The Strange Fate of Elmer McCurdy

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The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdy

Elmer Mc Curdy - The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy
Outlaw – Mummy

This page is the result of researching and distilling half a dozen or so reports, newspaper clippings, articles and such, telling the twisted tale of Elmer McCurdy. I have tried to retain the consensus of the writers and leave out most of what appeared to be guesses or speculation. This pony didn’t need whipped. – Doc B

Born 01/01/1880 in Washington, MA, the son of unmarried 17-year-old Sadie McCurdy. The father’s identity in doubt, perhaps Sadie’s cousin, Charles Smith. (A name McCurdy would later use as an alias.) Her brother George and his wife Helen soon adopted Elmer, likely to save Sadie from the shame of having to raise an illegitimate child. When George died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1890, the new widow, along with Sadie and Elmer relocated to Bangor, MA.
Somewhere along about here, Sadie revealed the truth to young Elmer, that she, not Helen, was his real mother and she was unsure of who his biological father actually was. Upset and disturbed by the news, young McCurdy grew resentful, became “unruly and rebellious”and as a teenager became a heavy drinker; behaviors he would continue throughout his short life.
McCurdy eventually moved in with his grandfather and apprenticed as a plumber. Said to be a competent worker, he lived comfortably until the economic downturn of 1898. He lost his job and in August 1900 his mother died of a ruptured ulcer. His grandfather succumbed to Bright’s disease* the following month. Shortly after, McCurdy left Maine and drifted about the eastern U. S. working as a plumber and a lead miner. Unable to hold any job for long due to his alcoholism, he eventually made his way to Cherryvale, KS, where he worked as a plumber. Moving on to Iola, KS he was arrested for public intoxication in 1905. He relocated to Webb City, MO.
McCurdy joined the U.S. Army in 1907 and was posted to Fort Leavenworth as a machine gunner. While there he received some minimal training in the use of nitroglycerin** for demolition purposes. Honorably discharged from the Quartermaster Corps (11/07/1910) He met with an Army buddy in St. Joseph, Kansas where he and his friend were soon arrested for possessing burglary paraphernalia (chisels, hacksaws, funnels for nitroglycerin, gunpowder and money sacks (11/19/1910). This, according to an article in the St. Joseph Gazette. McCurdy and friend told the judge the tools were not intended for burglary purposes but needed to work on a foot operated machine gun they were inventing. A January 1911 jury found McCurdy not guilty. His short lived career as a bank and train robber began soon after his release from county jail.
It was quickly apparent that McCurdy wasn’t the sharpest tack in box and his decision to incorporate nitroglycerin into his robberies was a prime example. As with his alcohol problem, he never seemed to correctly determine the appropriate amount of the substance to use. It was always too much.
Somewhere around March of 1911 he moved to Lenapah, OK where he and three other miscreants decided to rob the Missouri Pacific Iron Mountain train. Seems that he had heard that the express car had some $4,000 in it’s safe. They stopped the train and located the safe. McCurdy, then employed the nitro to open the safe. The explosion completely destroyed the safe and the majority of the money as well. The robbers netted about $450 in silver coins, the rest were melted and fused to the safe’s blasted frame.
September of 1911 saw McCurdy and two other men rob The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, KS. They spent several hours breaking through the bank wall with a hammer and McCurdy placed his nitro to open the door of the Bank’s outer vault. The resulting blast threw the vault door through the bank”s interior, destroying it but leaving the safe inside the vault intact. McCurdy then attempted to open that safe, but the charge failed to ignite. The lookout man panicked and ran off. McCurdy and his remaining accomplice got about $150 in coins from a tray outside the safe and they hightailed it, hopping a train for the Kansas border later that night. After they split up, McCurdy made his way to the ranch of Charlie Revard, a friend, who lived near Bartlesville, OK. Taking up residence in a hayshed on the property, he drank away the next several weeks.
Somewhere near Okesa, OK, McCurdy and  two accomplices stopped the wrong train (10/04/1911). They then executed what a newspaper later called “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery”. Having planned to rob a KATY train allegedly carrying a $400,000 cash royalty payment to the Osage Nation, by mistake, they picked the wrong train, a passenger train. They got $46 from the mail clerk, a coat, the train conductor’s watch, an automatic pistol and two demijohns of whiskey. Oh yes, and a $2,000 reward offer for McCurdy… and a closely following posse…
He returned to the hay shed and was working diligently on the remaining demijohn. Using bloodhounds to follow his trail, a posse of three sheriffs, brothers Bob and Stringer Fenton and Dick Wallace, surrounded the hay shed and waited for daylight. Sheriff Bob Fenton described the event, the following day, in an interview with the Daily Examiner… “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 he then 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 all of us for about an hour. We fired back every time we could. We do not know who killed him … (on the trail) we found one of the jugs of whiskey which was taken from the train. It was about empty. He was pretty drunk when he rode up to the ranch last night.
McCurdy, age 31, was found dead of a single gunshot to the chest, which he had received while lying down. Thus we would think the end of the story of this second-rate bumbling outlaw, but it was not to be…

Elmer McCurdy in his coffin (c. 1916) - McCurdy’s body was taken to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, OK. The owner and undertaker, one Joseph L. Johnson, embalmed the body with an arsenic-based preservative which was typically used in embalming in that era to preserve a body for a long period when it needed to travel or no next of kin were known. He shaved the corpse, dressed it in a suit and stored it in the back of the funeral home. It went unclaimed.
Johnson would not release or bury the body until he had been paid for his services. The body remained unclaimed. He then decided to recover his expenses by exhibiting McCurdy”s remains. In the times, There was more than one outlaw’s body traveling with carnivals and such, making money from the curious and the morbid. Johnson dressed the corpse in street clothes, placed a rifle in the hands and stood it up in the corner of the funeral home. At a nickel a view, visitors could see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”. Also called  “The Mystery Man of Many Aliases” he was “The Oklahoma Outlaw”, and “The Embalmed Bandit” as well. He became a popular attraction at the funeral home and, of course, that attracted the attention of the afore mentioned carnival promoters. Johnson refused numerous offers to sell the well embalmed body.
Then, on the 16th of October 1916, a man, identifying himself as Aver McCurdy contacted Johnson claiming to be Elmer’s long lost brother from California. He had already contacted the Osage County, OK sheriff and retained a local attorney who had acquired permission to take custody of the body to ship to San Francisco, CA for proper burial. The next day, Aver arrived with another man who identified himself as Wayne, another brother. Johnson released the body and the two men put it on a train. However, the destination was not San Francisco, it was actually Arkansas City, KS. The men were really James and Charles Patterson, and James, was the owner of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows, a traveling carnival. Charles had told him of popularity of the “Embalmed Bandit” and the two had concocted the successful scheme to take possession of the body. (Coffin photo: U.S. PD by W. J. Boag – Pawhuska, OK, c. 1916)
McCurdy’s corpse would be – “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive” – in Patterson’s traveling carnival until 1922, when Patterson sold his operation to Louis Sonney. Sonney would use McCurdy’s corpse in his traveling show, the “Museum of Crime“.  It would fit right in with the wax figures of such famous outlaws as Bill Doolin and Jesse James. In 1928, Elmer accompanied the Trans-American Foot race as part of the official sideshow.
Director Dwain Esper acquired/rented (?) the corpse in 1933, to help promote his exploitation film, Narcotic!. It was exhibited in the lobby of theaters showing the film, as a “dead dope fiend”, whom Esper claimed had killed himself while surrounded by police after he had robbed a drug store to support his habit. Twenty-two years had passed since McCurdy had been embalmed and by the time Esper was using it, the body had become well mummified. The skin had become hard and shriveled, causing the body to shrink to a much smaller, perhaps more portable size. Esper would claim that the deterioration of the skin was proof of the alleged dope fiend’s drug abuse.
Louis Sonney died in 1949 and Elmer went into storage in a Los Angeles warehouse. Sonney’s son Dan lent the corpse to filmmaker David F. Friedman in 1964 and it eventually did a cameo in Friedman’s 1967 film, She Freak. In 1968, Dan Sonney sold the body and some wax figures to Spoony Singh, the owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum for $10,000. Singh had actually purchased the figures for two Canadian men doing a show at Mount Rushmore. During that exhibit, the mummy sustained some damage in a windstorm. It lost the tips of it’s ears and the fingers and toes were broken off. When the thing was eventually returned to Singh, he deemed it  “too gruesome” and not lifelike enough to exhibit. He sold it to Ed Liersch, part owner of The Pike, an amusement zone in Long Beach, CA. McCurdy’s mummy was hanging in a noose in the Laff In the Dark, funhouse/dark attraction/exhibition (?) at The Pike in 1976.

Laff in the Dark Funhouse - The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdy

Photo: U.S. PD (?) internet.

December 8th of that same year brought a production crew from the television show The Six Million Dollar Man filming scenes for the “Carnival of Spies” episode at The Pike. During the shoot, inside the Laff In the Dark, a prop man, making adjustments to the set, moved what appeared to be a wax mannequin that had been painted several times with phosphorous paint and suspended from the ceiling by a noose around it’s neck. Shaking the hanging figure by the arm in an attempt to loosen the noose, the prop man was startled when the lower portion of the man’s arm broke off and hit the floor, revealing human bone and muscle tissue.
The Police took the mummified corpse to the Los Angeles coroner’s office.  Dr. Joseph Choi’s autopsy (12/09/1976) determined that the body was that of a human male who had died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Weighing in at approximately 50 pounds (23 kg) with a height of 63 inches (160 cm), the body, completely petrified was covered in wax and several layers of phosphorus paint. While some hair was still visible on the sides and back of the head, the ears, big toes and fingers were missing (as we know, somewhere in South Dakota). The incisions from the original autopsy and embalming were noted and tissue testing revealed the presence of arsenic, a component of embalming fluid until the late 1920s. Other tests showed tuberculosis in the lungs. (The disease was contagious and still all too common in the times.)  Bunions and scars were documented; but only later determined to match those McCurdy was known to have had. The bullet that killed him was not found, likely removed during the original autopsy. A gas check from the bullet was discovered (they were in use from 1905 until about 1940).
However, although the arsenic and the gas check were helping to build a time frame for the body, as yet, they had no name. Then, during the removal of the mandible for dental analysis, the mummy was found to have in it’s mouth, a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to the Side Show and Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime at 140 W. Pike. Investigators contacted Dan Sonney who identified the body as that of Elmer McCurdy. (At various times/places, it had been the practice to place the viewing fee in the mummy’s mouth. There is no definitive report on how such funds were retrieved.)
Dr. Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist was brought in to confirm the verbal identification. Dr. Snow’s-rays of the mummy’s skull were properly scaled and then placed over a photo of McCurdy’s head, taken at the time of his death. Called superimposition, the process allowed Snow to determine that skull was that of Elmer McCurdy.
The public’s interest in such tales as this is always high and this story was better than most. Within days, the torturous trail followed by this Oklahoma, would-be outlaw had made the newspapers, and radio and television nationwide. As officials waited to see if any living relatives would come forward, several funeral homes offered to bury Elmer at no cost. All such offers were refused.
A representative of the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns, Fred Olds, negotiated and eventually convinced then Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, to allow the organization to give McCurdy his long awaited proper burial, in Oklahoma. This time, Olds and the organization’s ID’s were appropriately vetted and Olds was allowed custody of the body for the Posse.
April 22, 1977: The Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma saw the arrival of a funeral procession bearing the body of Elmer McCurdy. Graveside services were attended by perhaps 300 people as McCurdy was buried next to Bill Doolin, a notorious Oklahoma outlaw who had also fallen to gunfire. McCurdy’s casket got two feet (60 cm) of concrete poured over it to ensure that some enterprising impresario did not return Elmer to the carnival circuit. A precaution taken previously with Jesse James, Mr. Lincoln and others. So there, in the peace and solitude of Summit View, the story of the mundane life of Elmer McCurdy rests.

Save that, as one might expect, those with an interest in the Occult/Spiritual side of things have expressed interest in Elmer. Some claim that an “older woman” had performed satanic rituals above his grave in Summit View. Results unreported.
His “spirit” is said to haunt the local Stone Lion Inn, built by wealthy businessman F. E. Hutton (1907). Doors have been reported to periodically open and slam shut. Occasional visitors at the Inn have reported instances of Skry; having spiritual visions, most commonly with a crystal ball or smooth body of water “spilling over the edge”. Visitors and locals have reported the apparition of an older man, whom the locals call “the Judge”.  A few believe that the spirit of Elmer McCurdy is trying to “contact” the living. As with all such things, nothing is certain and the results are not likely all in…

Elmer McCurdy c. 1916 and c. 1976 - The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdyHere is Elmer as he appeared c. 1916 when he was “traveling” with the carnival. (left).
About five years after he was shot to death. (A reversed crop from the coffin photo.)
Next, we see Elmer as he appeared as a hanged man at the Laff in the Dark c. 1976 (right)

for further references related to Elmer McCurdy on Old West Daily Reader
An archaic generic term for kidney disease.
The Originals Index – Resources and Hazards – DiseaseBright’s Disease & tuberculosis
**References – Dictionary –  nitroglycerin
Wk. 30, 07/23/1853 – Joaquin Murrietta & Three Fingered Jack

barbed wire divider2 - The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdyEnd: The Strange fate of Elmer McCurdy

{001} C 10/18; E 11/18; F 10/18; P 10/18

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