How The West’s Worst Outlaw Found Fame As A Traveling Corpse
When we die, most of us go through the process of being prepared for burial. There's a ceremony attended by our closest friends and family. That wasn't in the cards for Elmer McCurdy.
Here's the story of Elmer McCurdy, the TV and film star, bank and train robber, and well traveled corpse.
Who Was Elmer McCurdy?
Elmer McCurdy was a man who just couldn't get it right. The product of a rough upbringing, Elmer tried his hand at several occupations that never worked out. Eventually, he found himself enlisted at Ft. Leavenworth. He was a machine gunner and was trained to use nitroglycerine for demolition.
After the Army, Elmer decided to become a bank and train robber. His plan was to use his training with nitroglycerine to get the job done.
He moved to Oklahoma and had one of the shortest, and worst, criminal careers in history.
The World's Worst Train Robber
Elmer tried to rob a train one time that was supposedly carrying around $4,000 in a safe. Not only did he destroy the safe, but he also destroyed most of the money inside. Supposedly he and his partners were only able to get away with $450 in coins that had mostly melted and fused to the safe.
Another time he tried to get into a bank's vault. He blasted the vault through the interior of bank. It destroyed the bank, but didn't do much to the safe inside the vault. The lookout got spooked and ran off. Elmer and his crew grabbed some coins that were in a tray and fled the scene.
His final robbery took place on a train that Elmer thought was carrying around $400,000 cash. According to legend, that cash was supposed to be a payment to the Osage Nation.
Elmer and his crew were awfully disappointed when they realized they stopped a passenger train instead of the one hauling all the cash. They made off with $46, some whiskey, a revolver, a coat, and the conductor's watch.
Needless to say, Elmer took it pretty hard. He took the whiskey back to a ranch he was hiding out at, and commenced to getting really, really drunk.
Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning's End
Elmer was shot and killed during a standoff at that ranch. A posse tracked him down hoping to nab the $2,000 bounty on his head. The shootout lasted for what seemed like an eternity, and ended with Elmer dead from a single shot to the chest.
This all happened in 1911.
He was taken to an undertaker in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Joseph Johnson embalmed Elmer using the classic arsenic sauce that was used to preserve bodies for long stretches of time, since no one was in a hurry to claim it. He dressed Elmer up, and stored him at the funeral home.
Upset that he did all that work for no pay, and there was no one coming to get the body, the undertaker came up with a way to make his money back.
He gave Elmer a rifle and stood him up in a corner. He charged people a nickel to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up."
Elmer remained on display for quite some time, until McCurdy's long lost brothers came to take their brother home.
Elmer Tries His Hand At Show Business
Except it wasn't McCurdy's kin. It was James and Charles Patterson, the former of which owned The Great Patterson Carnival Shows traveling carnival. After hearing about the body, the two had hatched a plan to take it and put it on display at their shows.
Elmer was featured as "The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive."
In 1922, the Pattersons sold out to Louis Sonney. Louis put Elmer in his Museum Of Crime. It was pretty much all wax figures, except for poor Elmer. There he was, a real corpse, standing next to wax figures of people like Bill Doolin.
Elmer Makes It To The Silver Screen
Yes. You read that right. Louis died in 1949 and his collection of figures, including Elmer, were placed in a warehouse in LA. Elmer wouldn't see the light of day again until 1964 when Louis' son loaned McCurdy out to a filmmaker. David Friedman put Elmer, briefly, in his film She Freak.
Elmer changed hands several more times. There were some Canadians who wound up with Elmer and made him part of a display they had at Mount Rushmore.
Supposedly, Elmer got caught up in a wind storm and it did a number on his fingers, toes, and ears.
Not in the best of shape, Elmer was eventually sold to a man who owned a fun house in Long Beach, California. There, Elmer was hung up in the rafters and basically forgotten about.
Elmer And The Six Million Dollar Man
The year is now 1976, and Elmer is just hanging out in the fun house when the crew for The Six Million Dollar Man came to film for an episode. A prop guy went to move what he thought was a mannequin hanging from the gallows, and when he did, the mannequin's arm came off.
That was no mannequin.
That was poor Elmer.
You can probably guess the rest of the gruesome scene.
A full blown forensic investigation was initiated and eventually it was determined that the body was indeed that of Elmer McCurdy.
Elmer Finally Calls It A Day
In 1977, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest at the Boot Hill in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Because of his new found fame, and apparent love for travel, they covered him with two feet of concrete.
He was buried next to a familiar face, though, and around 300 people showed up for the ceremony.
Remember the wax figures? Elmer was buried next to Bill Doolin.