Elmer McCurdy’s life may have been relatively short, but there can be no arguing that he packed a few memorable moments into it before he shuffled off this mortal coil.
Born in 1880, some would say Elmer was in his prime when he died rather suddenly of lead poisoning during a gunfight with law enforcement officers at a barn near Pawhuska, Oklahoma in 1911.
Yes, Elmer fought the law and the law won, but that particular contest wasn’t unique because Elmer’s resumé was replete with such losses over the years.
Aside from failing in a gunfight against sheriff’s deputies, he also failed as a burglar, a bank robber, a train robber, and an explosives expert. But lest it is thought that Elmer’s failings were solely of the criminal kind, it should also be noted that he also failed as a miner and as a plumber, largely due to his propensity for getting drunk, a habit which resulted in him being arrested for public intoxication in 1905.
It would be fair to say that Elmer tried to straighten out his life when he joined the US Army in 1907. During his service as a machine-gun operator, he was also trained in the use of nitroglycerin.
Of course, being trained in how to do something and actually performing that task to the correct standard is a very different thing entirely, as became evident when Elmer attempted to put his ‘skills’ to the test after he left the Army on November 7, 1910.
In March of 1911, he and three others held up the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train after receiving a tip-off that it carried a safe containing $4,000.
He and his accomplices did manage to stop the train, but McCurdy’s heavy hand when it came to dispensing the nitroglycerine, resulted in the safe being destroyed in the ensuing blast, along with much of the money.
All that remained was an estimated $450 of silver coins that had fused to the frame of the safe due to the intense heat of the blast.
Undeterred, in September of 1911, the gang targetted The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. After breaking through the bank wall, McCurdy used his nitroglycerin to blow the door of the bank’s vault clear across the room. His attempts at blowing open the safe that was contained inside proved fruitless, however, and, before fleeing, the gang only managed to net €150 in coins that they found in a tray outside the safe.
McCurdy’s lawlessness continued up to his final heist in October 1911 near Okesa, Oklahoma, when he clearly adopted the attitude of ‘go big or go home’.
Intelligence proved vital for this robbery. Elmer and his two buddies received word that a Katy train was carrying a treaty payment of $400,000 that was bound for the Osage Nation. Unfortunately, intelligence only went so far, and, well… the gang robbed the wrong train. The haul (a rather generous term admittedly) netted the grand total of $46, a watch, a coat, a revolver and some whiskey.
The trio split up soon after, with McCurdy hiding out in the barn of a pal Charlie Revard’s ranch in Oklahoma, where he and the ranch hands disposed of the whiskey.
And it was here also that Elmer McCurdy with a bounty of $2,000 on his head (more money than he had ever managed to steal in his criminal career) was tracked down and where, aged 31, his ‘reign of error’ finally came to a bloody and irrevocable end in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies.
And that would be the end of the life and times of Elmer McCurdy if it weren’t for the sterling work of the undertaker, one Joseph L.Johnson, who later took charge of his body.
To preserve the corpse until expected collection by relatives, embalming fluid was injected into it. And then Johnson waited for someone to collect it – and to pay him for his services. And waited. And waited.
That embalming fluid proved a rather potent mix to judge by the results. Impressed by his own skills and wanting some recompense for his handiwork, Johnson hit on the idea of selling tickets to the public to view the body of a ‘notorious’ bandit, albeit a well-preserved one.
Elmer’s mummified corpse proved a popular attraction; so popular, in fact, that there came a time when two men arrived to claim they were Elmer’s relatives and took his body with them…. only to include it as part of a travelling circus of their own, to be displayed far and wide.
And so Elmer’s ‘life’ on the road began. Over time, he went from one one carni show to the next, to be poked at, toyed with and tweaked by curious citizens willing to pay a few cents admission for the privilege of viewing McCurdy’s corpse.
Fashions and attractions change, though, and at one or point or another over the years, Elmer lost his pulling power. That said, he was displayed in the lobby of movie theatres for screenings of the 1933 movie, Narcotic, with Elmer’s increasingly wizened remains acting as an illustration of the effects of drugs on the human body.
Later, he would also be used as a prop in the 1967 horror movie, She Freak, before being eventually sold on along with a job lot of wax mannequins which were exhibited at an exhibition at Mount Rushmore.
After being damaged in a storm, resulting in Elmer’s ear tips, toes and fingers, being blown off, and with his hair also lost over time, the corpse was sold and hung in the Laff in the Dark ghost train of The Pike Amusement Park, in Long Beach, California.
For a man who only managed to rob a few hundred dollars during his criminal ‘career’, it is somewhat ironic that it was while a production crew were filming an episode of the TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man at the amusement park that Elmer McCurdy’s ‘life’ after death came to a close on December 8, 1976.
It was here that Elmer, a pale shadow of his former self – now bald and painted neon orange – dangled from a gallows with a noose around his neck. He was finally discovered when a member of the crew attempted to move what they assumed was a mannequin, only for the arm to break off, revealing human bone and muscle beneath.
When Elmer’s body was subsequently examined, a 1924 penny and ticket stubs for an old carnival were found in his mouth, thus enabling investigators to backtrace his ‘movements’ and eventually discover his identity.
Whatever about his crimes in life, it seems inordinately cruel that Elmer McCurdy should end up bald, ear-less, toe-less, nose-less and finger-less…. and painted orange… hanging amongst the gloom alongside all manner of gargoyles. The fact, too, that someone would think it fine to use his mouth as a receptacle for ticket stubs is also more than a little unsettling.
Elmer ‘The Mummy’ McCurdy’s body was eventually sent back to the place of his death – Guthrie, Oklahoma, where he now rests, in peace at last.
Elmer’s activities were clearly criminal and very dangerous to others, but what does it say for all those folk who poked and prodded his corpse down through the years – where was their moral compass and their respect for the dead?
You might say that times were different then… that there was limited entertainment for people and they found fun where they could. But our fascination with the dead goes on to this day; whether that takes the form of historical interest in Egyptian mummies like Tutankhamun, scientific curiosities like preserved ancient bog bodies, or the petrified remains of human sacrifices found in South American mountainsides.
I’ve even seen mummies in Dublin – at St Michan’s Church, just a short hop from my old neighbourhood of Stoneybatter, where the bodies of four people (one said to be a Crusader) lie in open, dusty coffins, mummified due to the dry air in the crypt. At the time I viewed them, I didn’t get a sense of disturbing the dead, but in hindsight, I think that’s the only way to describe what I was doing.
Then, of course, there are those religious relics that are found in various church buildings around the world.
I still remember as a schoolboy being shown the wizened head of St Oliver Plunkett, which rests in an elaborate brass Gothic glass case in St Peter’s Church, in Drogheda.
Oliver Plunkett was the founder of a religious college who fell victim to anti-Catholic hysteria in Ireland in the 17th century. He was sentenced to death for promoting the Roman Catholic faith and, in 1681, was hanged, drawn and quartered, with his head eventually being brought to Drogheda, where it has been on display since 1929.
He’s not the only one. From the heart of St Laurence O’Toole which resided in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, to the blood of St Valentine, or more accurately a “small vessel tinged with his blood”, which was excavated in Rome in the 19th Century, according to the Carmelite Order.
Mind you, St Valentine has come in various incarnations, from a Roman priest martyred in the third century for arranging marriages for Roman soldiers to a Bishop of Terni, who was beheaded for converting Romans to Christianity. As a result there are relics of ‘St Valentine’ in Madrid, Rome and Vienna.
And relics are still hugely popular. In fact, sometimes they even go on tour.
As recently as 2001, an estimated three million people (almost three-quarters of the population) viewed the bones of St Therese of Lisieux when they were brought around Ireland on an 11-week tour, before heading off to Bosnia, to be followed by a trip to Canada for another tour of the faithful.
St Catherine of Siena, the 13th-century mystic and member of the Dominican Order, is another whose body, or bits thereof, are scattered near and far. Her head is on display at the Basilica of San Dominica in her home town of Siena, while some fingers reside in Venice, a shoulder blade in Rome and some ribs in Florence.
And if you want to get a bit closer to St Anthony of Padua you can always view his lower jaw and tongue, which were exhumed in 1263 and are still on elaborate display at the Chapel of the Relics of Padua’s Basilica del Santo, in Italy.
Is there really a difference between gawking at the corpse of a train robber and venerating before the relics of a dead saint, surely both boil down to the same morbid fascination.
Those ticket-paying crowds who queued to view Elmer McCurdy’s mummified remains may have forgotten the concept of allowing someone to rest in peace, but then so, too, have those churches around the world, where the remnants of certain scattered saints now ‘rest in pieces’ instead.
Perhaps to those who view them, the remnants of the saints teach a valuable lesson about the notion of belief and sacrifice. If so, then the gawkers at Elmer McCurdy might claim they, too, were taught a lesson about the consequences of turning away from law and order.
Or maybe it’s how you spin it… one person’s morbid gawker is another’s religious worshipper.
That point aside, perhaps it’s time that King Tut, all the other Egyptian royals and all the saints out on display join that old wannabe Wild West bandit Elmer McCurdy and be allowed, finally, to rest in peace.