I came across this story the other day – one of those that prove the saying truth is stranger than fiction – and knew I had to share it with you.
By all accounts there was nothing memorable or special about Elmer McCurdy in his early years. He was born in Maine in 1880 and moved to the Midwest some years later. He drifted through life doing little of note and finally joined the army in 1910. There he learned to handle nitroglycerin but appeared to have a rather inept skill with the explosive substance.
When he left the military, Elmer decided to use his questionable experience with demolitions to launch himself into a career as a train robber. What followed would never be believed if it was put into a work of fiction. In his first attempt, he and his gang managed to get inside the train car. But while trying to blow the safe open, McCurdy used way to much nitroglycerin and managed liquefy over $4000 in silver coins. They frantically scrambled to chip the silver from the floors and sides of the car but scavenged only around $450 worth before being forced to flee.
Needless to say, Elmer’s partners kicked him out of the gang. Not to be dissuaded by such trivial matters, he soon found a new crew and tried again. Hearing rumors of a passenger train transporting thousands of dollars, that became his next target. Unfortunately the only things he found worth stealing was $46 and two jugs of whiskey. To make matters worse, officers quickly pursued the luckless thieves and surrounded their hideout. A lengthy shoot out ensued during which Elmer declared he would not be taken alive. He was right – before the shooting stopped, Elmer was killed.
That, however, is not the end of Elmer McCurdy’s story.
No one stepped forward to claim hapless Elmer’s body, so the funeral director had the body embalmed with an arsenic preparation in such a way that the body was effectively mummified. The body looked so impressive, especially dressed up in the fancy clothes the funeral director provided, that he decided to make a sideshow out of him. He propped him up in the back room and charged folks a nickel to see him, dubbing him “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”.
That went on for about five years. Several carnival promoters wanted to buy the corpse, but the funeral director wasn’t willing to part with his ghoulish money-maker. Then two men showed up, claiming to be Elmer’s brothers and demanding possession of the body so that they could give Elmer a proper burial. They were, in fact, unscrupulous representatives of the Great Patterson Shows and they soon had Elmer on exhibition throughout Texas alternately as the “Oklahoma Outlaw” and the original moniker of “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”.arsenic preparation in such a way that the body was effectively mummified. The body looked so impressive, especially dressed up in the fancy clothes the funeral director provided, that he decided to make a sideshow out of him. He propped him up in the back room and charged folks a nickel to see him, dubbing him “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”.
That was the beginning of a sixty year period where the embalmed body passed through a number of sideshows, carnivals and museums that featured criminals or the macabre. Among the more unusual uses the body was put to – it was once used (and forfeited) as a security deposit for a loan, and it was displayed in a theater lobby during the run of a 1933 film that was intended to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug addiction. His corpse even appeared in a few low-budget films and was eventually sold as a prop to a wax museum in the early 70s. It is not know whether at this point if his true identity was forgotten or just considered unimportant, or even if know one actually knew he was an embalmed body and not a stage prop.
In late 1976, the crew of the television show The Six Million Dollar Man was filming an episode in the funhouse of the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach California. During one of the sessions, a member of the film crew accidentally damaged what he thought to be a wax mannequin. It was only when a bit of bone showed through that the authorities were called in. (At this point, Elmer had been hanging in the funhouse for approximately four years.)
Testing and examinations by the Los Angeles coroner’s office eventually revealed the true identity of the body. The identification was helped considerably by the discovery of a 1924 penny and a ticket from the Sonney Amusement’s Museum of Crime on the body.
In 1977, sixty-six years after his death, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest in the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. So what do you think? Would you have been able to suspend disbelief if an author had put this in a piece of fiction?
And to celebrate the fact that I’m ALMOST finished with my deadline book, I’m going to give one person who comments on today’s post their choice of any book in my backlist.