The Resurrection of Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy was a two-bit outlaw, a wannabe desperado who overshot the Wild West and landed in the 20th century. Nobody knew his name, and nobody in the Oklahoma Territory cared much. In 1911, Elmer was 31 years old, usually drunk, and flat broke when he decided to hold up a train. His booty: $46 and two jugs of whiskey.

Problem was, a posse was hot on his trail. Elmer holed up in a shack and hollered he wouldn’t be taken alive. So they shot him dead.

Elmer McCurdy as displayed at an Oklahoma funeral home

The Pawhuska, Oklahoma, undertaker who prepared Elmer’s bullet-riddled corpse for burial saw a chance to make a little extra cash by charging a nickel to anyone who wanted to see the outlaw’s embalmed corpse. As long as curious folks kept paying their nickels, he kept showing Elmer’s body, re-embalming it as necessary over the next few years. Finally, Elmer McCurdy was famous!

Then one day, a couple of Elmer’s outlaw cohorts claimed his body—and promptly sold it to the carnival and sideshow circuit. His preserved remains criss-crossed America from the 1920s into the 1960s as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” He was photographed at an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, scared people in haunted houses, lay in an open casket in a Los Angeles wax museum, and even “performed” as a prop in a few low-budget movies.

In time, Elmer ended up on permanent display on the midway at The Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. But by the mid-1970s, The Pike was on the decline. Crowds were dwindling, urban blight was encroaching, and maintenance declined. The decaying park’s desperate owners did everything they could to stay alive.

In 1976, they allowed a film crew to shoot an upcoming episode of the popular TV show Six Million Dollar Man in one of the park’s thrill rides called Laff in the Dark, where goblins, skeletons, and demons leapt up to scare folks in wildly jolting cars that ran along a track.

While preparing the set, a crewman decided to move a mannequin that hung from the gallows in a corner. When he grabbed the mannequin’s arm, it broke off … revealing a bone inside. After the coroner determined that the mannequin was, in fact, a human, the park’s owners quickly identified him as the mummified outlaw Elmer McCurdy.

McCurdy’s grave in Guthrie OK

In 1977, Elmer McCurdy (1880-1911) was returned to Oklahoma. He was buried next to famed outlaw Bill Doolin in the boot hill section of Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma.  His casket was covered with two tons of concrete—so he’d never be moved again.

Bestselling crime writer Ron Franscell is the author of 17 books, including the fascinating crime/history/travel book,The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Los Angeles.”