Inept train robber had an unimpressive life but a celebrated afterlife
It wasn’t the sort of gag the Nu-Pike amusement park had in mind when it opened its Laff inthe Dark attraction.
It was 1976, and a worker at the Long Beach entertainment center was moving a Day-Glo red figure when its arm fell off.
An investigation found that the object, billed as a wax dummy, was actually the mummified remains of a human — an incompetent train robber named Elmer McCurdy (1880 - 1911), who had been killed by an Oklahoma posse.
Authorities pieced together McCurdy’s missing years — the ones following his death that is — and found that this King Tut of the Tumbleweeds had been a silent greeter for a Pawhuska, Okla., funeral home, a side-show attraction for innumerable carnivals across the nation and even a prop in a couple of exploitation films.
In the 35 years since his body’s discovery — or re-discovery — McCurdy has achieved posthumous fame. He’s now the subject of two biographies, a BBC documentary and a song by a Celtic folk band. He’s also the star of an Oklahoma innkeeper’s “Murder Mystery Weekend.”
It’s been a “spectacular career in death,” said writer Mark Svenvold (“Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw”).
Quite a turnabout for a guy who was so inept that he once blew up a train’s safe only to discover that the blast had fused all the coins to the sides of the vault. On another occasion, McCurdy came away from a railway heist with $46 — a criminal haul that one newspaper described as “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery.”
The hard-drinking McCurdy “was a pitiably poor outlaw,” said writer Richard Basgall in “The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased: An Historical Mystery.”
Apparently, he was equally unimpressive as a corpse.
During his carnival career, folks sometimes forgot that he had been a real person, not a mannequin.
On one occasion, a prospective buyer of wax figures “turned down Elmer because he said he wasn’t lifelike enough,” Basgall said.
When McCurdy landed at the now-defunct Nu-Pike, the authorities hung him from a gallows in the dark.
A light switch enabled “teenagers and young lovers and sailors on shore leave” to trigger a “blue light at a blind corner, where they would be spooked by the glowing body,” Svenvold wrote.
Coincidentally, his arm was discovered by a technician for TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man,” a show about a former astronaut who has an arm and other body parts replaced by bionic implants.
A set designer for the show told the Los Angeles Times in 1997 that, after Long Beach firefighters came to the scene, one of them mischievously “phoned some of his paramedic buddies and told them to get over to the Pike” to tend to a victim with a severe dehydration.
At first no one knew the mummy’s identity. 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.
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.
Luker says that when she tells McCurdy’s story, “some people ask, ‘What made you make up that story?’ I tell them everything is true. I didn’t place this monument here.”
For a while, in the 1990s, a religious group accused her of holding devil-worshiping rites but backed down after the charges were shown to be groundless. “My attorney told them, ‘She can worship a box of Tide at the cemetery and there is nothing you can do about it.’ Afterward, Tide sent me a year’s supply.”
McCurdy-mania has ebbed in recent years.
In 2004, Variety magazine ran a story saying that a screenplay about McCurdy was in the works, but no movie was ever released. Perhaps there was a problem casting McCurdy during his sideshow days.
The Variety article, by the way, incorrectly reported that his body had been found “in San Bernardino County.” Poor Elmer, always getting lost.
In reality though, McCurdy’s days of wandering appear to be at an end.
“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.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.