• Notes From The Frontier

The Long Strange Life & Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy

Frontier train robber, Elmer McCurdy, was born unlucky. But his worst luck would come after he died.

No Hollywood writer or novelist could write a stranger, more bizarre story than the life story of Elmer McCurdy, frontier vagrant-turned-miner-turned-plumber-turned machine gunner-turned nitro-glycerin-expert-turned train robber. But when he died at a very young age, his afterlife would be even stranger.

It just seemed life and fate were against him. First he was born illegitimate and his mother could not tell him who his father was. Then, when he was nineteen, his mother died, then his guardian grandfather died a month later. Elmer was left adrift and started drinking heavily which he continued throughout his short life. No doubt, it had something to do with the bad luck that dogged him. He left Maine and began to wander West, working first as a miner, then an itinerant plumber.

In 1907, when he was 27, Elmer joined the Army and was assigned to Fort Leavenworth as a machine gunner, then was trained to use nitroglycerin for demolition purposes. While in Kansas, Elmer decided he could apply his nitroglycerin training to rob trains. In March 1911, he and three other men tried to rob the Mountain-Missouri Pacific when they heard it carried a safe with $4,000. They stopped the train and located the safe. McCurdy went to work putting the nitroglycerin in the safe door. But, all his life he was over-zealous and used too much. He not only obliterated the safe, but most of the money and they were only able to collect a fraction of the dollar bills that had been blown to kingdom come.

Emer tried again in September 1911 to rob The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. After spending two hours breaking through the bank wall with a hammer, McCurdy placed a nitroglycerin charge around the outer vault door. The blast blew the vault door through the bank destroying the interior but did not damage the safe inside the vault. McCurdy then tried to blow the safe door open with nitroglycerin but the charge didn’t ignite. McCurdy raided the cashier tray of $150 and fled. He hid out in a hayshed and drank heavily for some weeks.

But Elmer was not going to give up. Maybe the third time would be the charm. On October 4, 1911, McCurdy planned to rob a Katy Train near Okesa, Oklahoma, when he heard that it was carrying $400,000 in cash intended as payments to the Osage Nation. But McCurdy mistakenly stopped a passenger train instead. His haul was $46 from the mail clerk, two demijohns of whiskey, an automatic revolver, a coat and the train conductor’s watch. A newspaper account of the robbery later called it “one of the smallest in the history of train robberies.”

Three days later, a posse of three sheriffs tracked down McCurdy with bloodhounds to the hayshed where he was drinking once again. He was killed with one gunshot to the chest as he was lying in the hay. So ended the life of Elmer McCurdy. But his story was just getting started.

Elmer’s body was taken to the funeral parlor in nearby Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The undertaker embalmed the body with arsenic, a popular practice at the time to preserve a body for a long period when no next of kin were known. Months went by and it seemed Elmer McCurdy’s body would never be claimed. Then the undertaker had an idea: He dressed the corpse in street clothes, placed a rifle in the hands and stood it up in the corner of the funeral home. He advertised that visitors could pay a nickel to view “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”. For five years, the undertaken displayed Elmer and made a fortune. Then a man showed up claiming to be Elmer’s long-lost brother from California.

In fact, the “brother” was James Patterson, the owner of the Great Patterson Traveling Circus. McCurdy’s corpse became a popular exhibit in his freak show: “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive,”, until 1922 when Patterson sold his operation to a traveling “Museum of Crime” which featured wax replicas of famous outlaws like Bill Doolin and Jesse James.

In 1933, Elmer’s body—by now mummified by the arsenic— was acquired by director Dwain Esper to promote his exploitation film Narcotic! Elmer was placed in the lobby of theaters 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. By this time, the skin on McCurdy’s body had shriveled and hardened. The director said the deteriorated skin of his friend’s body was proof of the supposed dope fiend’s drug abuse.

In 1964, the filmmaker David F. Friedman borrowed Elmer to make a brief appearance in the 1967 film “She Freak.”

In 1968, Elmer’s body, along with several wax figures, was sold for $10,000 to the Hollywood Wax Museum. While being exhibited there, the corpse was damaged when the tips of his ears along with fingers and toes were broken off. Elmer was now considered “too gruesome” and not life-like enough for the wax museum.

Then an amusement park in Long Beach, California, purchased Elmer’s remains. By 1976, Elmer was hanging in the “Laff In the Dark” funhouse exhibition.

In 1976, it just so happened that the film crew of “The Six-Million Dollar Man” was shooting the episode, “Carnival of Spies,” in the “Laff in the Dark” funhouse. During the shoot, a prop man tried to move what was thought to be a wax mannequin hanging from a gallows. When the mannequin’s arm broke off, a human bone and muscle tissue were visible.

In December 1976, a doctor conducted an autopsy and determined that the body was that of a human male who had died of a gunshot wound to the chest. The body was completely petrified and covered in wax. The mummy weighed only about 50 pounds. After further research, it was discovered that the body was that of Elmer McCurdy outlaw and three-time train robber.

On April 22, 1977, a group of interested citizens and history lovers comprised a funeral procession to transport the long-wandering Elmer McCurdy to the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. A graveside service attended by approximately 300 people was conducted after which McCurdy was buried next to another fellow outlaw, Bill Doolin, whose wax replica he had been exhibited with years before.

To ensure that McCurdy’s body would rest in permanent peace, the casket was encased in two feet of concrete. A nice marble gravestone was donated with a carved inscription that belied the many adventures of the young cowboy-turned-train-robber. It read: Elmer McCurdy. Shot by Sheriff’s posse in Osage Hils on Oct. 7, 1911. Returned to Guthrie, Okla. From Los Angeles County, Calif. for burial April 22, 1977.

An old cowboy boot stands sentry upside down in front of the gravestone. It had been nearly 100 years since Elmer had begun his strange odyssey in Maine that would take him across a continent and a century. He could finally take off his boots and rest in peace.

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"The Long Strange Life & Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy" was first published on Facebook on April 7, 2020. 38,493 views / 2,646 likes / 1,246 shares


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