Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Elmer McCurdy "The Traveling Dead Man"

Story by Terry McGahey

Elmer McCurdy, a small-time thief, train and bank robber, he was an inept bandit at the very least, unlike the James boys and others who were successful holdup men, Elmer McCurdy holds a very distinct place in history as a dead man rather than a holdup man.

Elmer was born on January 1st, 1880 in Washington, Main as an illegitimate child who was raised by other family members to take the shame away from the family and mother. As an adult, his mother and other family members passed on and Elmer, after moving around ended up in Cherryville, Kansas working as a miner and plumber but because of his alcohol addiction he couldn’t hold a job. He then moved on to Iola, Kansas in 1905 where he was arrested for public intoxication. 

After his arrest, Elmer moved on to Webb City, Missouri where in 1907 he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth where he learned the use of machine guns and was given a minimal course in the use of nitroglycerin. Elmer was discharged on November 7, 1910, and moved to St. Joseph, Kansas. While in St. Joseph he and another fellow were arrested for possession of burglary tools such as chisels, hammers, and other items. In court, the two explained that the tools were being used for inventing a new type of machine gun and were found not guilty.

After leaving Webb City Elmer embarked upon his criminal career in the robbery of banks and trains using Nitroglycerin. Not being well schooled with the explosive, that choice became more of a hindrance than a benefit to his activity by not fully realizing the correct amount to use in any given circumstance. 

In March of 1911, he and three other men robbed the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train number 104 carrying $4000.00. They succeeded in stopping the train and Elmer set his nitro charge to blow open the safe but used too much resulting in destroying it along with the money except for some of the silver coins worth $450.00, the rest of the coins were actually fused to the vault frame.

On September 21st, 1911 Elmer and two other men decided to rob a bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. They entered the bank by busting down a wall and gaining entrance to the interior of the bank. Again using too much nitroglycerin to blow the main vault's outer door the force of the blast sent the main door flying through the interior destroying the bank but at the same time, this blast didn’t damage the interior vault. Elmer set another charge but it failed to ignite. The three inept criminals only escaped with $150.00 in coins left in a tray outside the vault.

Elmer’s last robbery attempt took place on October 4th, 1911 near Okese, Oklahoma targeting a Katy Train with another $4000.00 in cash intended as payment to the Osage Nation. The only problem was, that they mistook a passenger train for the Katy Train and all they got was $46.00 which they took from the mail clerk, two containers of whiskey, a revolver, a coat, and the conductor's watch. Afterward, this robbery became known as one of the smallest train robberies in history.

Elmer had no idea that he had become implicated in the robbery and a $2000.00 reward had been posted for his capture. Elmer was hiding in the hay shed of a friend from the army by the last name of Revard and was drinking heavily. In the early morning of October 7th, a posse consisted of three sheriffs by the names of Stringer Fenton, Bob Fenton, and Dick Wallace. They tracked Elmer with the use of bloodhounds to the hay shed and waited. Below is Bob Stringer’s statement:

It began just about 7 O’clock. We were standing around waiting for him to

Come out when the first shot was fired at me. It missed me and then he turned

His attention to my brother Stringer Fenton. He shot three times at Stringer

And when my brother got under cover he turned his attention to Dick Wallace.

He kept shooting at us for about an hour. We fired back every time we could.

We do not know who killed him.

Elmer’s body was taken to the undertaker in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where the body went unclaimed. The owner/undertaker, Joseph L. Johnson embalmed Elmer with an arsenic-based fluid used at that time to preserve bodies for long periods of time. Since Elmer was unclaimed and the undertaker hadn’t been paid he cleaned up the body and dressed it. He then put Elmer in a casket and charged the public a nickel per person to look at the body listed as “the bandit who wouldn’t give up”.

On October 6th, 1916 a man by the name of Aver contacted Johnson claiming to be Elmer’s brother from California who had the body shipped to San Francisco for burial. Once in San Francisco Elmer’s body was used in a carnival called “A Traveling Museum of Crime”, a sideshow with Trans-American Foot Race, (odd name). Next, the body was placed in the lobbies of theaters listed as a “dope fiend” in support of a film called “Narcotic”.

In 1949 Elmer’s body was placed in a storage warehouse in Los Angeles, California. In 1964 Elmer was lent to a filmmaker by the name of David F. Friedman who used the body in a film called “She Freak” in 1967. In 1968 Elmer was sold once again with other wax figures for $10,000.00 and was exhibited in a show at Mount Rushmore where the corpse sustained some wind damage. The tips of the ears as well as some fingers and toes actually blew off.

Elmer was then sold to Ed Liersch who was part owner of the amusement park in Long Beach, California known as the Pike. By 1976 Elmer was hanging in the dark fun house at the park. By December 8th, 1976, the production crew of the television series “The Six Million Dollar Man” was shooting a series called “Carnival of Spies” at the Pike. 

A prop man moving what he believed to be a wax figure hanging from a gallows got a real surprise, when moving Elmer his arm broke off and a human bone as well as muscle tissue became visible.

The police were called and Elmer’s body was taken to the Los Angeles coroner’s office. On December 9th the coroner determined the body to be of a human male who had died of a gunshot wound to the chest. The body by now was covered in wax and layers of phosphorus paint. Tests also revealed the presence of arsenic which was used during the time of Elmer’s embalmment and up until 1920. The investigation also revealed Tuberculosis in the lungs as well as bunions and scars which matched Elmer.

The jacket from the bullet was also found, still within the body, and determined to be a gas check which was used from 1905 to 1940. This helped the coroner to pinpoint the era for the time of death. Elmer’s mandible was removed for dental analysis and inside his mouth was a 1924 penny along with ticket stubs to the “Museum of Crime”. The son of the original owner, Louis Sonney was contacted and he confirmed the body was Elmer McCurdy.

By December 11th Elmer’s journey was in the news as well as radio and television. A man by the name of Fred Olds who represented the Indian Posse of Oklahoma Westerns convinced the coroner to allow the body of Elmer to be buried in Oklahoma. 

On April 22nd, 1977 Elmer was laid to rest in the boot hill section of the Summit View Cemetary in Guthrie. The service was attended by approximately 300 people. Elmer McCurdy was buried next to Bill Doolin and to ensure no one stole the body again two feet of concrete was poured over the casket.

Maybe somehow Elmer had the last laugh. While all of his contemporaries had been dead and buried for quite some time Elmer was still traveling the country.

Terry McGahey
Associate Writer/ Old West Historian

Terry has been a working cowboy, writer, and historian. He is best known for the fight that he waged against the City of Tombstone and their historic City Ordinance Number 9. He was instrumental in getting the famous Tombstone City Ordinance Number 9 repealed while at the same time forcing the City of Tombstone to fall in line and comply with the laws of the State of Arizona.

If you care to read how he fought Tombstone's City Hall and won, check out: