The Roundup

Oklahoma Oddity: The Life and Death of Elmer McCurdy

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Posted 12.10.12

Last Friday marked an unusual anniversary in Oklahoma history: On Dec. 7, 1976, the mummified remains of Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy were discovered in the Laff in the Dark attraction at the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. The body had been painted red and was believed by the attraction’s owners to be a wax dummy; it wasn’t until Elmer’s arm fell off that they realized otherwise.

McCurdy, born in Maine in 1880, spent three years in the Army and then traveled to Oklahoma where he joined a band of bank and train robbers. He was killed in a shootout with authorities in the Osage Hills on Oct. 7, 1911, after robbing a passenger train of $46 and a few bottles of liquor and declaring that he wouldn’t be taken alive.

According to Snopes, McCurdy’s real career began after his death, not long after his embalming in Pawhuska. “He looked so darn good dressed up in his fancy clothes that the undertaker propped him up in a corner of the funeral home’s back room and charged locals a nickel to see ‘The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,’ ” the site reported. “The nickels were dropped into the corpse’s open mouth (from where they were later retrieved by the entrepreneurial undertaker).”

In 1915, a couple of carnival workers showed up and falsely claimed McCurdy as their brother. They took the body away, claiming they’d give it a proper burial, but instead exhibited his body in carnivals throughout Texas under the moniker given to him by the undertaker.

A Los Angeles Times story reported that “he was equally unimpressive as a corpse” as he was an outlaw. “During his carnival career, folks sometimes forgot that he had been a real person, not a mannequin.”

After his Texas tour, “McCurdy popped up everywhere,” Snopes reported, “including an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, lying in an open casket in a Los Angeles wax museum, and in a few low-budget films.”

It was during the filming of The Six Million Dollar Man at Nu-Pike park that he was discovered to be a human corpse. “At first no one knew the mummy’s identity,” the L.A. Times reported. “A break in the case came with the bizarre discovery of carnival tickets in his mouth, apparently stuffed in there by prankish visitors. The tickets bore the name of his last sideshow owner, who identified him. While this was before the dawn of DNA testing, the L.A. County coroner’s office also found that the location of a bullet wound in the chest, as well as ‘scars, bunions and other tell-tale signs,’ indicated it was old Elmer.”

He was finally laid to rest in 1977. From the Times:

Eventually, the Oklahoma Territorial Museum picked him up and took him back to Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla., where a laconic tombstone mentions the year of his death and burial, without explaining why the dates are 66 years apart.

Rebecca Luker, proprietor of the local Stone Lion Inn, holds “Murder Mystery Weekend” shows that feature a visit to McCurdy’s grave. …

“He’s under several feet of concrete,” said Nathan Turner, director of the Oklahoma Territorial Museum. “The chief of police decided no one was going to steal him again.”

Richard Basgall wrote a biography, The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased: An Historical Mystery, and, according to the Times, a screenplay based on McCurdy’s life and death was in the works in 2004 but no movie was ever made. OETA produced a short segment about McCurdy, embedded below.

Holly Wall, News Editor