was James Patterson, and he claimed to be Elmer's brother from California. He took McCurdy's body with him. Of course, he was not Elmer's brother. And while I don't know if he got the idea from the undertaker or not, he saw having McCurdy's mummified corpse as a way of making money. 

James Patterson was in fact the owner of the Great Patterson Traveling Circus. Patterson put McCurdy’s corpse on display labeled his corpse as "The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive." It's said McCurdy became a very popular exhibit in his freak show until Patterson sold out in 1922. 

McCurdy's mummified corpse was bought by other Freak Shows, a director to promote his film, Hollywood film studios as a prop, and even bought by the famed Hollywood Wax Museum for $10,000. It was while at the Hollywood Wax Museum that McCurdy's corpse suffered the most. It was there that McCurdy corpse had its the tips of his ears along with fingers and toes broken off. And believe it or not, there is a story that says the wax museum purposely damaged his corpse to make him look more appealing to the public. 

After the Hollywood Wax Museum got rid of his body, McCurdy found his way to The Pike Amusement Zone, an amusement park, in Long Beach, California. Ironicly, outlaw Elmer McCurdy's remains was hanging from a gallows in the "Laff In the Dark" funhouse when he was used in a 1976 television episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man." One scene in the episode entitled "Carnival of Spies" was set in the "Laff in the Dark" funhouse. 

While shooting the episode, a prop man is said to have tried to move McCurdy to a better position. Remember, by then, McCurdy was hanging from a gallows in the funhouse. The prop man thought McCurdy was another paper-mache mannequin, just a prop. When the prop man tried to pull McCurdy down from the gallows, Elmer's arm was ripped right off. It's said the prop man and his crew laughed at first. That is until they looked closer and saw that the arm had a human bone. 

It was then that they realized that the man hanging from the gallows was a real man and not just a carnival prop. When the arm broke off, a human bone and muscle tissue were visible. They immediately called the police. 

In December of 1976, an autopsy by the Los Angeles County coroner's office determined that the body was that of a human male who had died of a gunshot wound to the chest more than 60 years previously. Because McCurdy's body was completely petrified and covered in wax by then, his mummified body only weighed about 50 pounds. Later, it was discovered that the body was that of outlaw Elmer McCurdy who was shot and killed by two bullets to the chest in October of 1911. 

What evidence did they have that it was McCurdy? Well, it's said that the Los Angeles County coroner's office attempted to pin down exactly who this man was through a combination of things such as old records related to the turn of the century and the what they found. They narrowed their search down to the turn of the century and pre-War War I because the coroner found two bullets in his chest. The bullets were from the turn of the century and at the location of the gunshot wounds in the body. Also, they found a coin in the McCurdy's mouth. The coin was dated 1924. 

Along with that coin, the coroner also found several ticket stubs of different venues. For some unknown reason they had been slipped into his mouth. As strange as that sounds, and really no one could answer why that was done, that evidence helped trace the corpse's journey from carnival to freak show to museum to funhouse. That evidence later helped to identify the corpse as that of Elmer McCurdy.

In April of 1977, Elmer McCurdy's body was finally buried. It's true, after more than 60 years on the move, Elmer McCurdy was buried in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, on April 22, 1977. Many felt that since Guthrie, Oklahoma, was the place of his death, that he should be buried there. It is said that his graveside service was attended by about 300 interested citizens and Old West history buffs. Incidentally, he was buried next to fellow outlaw, Bill Doolin. 

And by the way, it is said that the folks in Guthrie wanted to ensure that McCurdy's body would rest in permanent peace. To make sure that happened, McCurdy's casket was encased in concrete. His grave is marked by a marble gravestone that was donated. The inscription on his stone doesn't mention his adventures while getting there. 

It simply says Elmer McCurdy. Shot by Sheriff’s posse in Osage Hils on Oct. 7, 1911. Returned to Guthrie, Okla. From Los Angeles County, Calif. for burial April 22, 1977.

Imagine that.

Tom Correa

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