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Elmer McCurdy, Wild West Outlaw

 

The mummified body of Elmer McCurdy was found in the darkened fun house at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California, on December 7, 1976. Ready to film an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, a Teamster working on the set noticed that the dummy hanging in one part of the set was real and not papier mache. The teamster was Chris Haynes.

He tells the story of what happened next:

It was easy to see his body stitched up from his autopsy. Elmer's hands were covering his private parts. I tried to move the hand to show them that he ... wasn't made from papier mache. When I moved his arm it snapped off in my hand, exposing bone and mummified muscles. I reported this to the Long Beach cop working on the show.

He looked at Elmer, laughed and said "So what. All Long Beach needs is another dead sailor." I then showed him to the Fire Safety officer on the set. He laughed and called the paramedics on the radio telling them he had a guy suffering from severe dehydration. They rushed in and realized that had been had. Then the Coroners office heard about it and came down a took Elmer away.

Medical examiners and forensic investigators were called to determine who the mummy was and how it had died. They learned that the mummy was a man, and that he had been shot - quite a while ago, it seemed. He died of a .32-caliber gunshot wound; the bullet was old, manufactured between 1830 and 1920. When one medical examiner opened the mummy's mouth for other clues, he was surprised to find a 1924 penny and a ticket from the Museum of Crime in Los Angeles. That ticket and newspaper accounts helped police identify the mummy a robber known as Elmer McCurdy. Here is his story:

In 1911 McCurdy joined a gang of outlaws. This band robbed a train near Coffeyville, Kansas, and then planned to steal a safe carrying over one thousand dollars from another train. On October 4, they stopped a train near Okesa, Oklahoma. But when they opened the safe they discovered that they had robbed the wrong train (the train with all the money was running two hours behind the train McCurdy and crew stopped): only forty-six dollars were inside. A shipment of whiskey improved their spirits. They took it and headed across the Oklahoma wilderness.

Two nights later, McCurdy stopped at a ranch. Drunk and tired, he fell asleep in a hayloft. Soon after, the three-man posse that was tracking him arrived. The trapped McCurdy began firing at the posse. They traded shots for an hour, then all was quiet. A young boy was told to go to the barn to ask McCurdy to surrender. McCurdy refused, reportedly telling the boy, "They can go to the devil." The fighting resumed, and McCurdy was later found dead in the hayloft.

His body was taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, but no one knew who McCurdy was. When nobody claimed the corpse, the undertaker embalmed it with arsenic and allowed people to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up" for a nickel. Many carnival operators asked to buy the body from the undertaker, but he refused.

Almost five years after McCurdy died, a man from a nearby traveling carnival  showed up and claimed to be McCurdy's long-lost brother. He indicated that he wanted to take the corpse back to California and give it a proper burial. Within two weeks, however, McCurdy was a featured exhibit with a carnival known as the Great Patterson Shows. Eventually, it wound up in the Long Beach fun house.

 

What's special about the mummy

McCurdy is a prime example of how a mummy can become big business.

  

Where to see the mummy  

McCurdy was finally buried in April, 1977. You can visit his gravesite at the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Some photos of McCurdy can be found at this link.

 

Where to find more information about the mummy

The very best book on the subject is Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw by Mark Svenvold. It is a first-rate detective story about one of the most famous American mummies, incompetent train robber, and Wild West outlaw (not!): Elmer McCurdy. 

I have to admit that I approached the book hesitantly, fearing that it would be more fluff than substance. After all, what information could a researcher dig up on a man who died almost 100 years ago? The answer is: much more than you might think--and all of it is fascinating. 

In twelve chapters, Svenvold tells McCurdy's story and, to a lesser degree, his own story as a researcher. The book begins at its most dramatic point: the 1976 discovery of McCurdy's mummified body at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. An autopsy reveals his identity--and then the real fun begins: the book travels back in time to fill in the details of McCurdy's life and afterlife (who was he anyway and how did he end up as a carnival mummy?).

Svenvold tells all: Born in 1880, to an unmarried 17-year-old girl, McCurdy (aka Frank Curtis) was raised by the girl's older brother and his wife in Bangor, Maine. Around the age of ten, when his father/uncle died, his birth mother took over parental duties and informed him of his true parentage. This news apparently came as quite a shock and seems to have begun McCurdy's downfall. He became "unruly and rebellious," began to drink, fought in bars. Eventually, he became a plumber. When he was twenty, his mother died and McCurdy took off and headed west. He got as far as Kansas, where he mined zinc for awhile, then joined the army and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth.

Upon his discharge, he turned to crime--or tried to. He was arrested before he ever began; he simply looked suspicious (of course, he happened to be carrying the parts to a machine gun in his bag). From there, he robbed a train (poorly--it took McCurdy four attempts to blow the safe), a bank (two tries to blow open the safe netted only $150), and a final ill-fated train robbery (he robbed the wrong train). 

His afterlife as a mummy was strictly American entrepreneurship at its best--and worst. When he is finally discovered in 1976, McCurdy's body was painted orange and displayed as a scary dummy in an amusement park ride (by operators who don't even know that he once was human).  

An excellent work about an unusual American mummy, this book will enthrall anyone interested in unusual mummies and/or the history of the Wild West. Seventeen b&w photos, notes, 261 pages. The only thing missing is an index. Highly, highly recommended! 

You can also find a shorter account in J. Pednaud's After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead. And another in Patricia Ann Stockdale's The Long Beach Pike: A Collection of Memories.