A Well-Traveled Corpse

Elmer McCurdy

 

You’ve got to feel sorry for Elmer McCurdy—not for his miserable life, but for the miserable 60 years after his death. This bank and train robber was once called “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” and that was more true than anyone could have imagined. The man who was born on January 1, 1880 in Maine and died October 7, 1911 in Oklahoma traveled around the nation in one amusement or sideshow after another for six decades until someone gave him a decent burial.

Here’s how it happened.

Elmer was pretty much a flop at whatever he tried. When he didn’t make it as a plumber or a miner, at age 31 he decided to enter a life of crime. He fancied himself a demolition man, but his first time out, he ignited so much dynamite to open a train safe that he blew up the whole thing, liquefying $4,000 in silver. No wonder his “gang” moved on without him. Then he mistakenly robbed a passenger train he thought was rich with money, only to make of with just $46 and to be hunted down and killed by lawmen the same day. His body ended up at a funeral home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where the undertaker embalmed him with so much arsenic, it mummified his body. When nobody came to claim the body and pay the bill, the undertaker recouped his fee by using Elmer as an advertisement–putting his body in the front window of the funeral home for the next five years. In 1916, someone showed up claiming to be a long-lost relative and promised to give Elmer a proper burial, but the claim was a hoax, and the “relative” really was a representative of the Great Patterson Shows that put Elmer on display as the “Oklahoma Outlaw.” For the next sixty years, Elmer was passed from one show to another and eventually, everyone forgot he was a real corpse and he was sold as a “mannequin.”

He ended up in a wax museum in 1971 in Los Angeles, where a film crew shooting an episode for “The Six Million Dollar Man,” accidentally broke off a finger and realized there was a real human being in there! Famous LA medical examiner Thomas Noguchi took over, finding in the “mummy’s” mouth a 1924 penny and tickets from a Los Angeles museum of crime, which helped in the investigation to find out exactly who this was. Finally, in April of 1977, Elmer was laid to rest in Gutherie, Oklahoma, where folks were smart enough to realize he was a prime target for grave robbers, so they poured two cubic yards of cement over his coffin before they closed the grave. And Elmer finally found some peace.

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