Elmer McCurdy

This isn’t a new story, but it is a good one in a macabre and darkly humorous way. It’s the story of an outlaw who roamed the West for the better part of seventy years, mostly as a corpse.

Elmer McCurdy was a sad sack character, raised in Maine by an uncle and aunt he believed were his parents until he was ten, when the women he thought was his aunt told him she was his mother, and that she didn’t know who his father was. Understandably confused, McCurdy took up hard drink about the same time he reached puberty and by twenty was well on his way to ruin.

Drifting out to southeast Kansas, he joined the Army and allegedly received demolition training. Upon his discharge in 1910, McCurdy undertook to become a safe cracker and hold up man.

At first things didn’t go well. And then they got worse. McCurdy and a companion were arrested in St. Joseph, Missouri, on suspicion of intent to commit burglary, but talked their way out of it. Moving to Oklahoma, he and some companions held up a train under the impression it carried $4,000 in cash. And it may have. Problem is, McCurdy used too much nitroclycerin and blew the safe and most of the money to smithereens. About the only thing left were some silver coins melted into unrecognizable globs.

In September 1911, McCurdy and two others tried to rob a bank at Chautauqua; this time, Elmer’s inexpert use of explosives resulted in the demolition of the bank’s interior but failed to open the safe.

His big score occurred the next month, when he and some friends determined to rob a train carrying $400,000 in oil royalties to the Osage Nation. Unfortunately for McCurdy and his gang, they stuck up the wrong train, and their haul consisted of only $46, some whiskey, a pistol, a coat and the conductor’s watch.

A three-man posse tracked McCurdy to a barn near Bartlesville, Okla., where he had spent the night drinking his share of the loot. Refusing to surrender, firing drunkenly at the lawmen, McCurdy was finally shot and killed.

And that’s when Elmer McCurdy’s life got interesting.

When no one showed up to claim the body, the Pawhuska, Okla., undertaker who embalmed McCurdy put the body on display and charged visitors a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” In 1916, two sideshow operators posing as relatives obtained McCurdy’s body from the undertaker, and began exhibiting it as “The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Be Captured Alive.”

For the next three decades, Elmer McCurdy traveled the country with various carnivals and sideshows,once even appearing briefly in low-grade horror movie, his true identity and even the fact he was, in fact, human remains, growing hazier with each passing year. In 1976, a crew filming an episode of the television program The Six Million Dollar Man bumped into what they thought was a papier mache figure hanging in a funhouse at a Long Beach, Calif., amusement park. When an arm broke off, revealing a human bone, the medical examiner was summoned.

The mummified corpse was eventually identified as Elmer McCurdy, erstwhile bad guy. In 1977, the remains were finally laid to rest in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla.

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