Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Long Journey In Death of Elmer McCurdy by Sarah J. McNeal

Elmer McCurdy

If ever a human being was born with bad luck it was Elmer McCurdy. I would start with the name, Elmer, but that was the least of his troubles. Elmer was born January 1, 1880 in Washington, Maine with ambiguous parentage and began his life surrounded by alcoholism, disease, untimely deaths, and tragedies.

It comes as no surprise that he struggled to support himself working odd jobs and was arrested at some point. He did make a move to better himself by joining the army when he was 27…and that is where he learned to blow up things with nitroglycerin and shoot machine guns. After he received an honorable discharge, his life took a disastrous turn.

Elmer decided to become a robber. He chose banks and trains as his targets, but his inept abilities using nitroglycerin led to some interesting results like blowing up the money and melting the coins into a solid heap. Even over a year of such mishaps, Elmer was not deterred from his desired profession.

In 1911, Elmer McCurdy heard about a train carrying $400,000. As was his usual luck, Elmer held up the wrong train and only got $46. A shootout ensued and Elmer McCurdy was found dead next to a bottle of whiskey with a gunshot wound to his chest. You would think this would be the end of his career, but fate was about to take Elmer on a very strange ride.

The mortician at the Johnson Funeral Home embalmed Elmer with arsenic, a method that would keep his body mummified. There he waited for someone to show up and claim his body so he could be buried…and most likely forgotten. But no one ever came. The mortician had gone to expense and trouble cleaning up the outlaw and dressing him properly to meet his maker and he wasn’t about to lose money after all that work. For a time the undertaker propped up McCurdy’s body with a sign that read, “The Bandit That Wouldn’t Give Up” and charged 5 cents for customers to see it. The nickels were placed in Elmer’s mouth until the undertaker removed them. I don’t even want to know how he did that.

Elmer McCurdy's Embalmed Body 

Word spread about the corpse of the robber on display until a couple of brothers who owned a carnival showed up pretending to be relatives, paid the undertaker, and took the body in 1916.

Elmer McCurdy’s corpse was put on display in the traveling carnival, The Great Patterson Carnival Show where lines of people paid to view and his sad and short career as a luckless robber was told over and over. He traveled with several side shows over the years with different titles and finally was shown at “The Museum of Crime” beside wax models of other criminals such as Bill Doolin.

In 1976, the company working for the TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man” discovered the corpse at first thinking it was a prop, but then realized it was an actual corpse. The medical examiner was called and Elmer McCurdy’s mummified remains were examined and X-Rayed until he was finally identified as Elmer McCurdy. The story of McCurdy’s death and journey was featured in newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts across the country. Several funeral homes called the coroner’s office offering to bury Elmer for free, but the coroner waited to see if any living relative would claim Elmer McCurdy’s body, but no one ever did.

Finally, Fred Olds, who represented the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns, persuaded Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the county of Los Angeles, to allow him to take custody of the body and bury it in Oklahoma.

On April 22, 1977, a funeral procession was conducted to transport Elmer McCurdy to the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. 300 people attended the graveside service in which Elmer was buried beside the grave of Bill Doolin. In order to ensure Elmer McCurdy’s body would not be stolen, two feet of concrete was poured over the casket.

And so ends the short life and the long journey in death of the hapless robber, Elmer McCurdy. May he finally rest in peace.

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. My goodness, what an interesting character. Sad in a way that he had no one to claim him. Great post, Sarah!

    1. I know, Linda. I felt the same way. How sad it was that he had no family or friends to care what became of him. On top of that, he was so inept at even being a robber. The odds seemed stacked against him.

      Thank you so much for coming, Linda. I appreciate it.

  2. What a story! This is really amazing, Sarah. I'm saving this so I can read it again.

    1. When I read about poor Elmer while doing my research for this blog, I felt this overwhelming despair for him. He spent his entire life as a victim of his own design.

      I also wondered why anyone would pay money to look at a corpse and seemingly feel no sympathy for a man who couldn't even find peace in death.

      I'm so glad you came, Cheryl. How you find the time to do all you do amazes me. Thank you!

  3. In spite of the fact that he was a criminal, you just have to feel sorry for this man. If I ever tried a life of crime, that's probably the luck I'd have. Better for me to just write about people like Elmer, right?

    1. Caroline, I so agree with you. Poor Elmer wasn't even a good criminal. I wonder what would have happened to him if he had reenlisted in the service. It seems that was the only time he managed to have a decent life.

      It's as if Elmer was paying his Karmic debt because nothing went right for him in life or even in death. Displayed and ridiculed was all he ever got. It makes me want to write him into a story where other characters have compassion for him.

      I would suck at being a criminal, too, Caroline. But ya know, whenever something goes wrong for me, all I have to do is remember Elmer because nothing I could deal with would be as bad as what he least I hope not.

      Thank you so much for coming and commenting, Caroline.


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