Elmer McCurdy

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Elmer McCurdy
Elmer McCurdy.jpg
Born Elmer J. McCurdy
(1880-01-01)January 1, 1880
Washington, Maine, U.S.
Died October 7, 1911(1911-10-07) (aged 31)
Osage Hills, Oklahoma, U.S.
Cause of death
Gunshot wound
Body discovered
Resting place
Summit View Cemetery
35°53′45″N 97°24′12″W / 35.89583°N 97.40333°W / 35.89583; -97.40333 (Elmer McCurdy Burial Site)
Other names Frank Curtis
Frank Davidson
Charles Smith
Occupation Plumber, bank robber
Home town Bangor, Maine

Elmer J. McCurdy (January 1, 1880 – October 7, 1911) was an American bank and train robber whose mummified body was discovered in The Pike amusement zone in Long Beach, California, in December 1976.


McCurdy was born in Washington, Maine, on January 1, 1880. He was the son of 17-year old Sadie McCurdy who was unmarried at the time of his birth. The identity of McCurdy's father is unknown; one possibility is Sadie's cousin, Charles Smith. McCurdy would later use the name "Charles Smith" as an alias. In order to save Sadie the embarrassment of raising an illegitimate child, her brother George and his wife Helen adopted Elmer. After George died of tuberculosis in 1890, Sadie and Helen moved with Elmer to Bangor, Maine. Sadie eventually told her son that she, not Helen, was his mother and that she was unsure of who is biological father was. This news disturbed McCurdy who grew resentful and became "unruly and rebellious". As a teenager, he began drinking heavily, a habit he would continue throughout his life.[1]

McCurdy eventually went to live with his grandfather and became an apprentice plumber. He reportedly was a competent worker and lived comfortably until the economic downturn in 1898. McCurdy lost his job and, in August 1900, his mother died of a ruptured ulcer. His grandfather died of Bright's disease the following month.[2] Shortly after his grandfather's death, McCurdy left Maine and began drifting around the eastern United States where he worked as a miner and plumber. He eventually made his way to Kansas where he worked as a plumber in Cherryvale before relocating to Webb City, Missouri.[3]

In 1907, McCurdy joined the United States Army.[3] While in the Army, McCurdy was a machine gun operator and was trained to use nitroglycerin for demolition purposes (the extent of this training was likely minimal). He was honorably discharged from the Quartermaster Corps on November 7, 1910. On November 19, McCurdy and a friend were arrested for possessing burglary tools in St. Joseph, Missouri. This marked the beginning of McCurdy's career of robbing which were generally bungled affairs due to McCurdy's ineptness.[3]


McCurdy decided to incorporate his training with nitroglycerin into his robberies. This often caused problems as McCurdy was overzealous and often failed to correctly determine the proper amount to use. By March 1911, McCurdy has relocated to Lenapah, Oklahoma. He and three other men decided to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train after McCurdy heard that one of the cars contained a safe with $4,000. They successfully stopped the train and located the safe. McCurdy then put nitroglycerin on the safe's door to open it but used too much. The safe was destroyed in the blast as was the majority of the money. McCurdy and his partners managed to net $450 in silver coins, most of which was melted.[3]

A few weeks later, in September 1911, McCurdy and two other men robbed The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. McCurdy placed a nitroglycerin charge around the door of the bank's outer vault. The blast blew the vault door through the bank destroying the interior, but did not damage the safe inside the vault. McCurdy tried to blow the safe door open with nitroglycerin but the charge failed to ignite. After McCurdy's look out man got scared and ran off, he and the other three men stole some coins that were in a tray outside the safe and fled.[4] That robbery netted McCurdy approximately $50. Later that night, the men hopped a train which took them to the Kansas border. They split up and McCurdy made his way to the ranch of a friend, Charlie Revard, near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He stayed in a hayshed on the property for the next few weeks and drank heavily.[5]


McCurdy's final robbery took place on October 4, 1911. McCurdy and two accomplices planned to rob a Katy Train that contained $400,000. However, McCurdy and the men mistakenly stopped a passenger train instead. The men got away with $40, a few jugs of whiskey, an automatic revolver, a coat and a watch. McCurdy was disappointed and returned to Revard's ranch and resumed drinking. Unbeknownst to McCurdy, he had been implicated in the robbery and a $2,000 reward for his capture was issued.[6]

On October 7, a posse of police found McCurdy in the hayshed on Revard's ranch. They also found a Savage 30-30 rifle that was used in the robbery. Instead of holing up in the barn, McCurdy assumed a defensive position in the hayloft. This gave him an unobstructed view of part of the barnyard. Just before dawn, Sheriff Freas and deputies Robert and Stringer Fenton and Robert "Dick" Wallace surrounded the hayshed where McCurdy was sleeping. At approximately 7 a.m., Sheriff Freas yelled for McCurdy to surrender. McCurdy responded with a barrage of curses. This led to an hour-long standoff, as the posse wanted to capture McCurdy alive and collect the reward for his arrest and conviction. According to Robert Fenton, McCurdy fired the first shots. "He took a shot at me first. Then he took a shot at Stringer. After that he took three shots at Wallace before we opened up", he told reporters. The posse's return fire was so intense that the neighbors came out and stood at a safe distance to watch the gun battle. After about an hour, the firing stopped and no sound was heard from the hayshed. The deputies sent a young boy into the hayshed to investigate. Then Pawhuska Chief of Police William Floyd Davies slowly ascended the ladder into the hayloft, the posse's guns transfixed on the ladder's top rung. Davies put his hat on his rifle barrel and poked it into the hay loft. There was no response from McCurdy.

McCurdy was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the chest. A buckboard was brought around and McCurdy's body was loaded and taken back to Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Post mortem commercialization[edit]

McCurdy's body was subsequently taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska. After no relative came forward to claim the body, the undertaker embalmed it with an arsenic-based preservative and allowed people to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up" for a nickel. People would place nickels in McCurdy's mouth, which the undertaker would collect later. As increasingly large numbers of people came to view his remains, McCurdy was said to have made more money in death than in life. Many carnival operators asked to buy the mummified body from the undertaker, but he refused.

Almost five years after McCurdy died, a man showed up from a nearby traveling carnival known as the Great Patterson Shows claiming to be McCurdy's long-lost brother. He indicated that he wanted to remove the corpse to give it a proper burial. Within two weeks, however, McCurdy was a featured exhibit with the carnival. For the next sixty years, McCurdy's body was sold to successive wax museums, carnivals, and haunted houses. His body was part of the official sideshow that accompanied the Trans-American Footrace. The owner of a haunted house near Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, refused to purchase him because he thought that McCurdy's body was actually a mannequin and was not lifelike enough. McCurdy's corpse can be seen in the 1933 Dwain Esper exploitation film, Narcotic.[7]

Eventually, McCurdy's corpse wound up at The Pike, an amusement zone in Long Beach, California, which existed under various names until 1979.

Rediscovery and burial[edit]

On December 8, 1976, the production crew of the television show The Six Million Dollar Man were filming scenes for the "Carnival of Spies" episodes at the The Pike. During the shoot, a prop man moved what was thought to be a wax mannequin that was hanging from a gallows.[8] When the mannequin's arm broke off, a human bone and muscle tissue were visible.[9]

Police were called and the mummified corpse was taken to the Los Angeles coroner's office. On December 9, Dr. Joesph Choi conducted an autopsy and determined that the body was in fact that of a human male who had died of a gunshot wound to the chest. The body was completely mummified and had been painted several times with phosphorous paint. It weighed approximately 50 pounds and was 63 inches in height. Some hair was still visible on the sides and back of the head while the ears, big toes and fingers were missing. The examination also revealed incisions from his original autopsy and embalming. Tests conducted on the tissue showed the presence of arsenic which was a component of embalming fluid until the late 1920s. While the bullet that caused the fatal wound was presumably removed during the original autopsy, the bullet jacket was found. It was determined to be a gas check, which were first used in 1905. These clues helped investigators pinpoint the era in which the man had been killed.[10]

Further clues were found when the mandible was removed for dental analysis. Inside the mouth was a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to the 140 W. Pike, Side Show and Louis Sonney's Museum of Crime. By December 11, investigators had pieced together enough information to conclude the body was that of Elmer McCurdy. By that time, the story had been featured in newspapers and on television and radio. Several funeral homes called the coroner's office offering to bury McCurdy free of charge, but officials decided to wait to see if any living relatives would come forward to claim the body. Fred Olds, who represented the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns eventually convinced Dr. Thomas Noguchi, then the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, to allow him to bury the body in Oklahoma. After further testing to ensure proper identification. Olds was allowed to take custody of the body.[11]

On April 22, 1977, a funeral procession was conducted to transport McCurdy's body to the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. A graveside service attended by 500 people was conducted after which McCurdy was buried.[12] To ensure that McCurdy's body would not be stolen, concrete was poured over the casket.[13]

See also[edit]

  • Jeremy Bentham, whose mummified remains were put on display, in accordance with his will.
  • Jonah Hex, a fictional, comic–book character whose post-demise exploits in The Last Jonah Hex Story echo McCurdy's posthumous fate.


  1. ^ Svenvold, Mark (2003). Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw. Basic Books. pp. 27–28. ISBN 0-465-08349-8. 
  2. ^ Svenold 2003 p.28
  3. ^ a b c d Anderson, Dan. One Hundred Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters, and Lawmen, 1839-1939. Pelican Publishing. p. 143. ISBN 1-455-60004-0. 
  4. ^ Svenvold 2003 pp.93-94
  5. ^ Svenvold 2003 p.94
  6. ^ Quigley, Christine (1998). Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. McFarland. p. 60. ISBN 0-786-42851-1. 
  7. ^ Maniac. teleport-city.com
  8. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara (November 9, 2006). "Dead Man Gawking". snopes.com. Retrieved December 17, 2014. 
  9. ^ Anderson p.145
  10. ^ Quigley 1998 pp.65-67
  11. ^ Quigley 1998 pp.67-68
  12. ^ Quigley 1998 p.68
  13. ^ Smith, Robert Barr (2013). Outlaw Tales of Oklahoma: True Stories of the Sooner State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 113. ISBN 1-493-00258-9. 


  • Basgall, Richard J.; Carlson, Ted (November 1989). "The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased: An Historical Mystery". Trails End Publishing Co. p. 253. ISBN 978-0962222306. 
  • Snow, Clyde C (1979). "The life and afterlife of Elmer J. McCurdy: A melodrama in two acts". Marcel Dekker. ASIN B00073CII2. 
  • Rathbun, Ted A. (July 1984). Buikstra, Jane E., ed. "Human Identification: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology". Charles C Thomas Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0398063375. 
  • Timewatch: The Oklahoma Outlaw documentary IMDB entry

External links[edit]