Some men are born to infamy; others have infamy thrust upon them.
And then there are those like Elmer McCurdy who slip into infamy sideways…sixty-five years after they should have faded into obscurity.
Except for his out-of-wedlock birth in Washington, Maine, in January 1880, McCurdy seems to have enjoyed an uneventful childhood as the adopted son of his 17-year-old biological mother’s older, married sister. When McCurdy was ten, the man he believed to be his father died, and the truth of his parentage came out. At fifteen, he ran away from home and drifted through the Midwest, developing a fondness for alcohol and working odd jobs until he joined the army. Trained in demolition, he left the service in early 1911 with an honorable discharge and a professional familiarity with nitroglycerin.
That’s when things took a turn for the worse. Unable to find a civilian job, McCurdy resolved to gain fame and fortune the old-fashioned way: by stealing it—specifically, by robbing trains. The career choice didn’t work out well for him. On his first job, he overdid the nitro and not only nearly blew the train’s safe through the wall, but also melted $4,000 in silver coins to the floor. McCurdy and three accomplices pried up about $450 in silver lumps before scramming barely ahead of the law.
After that, McCurdy backed off on the explosives, producing less than stellar results when trains’ safes failed to open. Apparently deciding a stationary target might prove less vexing, McCurdy aimed his demolition skills at a bank vault in the middle of the night. The resulting blast woke up the entire town, and the gang made off with about $150.
They went back to robbing trains.
On Oct. 4, 1911, despite careful planning, the outlaws held up the wrong train, netting a haul of about $90 and some whiskey. Evidently disgruntled, McCurdy’s cohorts abandoned him.
Undaunted, he quickly put together a new gang and three days later—on Oct. 7, 1911—held up a Missouri, Kansas, and Texas passenger train near Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The take was an unimpressive $46, two jugs of whiskey…and a posse.
Mere hours later, during an armed standoff on an Oklahoma farm, a drunken McCurdy announced from a hayloft that the posse would never take him alive. Foregoing the $2,000 bounty for bringing the bandit in alive, the lawmen obliged by killing him.
When no one claimed the hapless train-robber’s remains, the mortician put McCurdy’s body on display as a somewhat gruesome promotional gimmick. For the next four years, the embalmed corpse, in a pine box bearing a sign that read “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” adorned the front window of the mortuary.
In 1915, two men claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers took possession of the body, ostensibly to provide a proper burial. Instead, they exhibited “A Famous Oklahoma Outlaw” as part of the Great Patterson Shows traveling carnival.
McCurdy’s corpse changed hands several times over the next two decades, popping up in all sorts of places: at an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, in several freak shows, and even in the lobby of a theater during a screening of the 1933 film Narcotic. For much of the 1930s and ’40s, McCurdy’s mummified remains, thought to be a mannequin, held a place of honor in the Sonney Amusement Museum of Crime in Los Angeles.
In 1971, an L.A. wax museum bought the by-then-unidentified “mannequin.” Until 1976, McCurdy was part of the museum’s display about Bill Doolin, an Oklahoma outlaw who actually achieved a good deal of criminal notoriety while he was alive.
More than sixty-five years after his death, McCurdy would achieve notoriety, too, though not in quite the way he may have hoped. The failed outlaw, painted fluorescent orange, made one final public appearance in December 1976, as a prop inside the Laff in the Dark funhouse at the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. While filming an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man inside the building, a crew member accidentally broke an arm off what he thought was a wax dummy hanging from a gallows. A protruding bone revealed the truth. Forensic anthropologists and the Los Angeles County Coroner identified the body.
On April 22, 1977, Elmer McCurdy’s well-traveled remains were interred in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma—ironically, alongside the final resting place of Bill Doolin. As a precautionary measure, the state medical examiner ordered two cubic yards of concrete poured over the casket before the grave was closed.
So far, at least, it appears “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” finally did.
Not that my latest release has anything to do with Elmer McCurdy, inept outlaws, or traveling corpses, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. Besides, the cover is much prettier than poor Elmer, isn’t it?
Released July 24 along with twenty-one others published by Prairie Rose Publications, The Last Three Miles features a hero and heroine who are outside the norm in their own inimitable ways. A video trailer is here, and you can read an excerpt here.
The Last Three Miles
When an accident leaves Hamilton Hollister convinced he’ll never be more than half a man, he abandons construction of a railway spur his lumber mill needs to survive. Believing no woman shackled by social convention can be complete, railroad heiress Katherine Brashear refuses to let the nearly finished track die.
The magic of Christmas in a small Texas town may help them bridge the distance…if they follow their hearts down The Last Three Miles.