The Outlaw Whose Body Became a Carnival Prop
The headline read, “Buried 66 Years Late.”
This is the case of Elmer McCurdy, an Oklahoma outlaw who didn’t find the final rest of the grave until 1977 — despite being gunned down by a group of sheriff’s deputies in October of 1911.
McCurdy found fame in his death in an afterlife of humiliation, later found as a hanging prop at Queen’s Park, also known as The Pike amusement park, in Long Beach, California. The park closed in 1979.
The Associated Press reported how McCurdy’s embalmed body, thought to be a wax dummy, was found in 1976 at the Laff in the Dark park ride by a television crew filming “The Six Million Dollar Man.” A member of the crew attempted to move the body when the discovery was made.
“When an arm fell off, revealing a bone,” the AP wrote, “the corpse was turned over to authorities who identified it and returned it to Oklahoma.”
A fatal gunshot wound, a penny dating to 1924, and Museum of Crime ticket stubs found in McCurdy’s mouth led to McCurdy’s identity. But how did he end in California in the first place?
Born in Washington, Maine, to an unwed teenage mother, McCurdy worked several jobs from a plumber, a miner, and a soldier in the Army, the latter where he received explosives training he would use in his criminal career.
After little success in regular work, McCurdy took to robbing with a focus on breaking safes with the explosives. Unfortunately, the explosion would often destroy whatever awards he sought after and his hauls were little.
Still seeking awards, McCurdy did a short, unsuccessful stint where he robbed two trains. But it’s the second train robbery that sealed his fate, where he only earned $46 and two jugs of whiskey.
Sick with tuberculosis and drunk off the whiskey, McCurdy hid from the law in a barn.
A known alcoholic, McCurdy is said to have begun drinking as a teenager when he learned his parents were actually his aunt and uncle — who raised him in place of his mother, Sadie.
Although his father is unknown, it’s been proposed it may have been his mother’s cousin. Her brother, George, raised McCurdy in place of Sadie to fight off the stigma of an illegitimate son.
After the death of his parents and grandfather, McCurdy took to drifting across the states and found his life in crime. This eventually led him to Oklahoma — a fatal mistake.
As he lay in wait in the barn, the deputy posse closed in on McCurdy. A shootout ensued. A bullet to the chest killed him.
He was 31.
“On Trail of Train Bandits”
The Guthrie Daily Leader
October 9, 1911
Special officers are hot on the trail of the two bandits yet at large who held up and robbed a Katy Train near Okesa last Wednesday morning and it is believed that their arrest is but a question of time.
With the complete identification of the body of Elmer J. McCurdy, the Katy detectives and officers believe they have rid the country of the leader of the gang which has been committing so many depredations in the northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas during the past few months.
The killing of McCurdy has entirely exploded the theory that local parties conducted the affair, although it is supposed that certain residents in that section of the country had knowledge of the affair.
Sears, the man arrested at whose house was found some of the dead man’s plunder, is being held for investigation. Huggins has been turned loose and Amos Hayes, the third man under suspicion, came to Pawhuska Saturday night and surrendered to the sheriff, but he was not arrested.
In a 1911 interview with the Bartlesville Daily Examiner of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Deputy Bob Fenton, who was among the posse targeting McCurdy, discussed his death.
“It began just about 7 o’clock. We were standing around waiting for him to come out when the first shot was fired at me. It missed me and he then turned his attention to my brother, Stringer Fenton. He shot three times at Stringer and when my brother got undercover he turned his attention to Dick Wallace,” Fenton said.
“He kept shooting at all of us for about an hour. We fired back every time we could. We do not know who killed him … (on the trail) we found one of the jugs of whiskey which was taken from the train. It was about empty. He was pretty drunk when he rode up to the ranch last night.”
With no family to pay for McCurdy’s funeral, the Pawhuska, Oklahoma, mortician who embalmed McCurdy put his body, well-preserved with an arsenic-based preservative, on display in his funeral home.
He charged 5 cents to view the dead outlaw. Coins were placed in the corpse’s open mouth.
As part of the display, McCurdy was advertised to the public by several aliases, such as “The Embalmbed Bandit,” “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” and “The Oklahoma Outlaw.”
The mortician’s children apparently had his sense of morbid humor, as they were said to have put roller skates on the body and roll him around to scare smaller children.
McCurdy’s popularity grew. Carnival and sideshow attractions attempted to purchase the body but the mortician, Joseph L. Johnson, refused.
Upping their game, two carnival con artists posing as family claimed McCurdy’s body in 1916. But the men were not McCurdy’s brothers but were actually Charles and James Patterson of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows.
They claimed to be sending McCurdy home to California. Instead, they displayed him in the traveling show.
And McCurdy’s travels didn’t end there.
He later ended up in the Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime, which displayed wax replicas of outlaws.
Dwain Esper then put his body on display at theaters to advertise the 1933 movie “Narcotic.” The advertisements called McCurdy a drug addict who died by suicide after robbing a pharmacy due to his habit. Since his body had begun to decay, its shrunken appearance became “proof” of the fake drug addict story. McCurdy makes an appearance in the film.
For years, his body traveled far and wide on the sideshow circuit. He ended up in warehouses and made another film appearance in “She Freak” (1967).
As the years went on, McCurdy eventually lost his identity and became confused as any other toy display. Wax and glow-in-the-dark paint coated his body, and he later found himself hanging by a noose in the California park ride.
Of fun trivia, McCurdy would go on to inspire the popular character Skeletor of Mattel’s “Masters of the Universe” toy line.
Mark Taylor, a Mattel artist, discussed the inspiration in Netflix’s documentary series “The Toys That Made Us.” He explained how he saw McCurdy’s mummified corpse while visiting the Long Beach carnival and that he felt like he “knew” McCurdy was a real person all along.
In 1977, McCurdy’s body returned to Guthrie, Oklahoma, for a proper burial.
“Elmer McCurdy Goes Home to Boot Hill”
April 23, 1977
“A black, glass-sided hearse drawn by two white horses took McCurdy’s body from a funeral home in Guthrie, about 30 miles north of Oklahoma City, to the windswept cemetery where he was buried among several other Old West outlaws, including Bill Doolin and Little Dick West.
“Two wagons and five men on horseback made up the funeral procession as it crept through the streets of Guthrie, the territorial and first state capital, toward the cemetery and the raw opening in the red Oklahoma earth.
“A fine drizzle sifted down from heavy clouds as hundreds of spectators matched the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves with the click of camera shutters.”
Dark tourism fans can visit McCurdy’s grave at Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie in the Boot Hill section, where other outlaws lay buried.
To make sure McCurdy’s rest will not be disturbed, authorities poured multiple feet of concrete over the grave.
It’s safe to say the Elmer McCurdy tour is finally over.
Cassius Corbin is a transgender poet, fiction writer, and blogger from rural Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @cassiuscorbin, Instagram @sixfeetrooted or email him at email@example.com. He is currently seeking a literary agent to publish his poetry.