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?


  1. Thank you for posting this morning. What a streak of bad "luck" followed this man...really what strikes me is that Elmer just went from one bad decision to another and that he actually evaded capture and imprisonment! His life is sort of a "comedy of errors", which is kind of sad.

  2. Growing up in SoCal in the 50s and early 60s, The Pike was a frequent birthday destination for my brother and me. My mom had a family friend who worked there with a trained chimp. I don't remember her name, but I do remember her pink tutu when she came to visit us at home. Of course, this was before McCurdy took up residence there, so I had never heard of him before today. I thing the thing about him that stands out to me is that he never figured out the right amount of nitro to use. Sheesh! Talk about not learning from your mistakes! And what an ignominious end... to be painted fluorescent red and hung up as a horror display. Yikes. I love fulfilling the cliché "You learn something new every day."

  3. I live in Granbury, Texas where the story circulates that a local legendary man named John St. Helen who lived here was actually John Wilkes Booth. The stories are similar and especially about the mummification and display of the body in carnivals. But then we have a grave that reads Jessie W. James; a man who died at the age of 107 August 15, 1951, and was born September 5, 1847!!