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The Bumbling Outlaw Elmer McCurdy

Updated on August 19, 2015

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy’s biggest dream was to become a famous outlaw. He did become an outlaw, but by no means rich or famous. In fact, he was a dismal failure. Compared to Elmer, Deputy Barney Fife of Mayberry looked liked Wyatt Earp.

Elmer was born in Maine in 1880 and moved to the Midwest as a young adult and more or less drifted aimlessly until joining the army in 1910. Elmer learned little of value other than using nitroglycerin in demolitions. Even then, he earned a reputation for being incompetent with the stuff.

When his military service ended, Elmer attempted to try his hand as a train robbing safe cracker. He gathered together a few more associates…not much more talented than himself.

True to form, he bungled his first robbery, the safe on a Pacific Express train. Elmer used a tad too much nitro and managed to not only blow the safe door off its hinges but blast a hole through the rail cars’ wall. Over $4000 in silver coins became a molten mass which became part of the walls. The gang tried chipping the silver from the walls and floor with a crowbar but, due to lack of time and the law descending upon them, they were forced to flee. The caper netted only $450 dollars worth of lumpy, globular silver.

Comical and Inept

Elmer could never seem to get it right. Comical though his ineptness was, one could almost feel sorry for him. Again on September 21, 1911 Elmer used too much nitro on the safe door. This time the explosion woke up the entire town. However, it didn’t destroy the safes’ inner door. Before authorities showed up, they managed to escape with $150 of silver and gold coins.

A series of other equally bungled jobs were pulled. On October 4, 1911 they attempted another train robbery.

This time the gang held up the wrong train, one with very little money. They made off with about $90, whiskey and some other paltry items.

Following these failures, McCurdy’s pals quickly abandoned him. However, not one to rest on his laurels he soon rallied together new group of equally untalented misfits. On October 7 of 1911, they successfully robbed M.K.T passenger train number 23. Unfortunately, lawmen quickly tracked them down to their hideout. Surrounded, they fought an hour long gun battle, during which McCurdy was shot and killed.

Refused to Stay Put

In most cases this is where a persons’ life history ends…but not for poor Elmer. His corpse refused to stay put. His body was delivered to the Pawhuska, Oklahoma funeral home.

However, when no one claimed the body the mortician decided to put Elmer on display. That was not an uncommon practice in those days. The embalmer did such a thorough job with arsenic, he effectively mummified Elmer McCurdy. So, for the next five years, Elmer McCurdy’s home was the front window of the funeral home.

In 1915, two men arrived at the funeral home masquerading as brothers of McCurdy wanting to give their kin a proper funeral.

But they were not relatives, only unscrupulous promoters interested in profiting off of Elmer’s demise. Elmer went on tour as an attraction with a carnival known as "Great Patterson Shows.” He was often exhibited as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” or “The Famous Oklahoma Outlaw” and sometimes just as an ancient mummified cadaver. Perhaps it wasn’t the way McCurdy envisioned he would gain fame, but it was still recognition nonetheless.

The next 60 years would find Elmer McCurdy being passed from one carnival to another. Once, he was even displayed in a theatre lobby during showings of the 1933 film Narcotic.

Somewhere along the line Elmer ended up in the possession of former police officer Louis Sonney. Sonney, owned and operated the “Sonney Amusement’s Museum of Crime” in Los Angeles, a place Elmer held a prominent position during much of the 1930’s and 40’s.

However, as the years passed, interest in Elmer McCurdy gradually waned. People forgot he was actually a mummy and not just a stage prop. By the 1960’s Elmer had become a real “has been.” He was sold as a ‘mannequin’ to a wax museum in 1971.

While at the wax museum, some say he was put on display in an open casket, ironically next to Bill Doolin, an actual famous Oklahoma outlaw. It was also rumored a purchaser of wax dummies refused to buy him, claiming that Elmer did not look real enough. McCurdy was to rest there in relative obscurity until 1976.

In December of 1976 Elmer once again was thrust into the limelight. The popular television show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” was shooting an episode entitled “Carnival of Spies” in the ‘Laff in the Dark’ Funhouse, located at the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. A crew member accidentally damaged what he thought was an orange wax mannequin. The mannequin’s arm broke off, revealing a protruding human bone. Visibly shaken, the crewman informed his superiors who quickly notified local authorities.

When medical examiner Thomas Noguchi began searching for clues as to the identity of the hapless mummified corpse, he found a 1924 penny and a ticket from Sonney Amusement’s Museum of Crime in McCurdy’s mouth. That ticket and other information gleaned from newspaper archives helped identify the body as that of Elmer McCurdy.

Following a huge amount of media coverage and hoopla, Elmer found his final resting place in Summit View Cemetery at Guthrie, Oklahoma. However, now knowing Elmer’s history and his propensity to wander, steps were taken to ensure he wouldn’t be moved and end up in show business again. The state medical examiner ordered two cubic yards of cement poured over his coffin before the grave was closed. His tombstone reads: Elmer McCurdy shot by Sheriff's Posse in Osage Hills on Oct 7, 1911. Returned to Guthrie, Okla from Los Angeles County Calif for Burial Apr 22, 1977. Ironically, he’s supposedly buried next to a real Oklahoma outlaw, Bill Doolin.

And thus ends the sad, although humorous, tale of Elmer McCurdy.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Yeh, I kinda felt sorry for ol' Barney....errr I mean Elmer too!

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      7 years ago from Southern California

      JY3502, this was a mesmerizing account. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and you're right I did feel a little sorry for Elmer. That makes me wonder how many real people are on display as wax figures, ummm! Loved it, rated up/funny!

    • Granny's House profile image

      Granny's House 

      7 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

      Fantastic. That was very interesting. I did see a show about him on tv. a while ago. I had forgot about it till now. Great story. Poor Elmer

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I thought it was also. That's why I wrote it.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Bizarre tale. Talk about being late for your own funeral.useful and funny.


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