In life Elmer McCurdy wasn’t anything special. Elmer wasn’t really unique or extraordinary. It was only following his demise that Elmer amounted to much of anything, when his corpse became famous and the stuff of urban legends.
Elmer was born in Maine in 1880. He moved to the Midwest as a young adult and more or less drifted without a purpose until enlisting in the army in 1910.Even then, Elmer did little of merit other than develop a fondness for nitroglycerin demolitions and earn a reputation for being inept with the substance. Following his military service Elmer attempted to parlay his limited demolitions background into a profitable life of crime as a safe-cracking train robber.
McCurdy’s first robbery went according to form. While attempting to open the safe of a Pacific Express Company train Elmer used far too much nitro. He managed to not only blow the safe door of its hinges but also punched a hole into the side of the rail car and liquefied over $4000 in silver coins. McCurdy and his partners attempted to chip the silver from the walls and floor with a crowbar but they were forced to flee after scavenging only $450 dollars worth of globular metal.
Following that spectacular flop, McCurdy was dropped by his partners. Undeterred McCurdy soon found new ones and together, on October 7 of 1911, they held up the M.K.T passenger train number 23 successfully. Unfortunately for McCurdy officers quickly surrounded their hideout and following an hour of gunfire Elmer McCurdy was shot dead.
When no one claimed the body, the Pawhuska, Oklahoma funeral home owner who ended up with McCurdy opted to create a display piece out of him. The practice was not unheard of and the embalmer so thoroughly embalmed the corpse with arsenic he effectively mummified Elmer McCurdy.
For the next five years, Elmer McCurdy was displayed in the front window of the funeral home.
In 1916, McCurdy’s post-mortem years became even more extraordinary as his body was claimed by a representative of the Great Patterson Shows who was unscrupulously posing as a relative interested in giving Elmer a proper burial. Instead, Elmer was put on exhibition as the ‘Oklahoma Outlaw’.
From that first display Elmer McCurdy began a sixty year odyssey in exhibition, being passed from show to show and carnival to carnival. Once, he was even forfeited as security for a $500 loan and he was even displayed a theatre lobby during showings of the 1933 film Narcotic. For much of the 30’s and 40’s McCurdy was displayed by former police officer Louis Sonney in his ‘Museum of Crime’. Perhaps due to all the shuffling and his wanderings folks forgot that McCurdy was a real mummy and not some macabre prop. By the 60’s, all memory of his true nature was forgotten and McCurdy was sold as a ‘mannequin’ to a wax museum in 1971.
In December of 1976 the television show The Six Million Dollar Man was shooting an episode entitled “Carnival of Spies” in the ‘Laff in the Dark’ funhouse the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California when a crew member damaged what he thought was a neon orange wax mannequin. When the mannequin’s arm broke off, a human bone was visible and authorities were hastily called.
When medical examiner Thomas Noguchi opened the mummy’s mouth for other clues, he was surprised to find a 1924 penny and a ticket from Sonney Amusement’s Museum of Crime in Los Angeles. That ticket and archived newspaper accounts helped police and researchers identify the body as that of Elmer McCurdy.
Following a huge amount of press and much fanfare, in April 1977 the well-traveled Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to final rest in Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. To ensure that the now famous corpse would not make its way back to the entertainment world, the state medical examiner ordered two cubic yards of cement poured over the coffin before the grave was closed.
Elmer has been resting happily even since.