Elmer McCurdy: Traveling Corpse

Dead outlaw, will travel.

In life, Elmer McCurdy was a hard-drinking drifter. In death, he crisscrossed the country touring the carnival circuit, hit the Hollywood scene, and even made it to TV!

The bizarre tale of Elmer’s journey from varmint to traveling corpse started in Oklahoma when he and his gang of bandits robbed the wrong train in October 1911. The crew made off with a paltry $45 and a load of whiskey. A posse closed in on the outlaw two days later and McCurdy swore he’d never be taken alive! Living up to his word, he died after an hour long shootout and was later identified as one of the five bandits that had robbed a train in Coffeyville, KS earlier that year.

His body was taken to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, OK, where it was embalmed. After it sat unclaimed at the mortuary for six months, one observer noticed Elmer was perfectly preserved. Attempting to cash-in on a growing local interest in the “Embalmed Bandit,” the enterprising mortician dressed Elmer up with rifle in hand and put him on display for five cents per view.

In 1916, two carnival promoters posing as McCurdy’s brothers claimed the corpse. Afterwards, Elmer traveled across the country with the Great Patterson Carnival Show as an attraction in a sideshow of human curiosities.

Louis Sonney, head of an entertainment company in California, acquired Elmer in 1922 after a carny used the body as a security deposit and then defaulted on a $500 loan. Sonney put the mummified bandit in his travelling show, the Museum of Crime, which toured up and down the West Coast up until the 1940s.

After Sonney’s death in 1949 and as the public’s demand for such spectacles waned, Elmer ended up stored in warehouses in Los Angeles where he languished for twenty years. Then in 1968, the petrified outlaw was sold to the now defunct Hollywood Wax Museum, billed as the “1,000 Year Old Man.” After the wax museum closed later that year, Elmer got mixed up with other authentic wax dummies and was eventually sold to the Nu-Point Amusement Park in Long Beach, CA, where he was painted in fluorescent red and hung from fake gallows as decor for a spooky ride in the Laff-in-the-Dark funhouse. 

In December 1976, during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man at the funhouse, a TV crew member went to move “the dummy” and an arm broke off, exposing what looked to be human bones. Several days later, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office examined the body and found a copper-jacketed bullet in the chest and a type of embalming fluid used during the early 1900s. With the help of several Oklahoma historians, the coroner was able to identify the remains as Elmer McCurdy. “The first clue: The corpse’s mouth was stuffed with carnival ticket stubs,” (Wall Street Journal, July 11, 1991, p. A1).

In February 1977, the City Council of Guthrie, OK was offered a burial plot in the Boot Hill section of Summit View Cemetery, to give McCurdy a proper burial alongside three other notable Oklahoma outlaws. Recognizing a chance to promote their city, they agreed. Two months later, a horse-drawn hearse brought a plain pine coffin to Boot Hill where Elmer McCurdy was laid to rest at last.

Even after burial, McCurdy’s legacy continues on in comic books. He is believed to be the inspiration for the DC Comics character Jonah Hex, whose backstory sounds oddly familiar. After he was killed in a saloon during a card game, the body of Jonah Hex is preserved and acquired by a traveling circus and put on display. He then moved from the circus, to an antique shop, to a warehouse, to eventually a Wild West theme park in the 1970s, where he is finally discovered by historians.

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