Wednesday, February 12, 2014

‘The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up’

Elmer McCurdy in his army days.
By Kathleen Rice Adams

Some men are born to infamy; others have infamy thrust upon them. And then there are those like Elmer McCurdy who slip into infamy sideways … sixty-five years after they should have faded into obscurity.

Except for his out-of-wedlock birth in Washington, Maine, in January 1880, McCurdy seems to have enjoyed an uneventful childhood as the adopted son of his 17-year-old biological mother’s older, married sister. When McCurdy was ten, the man he had always believed to be his father died, and the truth of his parentage came out. At fifteen, he ran away from home and drifted through the Midwest, developing a fondness for alcohol and working odd jobs until he joined the army. Trained in demolition, he left the service in early 1911 with an honorable discharge and a professional acquaintance with nitroglycerin.

That’s when things took a turn for the worse. Unable to find a civilian job, McCurdy resolved to gain fame and fortune the old-fashioned way: by stealing it — specifically, by robbing trains. The career choice didn’t work out well for him. On his first job, he overdid the nitro and not only nearly blew the train’s safe through the wall, but also melted $4,000 in silver coins to the floor. McCurdy and three accomplices pried up about $450 in silver lumps before scramming barely ahead of the law.

After that, McCurdy backed off on the explosives, producing less than stellar results when trains’ safes failed to open. Apparently deciding a stationary target might prove less vexing, McCurdy aimed his demolition skills at a bank vault in the middle of the night. The resulting blast woke up the entire town, and the gang made off with about $150.

They went back to robbing trains.

On Oct. 4, 1911, despite careful planning, the outlaws held up the wrong train, netting a haul of about $90 and some whiskey. Evidently disgruntled, McCurdy’s cohorts abandoned him.

Undaunted, he quickly put together a new gang and three days later — on Oct. 7, 1911 — held up a Missouri, Kansas, and Texas passenger train near Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The take was an unimpressive $46, two jugs of whiskey … and a posse.

Mere hours later, during an armed standoff on an Oklahoma farm, a drunken McCurdy announced from a hayloft that the posse would never take him alive. Foregoing the $2,000 bounty for bringing the bandit to trial, the lawmen obliged by killing him.

Elmer McCurdy on display at the
Pawhuska, Oklahoma, mortuary.
That would have been the end of a less-than-illustrious career for most outlaws, but Elmer McCurdy’s career was only beginning.

When no one claimed the hapless train-robber’s remains, the mortician put McCurdy’s body on display as a somewhat gruesome promotional gimmick. For the next four years, the embalmed corpse, in a pine box bearing a sign that read “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” adorned the front window of the mortuary.

In 1915, two men claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers took possession of the body, ostensibly to provide a proper burial. Instead, they exhibited “A Famous Oklahoma Outlaw” as part of the Great Patterson Shows traveling carnival.

McCurdy’s corpse changed hands several times over the next two decades, popping up in all sorts of places: at an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, in several freak shows, and even in the lobby of a theater during a screening of the 1933 film Narcotic. For much of the 1930s and ’40s, McCurdy’s mummified remains, thought to be a mannequin, held a place of honor in the Sonney Amusement Museum of Crime in Los Angeles.

In 1971, an L.A. wax museum bought the by-then-unidentified “mannequin.” Until 1976, McCurdy was part of the museum’s display about Bill Doolin, an Oklahoma outlaw who actually achieved a good deal of notoriety while he was alive.

Sixty-five years after his death, McCurdy would achieve notoriety, too, though not in quite the way he may have hoped. The failed outlaw, painted fluorescent orange, made one final public appearance in December 1976, as a prop inside the Laff in the Dark funhouse at the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. While filming an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man inside the building, a crew member accidentally broke an arm off what he thought was a wax dummy hanging from a gallows. A protruding bone revealed the truth. Forensic anthropologists and the Los Angeles County Coroner identified the body.

Left: Elmer McCurdy in coffin. Right: The "wax mannequin" recovered from the funhouse.

On April 22, 1977, Elmer McCurdy’s well-traveled remains were interred in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma — ironically, alongside the final resting place of Bill Doolin. As a precautionary measure, the state medical examiner ordered two cubic yards of concrete poured over the casket before the grave was closed.

So far, at least, it appears “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” finally did.


  1. What a great story. A comedic tragedy. He may have been inept, but he was certainly well-traveled.

  2. Kathleen, I do love your blogs. I had a mummified corpse in a ghost western romance novel. Editor emailed me for rewrites. Her response was that I couldn't have a mummified corpse as the hero. I think I frustrated her a bit.

    I always enjoy your blogs, very informative in a fun way.

  3. This would make a great ghost story. Imagine what it would be like if you had to stick close to your body. The tales that ghost could tell. Comedy, adventure, long periods of reflection on a misspent life and, we hope, the final rest at the end.

  4. I saw this story on Mysteries at the Museum a few weeks ago, but I don't think they mentioned his name. Your posts are always such a treat to read.

  5. Awesome post, Kathleen! I really enjoyed reading this one. :)

  6. Tom, I know you're fascinated by "outlaw-wannabes" too. I guess if one can't attain the infamy he desires during life, the afterlife is always an option. :-D

    Livia, I cannot imagine why an editor would balk at the notion of a mummified corpse finding true love in a western romance novel. How narrow-minded of her! ;-) (I think I would have enjoyed that story. Maybe you should mount another effort along that same line? Who says cowboys stop being hunky just because bits and pieces of their bods fall off at inopportune moments? ;-) )

    Ali, what a great idea! Write that! (What am I saying? I should know better than to egg on the Crazy Canuck. Next thing we know, she WILL write that. :-D )

  7. What an awesome post, Tex. It's kind of Apple Dumplin' Gang meets Twilight Zone.

  8. Caroline, I missed that broadcast, darn it. I'll have to go see if I can find it among the re-runs. Love that show (when I remember to record it)!

    Kat, thanks for stopping by! This story reads like an urban legend come to life ... er, death ... doesn't it? As they say, "truth is stranger than fiction." :-D

  9. LOL, Rustler (aka Kirsten)! I hadn't thought about it in quite that way, but your analogy is a good one. :-D

    (BTW: The impetus for this post was your challenge to meet the bizarre factor of your recent post about Big Nose George's afterlife career as a pair of shoes and a handbag. ;-) [It's here, y'all, and well worth a read:])

  10. I think you nailed it with this story, Kathleen. Although, a man being turned into fashion accessories is hard to beat. :)

  11. He wasn't actually crumbling in the novel, just a ghost that had to stay near his body. I changed it to a badge and made the editor happy.

  12. Kathleen, what a great post. My dad told me about this story--it made the news (we were in West Virginia at the time). I'd forgotten about it until I read this post of yours. Now, can you just imagine what that guy thought when he broke off the arm and saw a bone????? Freakish. I always love your posts!

  13. Cheryl, this story reminds me so much of the real-life adventure in which one of your relatives briefly was involved. I STILL think "putting daddy together in the garage" would make a great nugget around which to build a piece of fiction. HUGS!!!!

  14. I learn so much here, especially,from you, Kathleen. You find the most fascinating stuff. Thanks for another winner.

  15. I learn so much here, especially,from you, Kathleen. You find the most fascinating stuff. Thanks for another winner.

  16. You know, Tanya, I think the Sweethearts all do a dang fine job of spreading the gospel of western history. I always look through the archives before I write a post, just to make sure no one else has covered the topic in the same way I plan to cover it. There's one heckuva lot of good information in those archives. :-)

  17. Not only is it strange that we're drawn to such morbidity, I find it even stranger that the guy was bound and determined to dive headfirst into defeat. Talk about tenacious!

  18. I can't even imagine what McCurdy was thinking, Jacquie. If I had been watching my fortunes as a robber nosedive the way his did, about the time I got to that $46 heist, I'd have been pleading with the cops to lock me up to protect me from myself. :-D

  19. How perfectly weird. I have heard of a bandit's body put on display, but I may be thinking about another one. This guy...he was determined to fail. I guess.
    Thanks for the entertaining tale.


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