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Elmer McCurdy was a drunk and a deadbeat. Or more politely, a ne’er-do-well. Born in 1880, he reportedly failed at many enterprises, perhaps due to his hard-drinking ways. Eventually, he landed amongst a gang of train robbers, known for bungled burglaries.

Elmer McCurty from Wikipedia

In 1911, the outfit learned of a train carrying a safe with thousands in government funds.

They made their plans. They executed said plans.

One glitch. The train they’d targeted was delayed. The one they robbed carried passengers only. After making away with a whopping forty-six dollars and a few bottles of whiskey, a chase ensued. The posse caught up with them in two days and a shoot-out worthy of the OK Corral commenced.

Elmer, apparently a fan of dime novels, yelled out, “You’ll never take me alive!”

Boom! They shot him dead.

It was then his adventures began…

McCurdy’s body was taken to an undertaker in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where it was embalmed. Six months later, no one claimed the body, so the mortician dressed up the “perfectly preserved” corpse and stuck a rifle in his hand. As the “Embalmed Bandit” or “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” the man charged five cents for a gawk at the curiosity.

That kind of thing was a popular pastime in days when there was not much happening and little entertainment.

A replica of the mummy in his casket
Photo was taken by the author at the Texas Ranger Museum in the Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio, TX

In 1916, two men from the Great Patterson Carnival Show declared they were McCurdy’s long-lost brothers. They took the body, stating their intention of giving him a decent burial. Instead, Elmer spent the ensuing years crossing the country as one of the show’s popular attractions.

The carnies hit hard times in 1922 and, for a $500 loan, put Elmer up as security. They defaulted. Louis Sonney, head of a California entertainment company, added the mummy to his show, the Museum of Crime. They traveled the West Coast into the 1940s.

Sonny’s death in 1949 ended the tour. That type of attraction was no longer popular, so Elmer was stored in a Los Angeles warehouse for twenty years. In 1968, he was sold to the Hollywood Wax Museum where they called him “The 1,000 Year Old Man.”

When it closed shortly thereafter, the body got mixed up with other wax dummies until it was sold to the Nu-Point Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. In the ultimate humiliation, he was painted fluorescent red and hung from fake gallows in a Laff-in-the-Dark funhouse ride.

In 1976, “The Six Million Dollar Man” filmed an episode in the funhouse. The TV crew attempted to move what they thought was a dummy and Elmer’s arm broke off! Imagine their shock at the human bones that were exposed.

Poor Elmer! from the Texas Ranger Museum

The Los Angeles Coroner’s Office examined the body, finding a copper-jacketed bullet in the chest and a mouth stuffed with carnival ticket stubs. An analysis of the old-timey embalming fluid and with the help of Oklahoma historians, Elmer McCurdy was identified.

The city council of Guthrie, Oklahoma, offered Elmer a burial plot in 1977 at the Boot Hill section of the local cemetery. After riding in a pine coffin on a horse-drawn wagon to the designated spot, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest alongside other local outlaws.

Like many before them, the Guthrie City Council knew a good tourist draw when they saw one!


Wall text, Texas Ranger Museum, Outlaw: Elmer McCurdy, Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, San Antonio, Texas

2 comments on ““He Made More Money in Death Than Life”

  1. Mary Alice Dixon says:

    Perfect story, MB. I’m putting Boot Hill on my bucket list of gotta-go-there spots.


    1. mbgibson345 says:

      Thanks for reading, Mary Alice. Looks interesting, doesn’t it?


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