The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up

Kathleen Rice Adams header


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.

Elmer McCurdy in his army days.
Elmer McCurdy in his army days.

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.

Elmer McCurdy on display at the Pawhuska, Oklahoma, mortuary.
Elmer McCurdy on display at the Pawhuska, Oklahoma, mortuary.

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.

Left: Elmer McCurdy in coffin. Right: The “wax mannequin” recovered from the funhouse.

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


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.

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34 thoughts on “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”

  1. Now that’s an interesting story, YT. And yes, I do believe – firmly believe – that your book cover is way much “cuter” than poor Elmer.

  2. wow,that was a very interesting post,,very informative,,i didnt realize they knew how to preserve bodies back then

    • I was kinda surprised that they preserved the body that well, Vickie. I believe the mortician used some kind of arsenic preparation, and he was darn proud of the procedure. That’s why he propped poor Elmer up in his window.

  3. Oh the perils of crime and death. Why is it we find the bizzare so fascinting? Perhaps there but for the grace it could be us. Fasacinating as usual. Thanks Kathleen. Doris

    • Thanks for coming by, Doris! Thank goodness people’s attention is captured by the bizarre and “news porn.” I’m not entirely proud of the way my profession behaves a good deal of the time anymore, but I’ve made a living for a whole lot of years giving people their fix of the strange, weird, and outlandish.

  4. Ohmagosh, people can do some gruesome, heartless things, but treating a dead man, good or bad in such a disrespectful way is just wrong. I really felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly realize you aren’t who you thought you were and the people you loved and trusted most had lied to you for years. That ought to warp the best of men. I have to say, poor Elmer wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and combined with an unusual amount of bad luck, well, I guess he was destined for a no good end.
    This was certainly an interesting post, Kathleen. I know The Last Three Miles is going to be a super seller.
    All good things to your corner of the universe–and your chief of security dog, too.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I’ll tell Dog you wish him well. He loves that kind of thing, the little egomaniac.

      You know, I’m sure the people Elmer thought were his parents did what they believed best at the time. Life was difficult for children born outside of wedlock — as though it were their fault. Regardless what kind of mess he made of his life, Elmer certainly didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect after he was dead.

      I wish I had known about this story when I wrote “The Worst Outlaw in the West.” I could’ve given Laredo a couple of poor Elmer’s misadventures. 😉

    • He really wasn’t, was he? He looks almost half-asleep in the army photo, but he probably was at least moderately good looking when awake.

      Painting his mummy fluorescent orange probably didn’t help him in the looks department. 😉

  5. Part of history. While I do understand why my editor strongly suggested I remove the mummified corpse from my historical romance, I did feel like it gave it more of a realistic backstory. Wish I’d had this post to point to and say see, it’s a part of history. Evidently ghosts are okay, but no mummified corpses in romance novels.

    • LOL! Livia, I remember you talking about that story. Maybe it was the potential cover issues your editor found objectionable. I mean, really… Who wants to see a hero literally falling apart in a bodice-ripping clinch? 😉

    • Thank heavens I didn’t say anything ugly, huh? 😀

      Mr. McCurdy, it’s right fine to meet you, sir. I hope your current accommodations are cozy and much less prone to rambling than your previous…well, “abodes” seems a bit off the mark, doesn’t it?

      In any case, sir, it’s good to know you haven’t lost your way with the ladies. 😉

  6. What a great story. If I were a descendent of McCurdy’s family, that is certainly a story I’d tell again and again and again.

    • Wouldn’t that be a great story to tell the grandkids? “Yep, my great grandpappy insisted on leaving an indelible mark after he shuffled off this mortal coil. Actually, he didn’t bother to shuffle off for a good long while.” 😉

  7. Kathleen – Looks like Elmer doesn’t give up easily & look what it got him; to be put on display after his death. Love reading your books; just finished Prodigal Gun. The Last Three Miles sounds like a awesome read too. Looking forward to it. Thanks, for all your info on the Old West it is interesting.

    • Lois, I’m thrilled you enjoyed PRODIGAL GUN! You just made my week.

      Poor Elmer. I feel a bit sorry for him. A man ought to experience some luck while he’s alive, not become famous because his body was abused for **65** years.

  8. Poor Elmer. He certainly did much better holding a job dead than alive. Kind of weird that at the end his owners didn’t realize they were dealing with a real body.

    • Patricia, I love that perspective! I guess the people who took possession of the body through time didn’t realize that’s what they had because poor Elmer really did look like a wax mannequin after all that time. Poor guy. I hope his ghost was hanging around the body until it was buried.

  9. I just love posts like these. Time-Life published a series of books years ago about the Old West and these posts remind me of those books with all these little fascinating bits of information. What a guy, pretty creepy traveling around like that. But your cover makes up for it at the end!

    • Aw. Thank you, Sally! I have Livia Washburn Reasoner to thank for that gorgeous cover — and the cover on every other one of my books. She’s phenomenal. 🙂

      Creepy is a good word for this historical tidbit, isn’t it?

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