Sunday, August 29, 2021

The 97 year journey of 31 year old bank robber, Elmer McCurdy

By Carrie Aulenbacher, WMD Managing Editor

"Some folks might say 
that I'm no good
That I wouldn't settle down
if I could

But when that open road
starts to callin' me
there's something oe'er the hill
that I gotta see."

                           --Hank Williams Sr, Ramblin' Man

Long Beach, California, 1976

"Uh, Boss?" The prop man called out.
"Thought I told you to get the shot set up-" The words stop as an arm comes into view.
"How detailed do they make these mannequins?" The tone of his voice gave pause.
"Just get it moved already!  What's wrong with-"  

The two stood there looking at the arm that used to be suspended from a fluorescent red spray-painted body in a makeshift gallows inside The Pike Amusement Zone 'Laff in the Dark' carnival area.  

"Thought they used wire, not bones..."

How does a bank robber from the 1880's go on a 66-year-long journey after being killed by a sheriffs posse? The curious tale of Elmer McCurdy is one not to be missed.

A New Year's baby is said to always have luck on his or her side.  But when Elmer McCurdy was born on January 1, 1880, luck was running short.

Elmer McCurdy (image)Born to 17-year-old Sadie McCurdy on that cold January day, Elmer's father was never known. Whether she had been with her cousin, Charles, or someone else, no father ever came forward to claim or raise Elmer. Sadie's brother, George, adopted Elmer to save her the shame of the situation.  After he passed away from tuberculosis in 1890, Sadie and her sister-in-law, Helen, moved north to Bangor.  It would be well into his childhood before events transpired so that 'Aunt Sadie' would explain to Elmer that Helen was his aunt, not his mother. Turning his world on its ear, the news sent Elmer into tumultuous teenage years of drinking and rebellion. The alcoholism would follow him his entire life.

Returning south to Washington, Maine, Elmer moved in with his grandfather and learned the trade of being a plumber. Things went smoothly for a few years until the economic downturn of 1898 when Elmer lost his job. Two years later in the hot summer of 1900, Elmer's mother suddenly died of a ruptured ulcer and his grandfather passed a short month later after suffering with Bright's disease.

Elmer took to rambling and drifting, taking jobs as a lead miner and a plumber. The alcoholism prevented these from becoming long term jobs, however, and Elmer eventually left mining and landed in Kansas. Troubles followed as he was arrested there for public intoxication, forcing him to move on to Missouri.

By 1907, he enlisted in the army and was assigned to Fort Leavenworth as a machine gun operator.  Elmer was trained to use nitroglycerin for demolition purposes. His enlisted years passed quietly and he was honorably discharged in November of 1910.  He would be dead less than one year later.

McCurdy's rambling led him back to Kansas where he met up with an Army buddy and they got arrested for possessing burglary paraphernalia. At the trial, the judge believed their story of their honest need for tools such as chisels, hacksaws, gunpowder, money sacks, etc., because of their work in inventing a foot-operated machine gun and found him not guilty. He was released in January, shortly after his 31st birthday.

Undeterred, Elmer took to the idea of using his knowledge of nitroglycerin in new robbery attempts. Two months after his release, McCurdy was in Oklahoma where he and three associates had devised a plan to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train.  Word in town was that one of the train cars was transporting a safe with $4,000 inside.

Although they successfully stopped the train and found said safe, the overzealous McCurdy used too much nitroglycerin to break the safe open. Not only was the safe destroyed but any paper monies inside were burnt up. All they escaped with was a melted hunk of $450 worth of silver coins.

That fall, Elmer found two new accomplices to help him rob The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. His bad luck fell the other way this time, however, and the initial charge of nitroglycerin was only enough to blow the bank's outer vault door. The second charge placed on the safe didn't even ignite and they had to run with only the $150 in coinage that was in a tray outside the safe.

To avoid the law, the group split up and McCurdy ended up at Charlie Revard's ranch in Oklahoma where he hid out in the hayshed for a few weeks and drank his time away. Little did his friend, Charlie, know what had gone on or what was yet to come.

Elmer McCurdy somehow found out that a $400,000 royalty payment to the Osage Nation was being transported along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad that September. The rail line had often been referred to as 'The MKT' which eventually became shortened to 'The K-T'.  Soon, everyone colloquially referred to trains along this line as 'Katy Trains'.

This Katy Train caught Elmer's eye and soon, he had two more hands to help set up his new robbery plans. Unfortunately, with the frequency of 'Katy Trains' along the MKT line in those days, McCurdy's group stopped the wrong train. Only able to rob the passengers of small items such as a gun, watch, a coat, $46 in money and two carboys of whiskey, the group fled and Elmer wound up back at Revard's ranch by October 6th.

Sick with tuberculosis and heavily drinking, Elmer McCurdy was not only coming down with pneumonia, but what little luck he had ever had was just about to run out. Little did he know that a $2,000 dollar reward had been put out for his capture and men were on the move.

In the early morning hours of October 7, 1911, a posse of three sheriffs showed up on Revard's farm, where they had tracked McCurdy with their bloodhounds. In the hour long shootout that ensued, McCurdy was eventually felled with a gunshot to the chest. With the carboy from the train nearby as evidence that they had their man, the posse ended the life of a train robber who, as one newspaper had put it, been a part of "one of the smallest in the history of train robbery."

But this outlaw's story does not end with a bullet. 

Editor's Note: Be sure to tune in on 9/12/21 for part 2 of Elmer McCurdy!

About Carrie Aulenbacher

I’m a working mom who’s been at her first official job for 19 years now. I’m a mom and wife who loves spending time outside exploring our woods and enjoying all sorts of nature. Just ask my friends on Facebook and they’ll tell you that my bug pictures are getting to be an obsession with me! 

Visit Carrie's Partner Page: click here!


   Please post a comment below!   

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment.