Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Curious Case of Elmer McCurdy

By Jennifer Uhlarik

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Elmer McCurdy. I’ll wait. Anyone? (Bueller? Bueller?)

Okay, so I wouldn’t expect most people to know that name. The story of Elmer McCurdy is a strange little piece of Old West history that will leave you shaking your head.



Born in the early 1880s, Elmer McCurdy was the illegitimate son of Sadie McCurdy and an unknown father. The McCurdy family is said to have been fairly well off, and to save Sadie the shame of raising a child on her own, her brother and sister-in-law, George and Helen McCurdy, adopted and raised Elmer instead. It was only after George passed away due to tuberculosis that Elmer learned his father and mother were not his biological parents. The revelation that Sadie was his birth mother and she’d conceived him out of wedlock turned teenaged Elmer bitter. To deal with this harsh reality, he took to drinking, starting him down a lifelong path of alcoholism. 


Elmer McCurdy in life
Rebellious young Elmer eventually moved in with and became a plumber’s
apprentice under his grandfather. But near the turn of the century, the economy turned downward, and the young man found himself out of a job. Near the same time, his mother died from a ruptured ulcer, and his grandfather died of disease, leaving McCurdy on his own. For a while, he drifted around and eventually landed in Kansas, working alternately as a lead miner or a plumber, though he had trouble keeping jobs due to his drinking. He joined the U.S. Army for a few years, working as a machine gun operator and receiving some nominal amount of training in demolition—including the use of nitroglycerin. Upon his honorable discharge in 1910, McCurdy’s life took a turn to the “dark side”.




It was in days immediately after his release that McCurdy met up with another Army friend. The two were soon arrested for having all sorts of paraphernalia associated with burglary, including nitroglycerin. During his trial, Elmer McCurdy told the judge that he and his friend were building a new type of machine gun, and all the hacksaws, chisels, gunpowder, and other tools were used in that endeavor. The jury bought the story and found him not guilty.


His freedom restored, McCurdy moved on from Kansas to Oklahoma, where he and a small gang of three men plotted to rob a train for the $4,000 it was carrying in a safe onboard. All went off without a hitch until McCurdy blew up most of the money in the safe by using too much nitroglycerin in his attempt to open it. The paper money was obliterated, and the silver coins melted onto the remnants of safe’s frame. At most, they got away with about $400.

McCurdy tried again to gain undue riches when he and another small band of robbers teamed up to hit a Kansas bank in September 1911. Once again, the nominal training he’d received through the Army in the use of nitroglycerin proved detrimental to their purpose. After gaining access to the bank by tearing through a wall with hammers, McCurdy used an improper amount of nitro—blew the door off the safe, which destroyed the interior of the building, but ultimately didn’t get through to the interior of said safe. Unable to access what was inside, they stole what money was available with the tellers or elsewhere on the premises, then fled.


McCurdy’s final robbery attempt came in October of the same year, when he learned of a train that would be carrying $400,000 in royalty monies meant for the Osage Indian Nation. He and a new band of thugs set their sights on that huge payout, but McCurdy’s ineptitude ruled again. The men mistakenly stopped a passenger train, rather than the one carrying the royalty money. They successfully robbed the train, but gained only a bit over $40 in cash, some whiskey, a gun or two, and the conductor’s watch. Disappointed, McCurdy rode to a friend’s barn where he often took refuge after his robberies, and began drinking the whiskey.


Elmer McCurdy in death
Only days later, McCurdy—drunk and suffering with pneumonia, among other illnesses—was found at the friend’s barn by a posse. For an hour, the lawmen exchanged gunfire with their prey, but finally realized McCurdy wasn’t shooting any longer. They carefully approached the barn and found the hapless thief had taken one fatal bullet to the chest. McCurdy was dead.

Here’s where the story takes an odd and sensational turn.




Elmer McCurdy’s corpse was taken to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where the local undertaker embalmed him with an arsenic-based solution. Assuming McCurdy’s family would claim the body, the corpse was placed in a casket and held there at the undertaker’s shop for collection. At first, the body attracted onlookers hoping to see the infamous and ill-fated outlaw. As time went on, word of the leather-skinned, five-foot-three-inch corpse brought interest of another sort—from circus workers and curiosity peddlers. Many of these people asked to purchase McCurdy’s corpse, but the undertaker refused, knowing that even the family of a criminal like ol’ Elmer would want to bury their relative. Finally, in 1916, five years after his death, the outlaw’s brothers arrived to take possession, and the McCurdy brothers both marveled at how Elmer still looked as he had in life. 


It turns out, though, that the “brothers” were no relation to Elmer at all. Instead, they were the same as all the other carnival and house of horror owners who wished to have McCurdy’s body for their money-making endeavors. The well-embalmed outlaw began making the rounds with one traveling show or another, changing hands numerous times in the following decades, eventually being coated in wax. Around World War II, his body was put into storage, and eventually sold to the Hollywood Wax Museum, then sold to another, cheaper wax museum. When that place went out of business in the 1970s, the museum’s entire collection was sold off, and Elmer’s body made its way to Long Beach to its new home in the amusement zone known as The Pike. Here, poor Elmer McCurdy was undressed, and his naked body was coated in red, flourescent paint that glowed in the dark. They hung him by a noose in the Laff in the Dark funhouse, where he added to the horrors as funhouse visitors brushed against his dangling legs in the dark.

Photos of McCurdy's "funhouse" persona


Elmer McCurdy’s nightmarish travels finally ended, thanks to the television show, The Six Million Dollar Man. In 1976, the show was doing a shoot on location at The Pike, and one of the crew bumped McCurdy’s corpse. After all the jostling of the past decades, Elmer’s arm fell off. A worker grabbed the arm and a pot of glue to reattach it. Only they noticed that there was a human bone in the appendage. Upon closer inspection, the truth was finally discovered.


Newspaper clipping about
McCurdy’s body was transported to the medical examiner, who performed an autopsy. In his chest, they found the bullet that cost McCurdy his life. Between that and the arsenic solution used to embalm him, they were able to decipher approximately when he died, and from there, police began tracking down the corpse’s provenance. Within a week, they were able to make a tentative ID, then matched photos of the hapless robber of the early 1900s to the corpse. And after waiting an appropriate amount of time for any descendants to claim the body, Elmer McCurdy made his final trip—to Boot Hill Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma—where he was given a Christian burial among much fanfare.




You would think, after all this, that Elmer would’ve slipped quietly into the annals of history where he’d be forgotten—and for the most part, he has been. But for one young visitor to The Pike’s house of horrors, the memory of Elmer McCurdy made a lasting impression. That young man was Mark Taylor, who would grow up to work for Mattel where, in the early 1980s, he designed many of the toys for the wildly popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line. He recalled the funhouse’s skeletal body that so terrified him in his youth and used that memory—toned down, of course—to create the villain, Skeletor. Even now—in the early part of the 2020s, there has been talk of releasing more He-Man/Masters of the Universe films, so in a way, Elmer McCurdy still lives on.


IT’S YOUR TURN: After reading the account of Elmer McCurdy's life, had you ever heard of him? What part of his story do you find most sensational, and why?


Award-winning, best-selling novelist Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies.




Love’s Fortress by Jennifer Uhlarik


A Friendship From the Past Brings Closure to Dani’s Fractured Family


When Dani Sango’s art forger father passes away, Dani inherits his home. There, she finds a book of Native American drawings, which leads her to seek museum curator Brad Osgood’s help to decipher the ledger art. Why would her father have this book? Is it another forgery?


Brad Osgood longs to provide his four-year-old niece, Brynn, the safe home she desperately deserves. The last thing he needs is more drama, especially from a forger’s daughter. But when the two meet “accidentally” at St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort, he can’t refuse the intriguing woman.


Broken Bow is among seventy-three Plains Indians transported to Florida in 1875 for incarceration at ancient Fort Marion. Sally Jo Harris and Luke Worthing dream of serving on a foreign mission field, but when the Indians reach St. Augustine, God changes their plans. However, when Sally Jo’s friendship with Broken Bow leads to false accusations, it could cost them their lives.


Can Dani discover how Broken Bow and Sally Jo’s story ends and how it impacted her father’s life?

Friday, March 24, 2023

The Not-So-Great Escape

By Terrie Todd

Bob Crane as Colonel Robert E. Hogan

Maybe, like me, you’re old enough to remember Hogan’s Heroes or you’ve seen reruns of the  World War II TV series that ran for six seasons from 1965-1971—longer than the actual war. I personally recall having quite a crush on actor Bob Crane, who played the lead character Colonel Robert E. Hogan. The show made a joke of life in a POW camp, painting the Nazis as bumbling idiots under whose watch the brilliant prisoners were free to come and go through their secret tunnel. Perhaps the show was exactly what its audience members needed a mere twenty years after WWII changed their lives. Now that I’m old enough to know better, I can’t help wondering what actual former POWs thought of the show. Sadly, actor Bob Crane died by homicide at the age of 49 in 1978.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Have you seen the 1963 World War II movie The Great Escape, starring the handsome Steve McQueen in his defining role? The movie is loosely based on a novel by Australian Author Paul Brickhill. Brickhill loosely based his novel on actual events. No Hollywood ending awaited the 76 real-life men who broke out of Stalag Luft III. In addition to other liberties, the screenwriters significantly increased the involvement of American POWs and omitted the crucial role that Canadians played in building the tunnels and in the escape itself.

Photo Credit: American Air Museum

The real-life story contains little glory or comedy, but it certainly proved the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Allied prisoners who were “guests” of Stalag Luft III near Sagen, Germany. The camp was designed especially for airmen who were known to have escaped other camps. The Nazis raised prisoners’ huts off the ground so guards could see any activity occurring beneath. They buried microphones nine feet underground along the camp’s perimeter fencing. They built the entire camp atop yellow sand that would prove tough to tunnel through and difficult to conceal.

I can’t help thinking the imprisoned Allied airmen loved nothing better than a challenge. According to the Geneva Convention rules, ten days in solitary confinement was the consequence of attempting escape and the men figured it was worth it. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a Royal Air Force pilot who’d been shot down over France during the evacuation of Dunkirk, led the secret operation. In the spring of 1943, Bushell and over 600 prisoners of war began building three tunnels with the code names Tom, Dick, and Harry. The plan called for each tunnel to stretch more than 300 feet to the protective cover of the forest outside the camp’s perimeter fence.

Scavenging materials, bribing guards, and plain-old resourcefulness all played a part. The men used tin cans to dig, made candles from fat skimmed off greasy soup (using their pajama cords for wicking), built ladders from bed frames, and even strung electric lights in their tunnels using stolen wire. Their clever lookout system used subtle signs such as fiddling with a shoelace or turning the page of a book to warn of an approaching guard.

The Nazis celebrated when they discovered “Tom,” unaware that two other tunnels existed. Eventually, the airmen decided to use “Dick” to store their contraband supplies and focused on the completion of “Harry.” With its elaborate pulley system, the prisoners could pull one man at a time through the tunnel to freedom. They planned to move 200 men on the night of March 24, 1944—more than a year after tunneling had begun. Or so they thought.

When the first man, British bomber pilot Johnny Bull, reached the end of the tunnel and made his way to the surface, he discovered their miscalculation. Although he was outside the fence, he was still a few feet from the safety of the forest. This meant the next man had to wait for an “all-clear” tug of the rope, which greatly reduced the number of men who could attempt escape.

By 5:00 the next morning, one of the Nazi guards discovered the tunnel. Seventy-six prisoners had broken out of their supposed escape-proof camp. A massive manhunt ensued throughout the countryside. After two weeks, they’d re-captured 73 of the escapees. Only three got away—a Dutchman who made it to Gibraltar by rail and foot, and two Norwegians who stowed away on a freighter to Sweden. Hitler ordered the execution of 50 of the recaptured prisoners, one of whom was Roger Bushell. He was killed by the Gestapo at the age of 33. In 1947, a military tribunal found 18 Nazis guilty of war crimes for shooting the escapees. Thirteen of them were executed.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

Terrie Todd is the award-winning author of six historical and split-time novels set in Canada, as well as one nonfiction book, Out of My Mind: A Decade of Faith and Humor. Terrie lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.



On the cusp of World War II, a seventeen-year-old farm girl finds herself alone and carrying a heavy secret. Never telling a soul, Cornelia pours out the painful events in her diary. Decades later, Cornelia’s granddaughter, Benita, is in the midst of her own crisis, experiencing several losses in the same week, including the grandmother she adored. On the brink of divorce, she discovers Cornelia’s diary. Now the secrets of her grandmother’s past lead Benita on an unexpected journey of healing, discovery, and faith. The Silver Suitcase Kindle eBook is on sale for $1.99 for the month of March 2023.


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Thursday, March 23, 2023


By Mary Davis

“I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. … If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?” Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Jane Cochran—journalist, social reform activist, and inventor—was known by many names. Her most notable and long-running one was Nellie Bly. As a teen, she added an “e” to her surname, Cochrane. She is most known for her trip around the world to beat the time of the fictional character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. However, this remarkable lady did so much more.

On May 5, 1864, she was born to her father’s second wife. Her father, a landowner, mill operator, postmaster, and associate justice, died when Elizabeth was six. Because he had no will, her mother got very little from the estate and remarried. Elizabeth’s step-father was a mean drunk, so her mother eventually divorced him. This experience left Elizabeth with the idea that not all women had to marry.

She helped her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburgh. In 1885, she responded to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For”, which stated that girls were good for birthing children and keeping house, and to work outside the home was a monstrosity. She signed her critical response “Lonely Orphan Girl”. Editor George Madden was impressed by her passion and ran an ad, asking her to introduce herselfshe did, which secured her a job. Females who wrote for papers did so under a pseudonym. Nellie Bly was chosen after a popular Stephen Foster song.

Going undercover in various places and jobs, she wrote many exposés for them, including better jobs for women, reform of divorce laws, slum life, women working in factories, and other similar topics. When advertisers complained about her controversial articles and threatened to pull their ads, she was relegated to the “women’s pages”, that is fashion, society, and gardening. Dissatisfied with this, she became a foreign correspondent in Mexico for half a year in 1886-1887 at the age of twenty-one. The Mexican government didn’t appreciate her exposing them and ran her out of the country with threat of jail.

Nellie in Mexico
She returned to Pittsburgh but soon left for New York by herself in 1887. This bold woman talked her way into a job at the New York World, working for Joseph Pulitzer (of the Pulitzer Prize fame). One of her first assignments was to get herself committed to an insane asylum. When asked if she could act insane enough to be committed, she said she could, but she wanted to know how she would get out again. Her boss didn’t know but said he would find a way. His “I don’t know” was apparently good enough for her. (She was one brave, courageous woman!)

So, she took lodging in a women's boarding house under the name Nellie Brown, stayed up all night, and accused the other ladies of being insane. This disturbed her fellow boarders so much that the police were called to take her away. She was examined by the police, a judge, and a doctor who deemed her insane and eventually sent her to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Her firsthand experience of the deplorable conditions of neglect and physical abuse gave her much fodder to write about.

If she ever got out. Once a woman was committed, she was usually there for life, insane or not.

Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island

Nellie said that within a month under the horrible conditions even a sane person would go insane. Fortunately, the newspaper secured her release after ten days. She felt bad for the women she was leaving behind, knowing some of them weren’t insane at all. Her many scathing articles about the asylum helped laws to be changed and the conditions to be improved on Blackwell Island.

She went on to write first-hand exposés on poor treatment of inmates in New York jails and factories, corruption in the state legislature, and other social injustices.

What she is best known for is her trip around the world in 1889. Her boss said no woman could do this without a man to protect her, and he refused her the opportunity, saying only a man could make the trip. She told him fine, send a man around the world and have him leave the same day she would…for a rival paper. The New York World caved and gave her the assignment. She set off with a small bag and only one dress, the one she was wearing. Her goal—seventy-five days. She made it in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, and even stopped off to visit her inspiration author Jules Verne. She later wrote a book about her adventure, and there was even a board game created about her trip.

In 1895, Nellie, age thirty-one, married millionaire industrialist Robert Seaman, over forty years her senior. When his health became poor, she gave up being a journalist and took over as president of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. He died in 1904. It is said they had a good marriage.

Under Nellie’s leadership, the company patented the 55-gallon oil drum that evolved into the ones used today. Though that patent wasn’t under her name, she did design and receive patents for a better milk can and stacking trash cans.

Between her not having a head for numbers and embezzlement by employees, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company went bankrupt.

So, Nellie went back to journalism. She wrote on the suffrage movement and became the first female war correspondent on the European Eastern front.

Nellie talking to an Austrian officer in Poland
There didn’t seem to be anything she couldn’t do, except beat pneumonia. On January 27, 1922, she succumbed to it at age fifty-seven.

Though best known for traveling alone around the world, that was only one small part of who she was.

“I said I could and I would. And I did.” Nellie Bly

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SELAH Award Finalist

A WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flies a secret mission to rescue three soldiers held captive in Cuba.

Margaret “Peggy” Witherspoon is a thirty-four-year-old widow, mother of two daughters, an excellent pilot, and very patriotic. She joins the WASP. As she performs various tasks like ferry aircraft, transporting cargo, and being an airplane mechanic, she meets and develops feelings for her supervisor Army Air Corp Major Howie Berg. When Peggy learns of U.S. soldiers being held captive in Cuba, she, Major Berg, and two fellow WASPs devise an unsanctioned mission to rescue them. With Cuba being an ally in the war, they must be careful not to ignite an international incident.

Get it HERE!


MARY DAVIS, bestselling, award-winning novelist, has over thirty titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her latest release is THE LADY’S MISSION. Her other novels include MRS. WITHERSPOON GOES TO WAR, THE DÉBUTANTE'S SECRET (The Quilting Circle  4), THE DAMSEL’S INTENT (The Quilting Circle  3) is a Selah Award Winner. Some of her other recent titles include; THE WIDOW'S PLIGHT (The Quilting Circle  1), THE DAUGHTER'S PREDICAMENT (The Quilting Circle  2),Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides Collection , Prodigal Daughters Amish series, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads.
Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-seven years and one cat. She has three adult children and three incredibly adorable grandchildren.


Who Knew?: Women in History, by Sarah Herman