The Strange Odyssey Of Elmer McCurdy

wg-logo-picHi!  Winnie Griggs here.

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”.


OccupationThat 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 fun housethe 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.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

33 thoughts on “The Strange Odyssey Of Elmer McCurdy”

  1. Poor old Elmer. It looks like he wasn’t a success at anything in his life except being dead. This reminds me of one of my parents’ old sayings: Sometimes you can’t win for losing. 🙂

  2. There. Are. No. Words.

    I love carnival stories. So full of oddities.

    On a totally unrelated note, did you know Winnie is one of the new hot baby names? And Jimmy Fallon and wife named their baby Winnie Rose?

    Don’t put me in the drawing. Have all the books and love them!

    Peace, and,um,thanks for the post,


  3. Janet – Hi! Hmmm, I hadn’t heard about the name Winnie being popular again. Not sure how I feel about that – it always felt special to have a name that was unusual.

  4. Niiice! I pick up weird stories like this all the time. When I’m at the grocery store or something, I will entertain myself and my husband with “Did you know…” facts. Oh, and I absolutely LOVE your books!

  5. Hi Sherrie. Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know how I missed this story back in the 70’s when it was discovered by the SMDM film crew – it had to have made the news.

    Beth – this definitely qualifies as a weird story :). And thanks for the kind word about my books!

  6. Interesting. Thanks for sharing, Winnie. In my Civil War research, I’ve found lots of pictures of dead bad guys that were laid out for viewing by anyone and everyone. Seemed to be the thing back then as a cautionary tale. This is a new twist!

    A friend’s sister is Winnie. I think it’s a family nickname but the only other Winnie I’ve known (except for the one I read about to my kids and students).

    Love your stories!

  7. Tessa – yes, that was a little tidbit I learned but failed to include here – apparently outlaw corpses were a popular sideshow attraction at one time. Who knows, there may be other ‘props’ still out there with a little more reality to them than people suspect.

    Connie – I understand. When it comes to such macbre stories there is as much tendency to laugh as to shudder. And thanks for the nice words about my books!

  8. Thanks for sharing.The Bride Next Door sounds wonderful. Please enter me in contest. Thank you for the opportunity to win.

  9. Great tale – and I’d never buy it in a work of fiction w/o an annotation! lol Real life gets away with lots a writer never could!

  10. Very interesting Winnie! Stories like these make America, AMERICA! A little bit of trivia – The Six Million Dollar Man was filmed in my little home town of Ojai, CA 🙂 Thanks for bringing us such interesting side notes!

  11. That is just so gross! I guess anything we can imagine has been done at some time during life on earth.

  12. Winnie, Thanks for a most interesting post. One does have to stretch the imagination to accept this tale. I think I would have been shouting “Give me a break” by the time the Six Million Dollar Man came into the picture.
    I read this to my husband and his only comment was “They buried him with all that arsenic in his body? Unless they put him in solid concrete he’d pollute the ground water.” Ever the pragmatist. If they didn’t take precautions, there may still be another chapter in the Elmer McCurdy story.

  13. Martha – LOL, gross is definitely one way to describe it!

    Patricia – you’re quite welcome. And LOL on your husband’s reaction – he sounds like a very practical man.

    Wendy, I’ve tossed your name in the hat along with the others!

  14. What an interesting story! I have certainly never heard it before, but I look forward to sharing it. I think I will play a little fact or fiction when I tell it! Thank you for sharing and for the chance to win one of your books!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  15. Well, wow. Eww, too. 🙂 In a way I feel sorry for Elmer. Great odd post, Winnie!
    lattebooks at hotmail dot com

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