Sheriff in Front of Camp Manzanita

Elmer McCurdy: The Six Million Dollar Mummy

Elmer McCurdy was born in 1880 to an unwed teenaged mother. To spare her the scandal of the circumstances of her son’s birth, Elmer was raised for much of his childhood by his aunt and uncle whom he believed to be his parents. When his adoptive father, George, died in 1890, the truth was revealed to young Elmer who struggled to reconcile this new information with the upbringing he had been raised with thus far. He became rebellious, angsty, and difficult for his mother and his aunt to control. From 1890 to 1907, Elmer drifted from state to state, taking on a number of odd jobs, including a long stretch as a plumber, along the way and developing a worsening habit for drinking in excess. This directionless lifestyle would come to an end in 1907 when Elmer would join the army. (1)

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Demolition Man

As an army man at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Elmer McCurdy was trained in using explosives. He became particular familiar with nitroglycerin. Elmer only spent a few years in the army before he was honorably discharged, so he was hardly an expert in explosives, however whatever training he received seemed to have stuck with him. Free from the army and back to aimlessly drifting, Elmer decided to use his training to embark on a new career. In 1911, Elmer was arrested, along with an army buddy, for possessing a number of incriminating tools which seemed to indicate an intent to commit burglary. This kit included nitroglycerin, hacksaws, gunpowder, and money sacks. McCurdy managed to talk his way out of a conviction by explaining that these tools were intended to repair a machine gun that he was working on. Upon his release, the true function of these tools would become clear. (2)

Elmer McCurdy
Public Domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in 1911, McCurdy and a gang of accomplices began robbing trains and banks using nitroglycerin to access vaults. McCurdy’s life of crime reads a bit like a comedic string of misadventures. On one occasion, McCurdy and his gang used nitroglycerin to blow open the safe on a Mountain-Missouri Pacific train. He miscalculated the explosive charge and instead obliterated the safe and most of its contents. He and his crew had to scrape the melted silver coins out of the inside of the busted safe. On another occasion, Elmer’s gang attempted to rob a bank in Kansas and somehow managed to destroy the bank’s interior with the exception of the safe inside the vault. Rather than the vault’s contents, McCurdy escaped with nothing more than the handfuls of cash in the banker’s tray. On yet another occasion, McCurdy attempted to rob a train laden with hundreds of thousands of dollars, but mistakenly attacked the wrong train and only managed to steal the personal effects of the passenger train’s riders. (3)

It was after this last escapade that McCurdy met his end. Hiding out in a barn and drinking away the meagre profits of his crimes, McCurdy was tracked by a sheriff, his bloodhounds, and his crew. A drunken shootout ensued and when the dust settled McCurdy was found to have been killed by a gunshot to the chest. Oddly, his story does not end here. (4)

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No Rest For the Wicked

The body of Elmer McCurdy was taken to Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where it was cleaned and embalmed. After a while, when nobody came to claim the body, the proprietor of the funeral home began to note that McCurdy’s embalming was nearly perfect and rumors began to spread about the “embalmed outlaw.” Interested in making some money off of the unclaimed corpse, the mortician began posing the body and charging admission for curious onlookers. For five cents a piece, people could visit and gawk at McCurdy’s corpse. They would even place their pennies and nickels in his mouth as payment. He was named as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” and was stood up in a corner of the funeral home with a rifle in hand. Some stories even allege that the undertaker’s children would put roller-skates on his feet and parade him around town. I cannot find substantial evidence of this particular anecdote, but it isn’t far off base from the way that Elmer’s body was treated. (5)

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A Forgotten Identity

This continued until 1916 when a pair of men arrived at the funeral home claiming to be the dead man’s brothers. The men were convincing and Elmer’s body was released into their custody ostensibly to be buried properly in San Francisco. The men were, in actuality, a pair of carnies named Charles and James Patterson. The popularity of the funeral home attraction had inspired them to abscond with the corpse and show him on the carnival circuit. Over the years, McCurdy’s body was used as a villain in a number of cowboy and Wild West themed attractions. In 1922, one of the carnies who “owned” McCurdy’s corpse used him as a security deposit for a loan on which he defaulted. Thus, Elmer’s body passed into the ownership of Louis Sonney who added him to his traveling “Museum of Crime.” (6)

Elmer McCurdy in Coffin
Public Domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, McCurdy’s body was drilled into, painted in garish colors, displayed as a prop at movie premieres and used as one in at least one carnival-themed film, sold to a wax museum which quickly went under, and mixed in with a number of mannequins and wax figures. By the time Elmer McCurdy came into the possession of the Queen’s Park “Laff in the Dark funhouse,” not only was his identity lost, but his humanity had been long forgotten. It would not be until 1977 that McCurdy would be found to be human again. (7)

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A Corpse on Set

In a bizarrely fitting twist after an afterlife filled with entertaining the masses, Elmer McCurdy was rediscovered in the funhouse. In 1977, a crew was setting up to film an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man in the funhouse when a crew member tried to pose a glow-in-the-dark orange mannequin swinging from a noose. While moving the supposed doll, its arm snapped off revealing a genuine human bone inside. The police were called and an investigation ensued. Inside the mouth of the body, a few tickets to the Museum of Crime and a penny dating back to 1924. Eventually, despite extensive damage including missing fingers and advanced decomposition, the body was identified as Elmer McCurdy and laid to rest in Guthrie, Oklahoma after a long 65 years of desecration. (8)

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