FROM BUMBLING CRIMINAL TO TRAVELING CORPSE
Our subject spent 31 years in failure until blundering to his bloody demise. Yet it took a hit TV show to eventually bring him to his eternal rest an incredible 66 years later.
This is the story of the strange afterlife of Elmer McCurdy.
He was born on New Year’s Day 1880 to an unwed 17 year-old mother. She was never sure who Elmer’s father was. The boy grew into a troubled teen: sullen, unruly, rebellious. Then he discovered liquor, and everything went downhill from there.
Elmer learned the plumbing trade and drifted around the country in an alcoholic stupor. He’d get a job, lose it because of his drinking, move on and repeat the process.
In the early 1900s he wound up working in southwest Missouri’s lead mines, followed by a hitch in the army where Uncle Sam trained him to use nitroglycerin in demolitions. (As you’ll soon see, he didn’t quite master the art.)
Back in civilian life, he hooked up with several fellow losers in Oklahoma and decided his plumbing, mining and explosives experience would make him the ideal criminal.
He started out by trying his hand at train robbery. Elmer used too much nitro on a safe. It blew open all right; but the blast was so strong it incinerated the cash. The boys made off with only silver coins (some melted by the explosion).
Elmer turned to bank robbery next … with predictably disastrous results. Too much nitro (again) destroyed the bank’s main room but didn’t even dent the safe.
His string of failure ended on a spectacularly bad note. On October 4, 1911 he gave train robbery one more shot when he learned that a $400,000 payment to the Osage Indian tribe was heading his way. True to form, Elmer and his buddies stopped the wrong train. They got only $46 in cash, two jugs of whiskey and the conductor’s watch.
Elmer rode off in frustration, holed up in a barn and drained both jugs. He was roaring drunk when a posse found him. A single bullet ended his bumbling career.
But the end of Elmer McCurdy’s life was just the beginning of his story.
They took the body to a funeral parlor in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where the undertaker filled it with a strong dose of arsenic, a common practice when weeks or months might pass before relatives claimed the remains.
But no one came for Elmer. To recover the money he’d spent on preserving the body, the undertaker decided to turn Elmer into a moneymaker. Billing him as “The Oklahoma Outlaw” and “The Embalmed Bandit,” people paid a nickel to stare at the embalmed man who found out the hard way that crime doesn’t pay.
It was a lucrative gimmick … until a man showed up five years later saying he was Elmer’s brother. He wanted to take the body to California for burial. So the undertaker reluctantly turned it over.
But the “brother” was actually James Patterson, owner of the Great Patterson Traveling Carnival Shows. He’d heard what a popular attraction Elmer’s corpse was and wanted it for his carnival. Patterson lugged it around the country, displaying it as “The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Be Taken Alive.”
From there it bounced from one freak show to another. It was briefly used as a display in movie theaters for the 1933 film “Narcotic!” It even found its way into a tourist trap near Mount Rushmore. Because the undertaker had used so much arsenic, Elmer’s body became the Energizer Bunny of embalmed bodies: “It kept going and going …”
In the 1960s, Elmer wound up in Long Beach, California, hanging from a rope in the Laff In The Dark funhouse. For years, thousands of visitors passed the body, thinking it was just another wax dummy. Until Hollywood came calling.
That’s when they called the police.
An autopsy confirmed the mannequin was indeed a human body. After months of research Elmer was finally identified, making national news on December 11th. Again, no relative claimed the body, so it was eventually turned over to a group called the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns and taken back to where Elmer’s afterlife career began.
Elmer’s ineptness destined him to meet a bad end. When he was finally laid to rest they poured two feet of concrete on top of his coffin, just to be on the safe side.
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