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The Strange Tale of Elmer McCurdy, a Bungling Oklahoma Outlaw

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy

For sixty-six years, Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy traveled the United States quite a bit less than alive. In fact, Elmer McCurdy wasn’t laid to rest until 1977, even though he died in 1911 at the age of 31.

Elmer was a charming devil, although not a very bright one. He was born in Maine to young 17-year-old Sadie McCurdy. He never knew who his father was, and at a young age, was adopted by Sadie’s brother. He grew up believing that her brother and wife were his parents until the young age of 10. After her brother died, Sadie admitted to young Elmer that she was his mother.

This greatly disturbed Elmer McCurdy and over the following years, he became extremely unruly and rebellious. When he entered his teen years, he began drinking heavily. Although already a bit of an outcast, he always did his best to obey the law.

Unable to care for Elmer, Sadie sent him to live with his grandfather. He worked as a plumber until the great economic downturn of 1898. He struggled to make his way until his mother’s death in 1900.

For the next several years, he wandered across the United States, taking work as he could find it. In 1907, after many failed attempts at finding legitimate work, and due to his excessive drinking, McCurdy decided to join the United States Army. Based out of Fort Leavenworth, he was trained as a machine gun operator and worked as a demolition expert, although amount of training he had can be debated.

Train and Bank Robber

He was discharged after three years and almost immediately began following the life he knew before service. His outlaw career began that year after being arrested with an army buddy of his. The law found them carrying chisels, hacksaws, money sacks, and other items commonly used in robberies. Although acquitted, this led to a slew of bungled burglaries that ultimately led to his death.

Elmer McCurdy’s first attempt at a life of crime was, to put it mildly, a huge failure. By this time, he had relocated to Lenapah, Oklahoma. McCurdy and three associates decided to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train. It was passing outside town and contained $4,000, which was a huge sum back then. They stopped the train, boarded it, and promptly laced the safe with nitroglycerin. Not quite knowing what he was doing, McCurdy used too much. The blast destroyed not only the safe but most of the money located within. Out of the $4,000 that was inside, they managed to get away with around $450 in silver coin, much of it still fused to the safe’s frame.

They made another attempt just a few months later. While in Chautauqua, Kansas, they robbed the Citizens Bank. After spending two hours breaking through a brick wall with a hammer, McCurdy once again used nitroglycerin to blow open the vault. The blast blew the outer vault door through the bank interior, wreaking havoc everywhere within. Despite that, the inner vault remained intact. However, as McCurdy was igniting the second round of nitroglycerin, the lookout man got scared and ran off. Realizing that, McCurdy and his men grabbed what they could and fled, only getting away with around $150 in coins. Following that failure, McCurdy once again returned to Oklahoma where he stayed with a friend near Bartlesville.

McCurdy tried once again on October 4, 1911. Outside of Okesa, Oklahoma, McCurdy and two others tried to rob a Katy train that contained around $400,000. They halted the train without a hitch, until they boarded the train. Once on board, they soon realized that they had stopped the wrong train and instead had boarded a standard passenger train.

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy

The Death of an Outlaw

Throughout the years of robbing banks and trains, McCurdy had become ill with tuberculosis. Following the last robbery, he retired back to his hideout outside Bartlesville to rest. While there, he developed a slight case of pneumonia. Sick and down, McCurdy wasn’t in the right mind to pay much attention to the outside world.

While resting, authorities had implicated McCurdy in the robbery and issued a $2,000 reward for his capture. Before dawn on October 7th, authorities tracked McCurdy to his hideout and waited for daylight. McCurdy got up and, realizing he was surrounded, began opening fire on the posse. The firefight lasted for around an hour, but eventually McCurdy succumbed. He had been killed by a single gunshot to the chest.

Once the gunfight ended, the authorities took McCurdy’s body to the undertaker in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It was embalmed, dressed, and then stored in the back of the funeral home. After several months, nobody came to claim the body. The undertaker, still not yet compensated for his work, decided to make some extra money by putting McCurdy up for display inside the funeral home. He charged visitors a nickel to see the “Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”. Depending on the crowd, McCurdy was also known as the “Mystery Man of Many Aliases”, “The Embalmed Bandit”, and “The Oklahoma Outlaw”. It became such a hit that carnival promoters began offering to purchase McCurdy’s body.

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy

On Display

While the undertaker never sold the body, he did have a legal and moral obligation to release the body to the next of kin. In 1916, a man by the name of Aver came to collect the body, claiming to be a long lost brother from California. The undertaker had no choice but to release the body. Aver told them that he was shipping the body back home to San Francisco to be buried, but the body never made it there.

Instead, Aver had it shipped to Arkansas City, Kansas. The man who went by the name Aver was actually James Patterson. James, along with his brother Charles owned the Great Patterson Carnival Show. James and Charles, after hearing about McCurdy, concocted a scheme to acquire the body for their own show. From then until 1922, McCurdy’s body would be featured in the carnival show as “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive"

That year, the Patterson brothers sold their operation to Louis Sonney. Louis, realizing the income potential, decided to keep the body and display it in his traveling “Museum of Crime” show. The Museum of Crime show featured wax replicas of many famous wild-west outlaws, such as Jesse James and Bill Doolin.

The corpse had already been all over the United States. In the years that followed, it became part of a sideshow during the Trans-American Footrace, featured in the film “Narcotic!”, and was even placed in the lobby of movie theaters and dubbed “Dead Dope Fiend”. By this time, nobody even knew the name Elmer McCurdy anymore, and the body had become hard and mummified.

The body was eventually placed in storage at a Los Angeles warehouse. It wasn’t brought back out until 1964 when Sonney’s son lent the corpse to film maker David Friedman. It appeared in the film “She Freak”. After the movie was released, the corpse was sold to the Hollywood Wax Museum, where it sustained damage. In 1976, the corpse eventually made it to “The Pike”, an amusement center in Long Beach, California, where it hung in an exhibit named “Laff In the Dark”.

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy

Peace, At Last

Elmer McCurdy would not find rest until The Six Million Dollar Man came to save the day. On December 8th, while filming a scene for the television show, a prop man moved the body. Thinking that it was a wax sculpture, the prop man accidentally pulled off McCurdy’s arm. Standing there holding flesh and bone, the prop man quickly realized that this was not a prop.

A member of the production crew quickly alerted the authorities. After removing layers of paint and wax, Forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow spent the next few weeks determining who the body was. Once it was discovered that it was the body of Elmer McCurdy, authorities had to determine what to do with the body. Eventually, Fred Olds of the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns convinced the authorities to let him take McCurdy’s body and give it a proper burial in Oklahoma.

Finally, on April 22, 1977, following a long funeral procession, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. As an honor to McCurdy, his body was placed next to another famous outlaw, Bill Doolin, where it resides today.

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 19, 2021:

What a macabe ending for this outlaw! Many people profited from his demise.