Sunday, September 12, 2021

Elmer McCurdy, Part Two

By Carrie Aulenbacher, WMD Managing Editor
Editor's Note: This is the conclusion of Elmer McCurdy, the escape artist, part one, published two weeks prior. To read part one, click here. --Al Colombo

I love to see the towns
 a-passin' by
And to ride these rails, 
'neath God's blue sky

Let me travel this land 
from the mountains to the sea
'Cause that's the life I believe, 
He meant for me

                                                                   --Hank Williams Sr, Ramblin' Man

Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, 1976

"He what?"  An assistant to the coroner did a double take, trying to comprehend the discovery even as he held the container with the recovered bullet.

"This John Doe was murdered."  The assistant closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Well, a place like Laff in the Dark is a great place to hide a body if you want to get away with murder."  He sighed as he heard himself say such a strange sentence.

"A murder from at least 50 some odd years ago?"  The coroner said.  The assistant lifted his head in amazement.

"The body has high amounts of arsenic.  They haven't embalmed bodies with that since the twenties and this is looking to be more than 40 years post mortem."

The thought hung unspoken in the air between them: "Who IS this guy?"

Elmer McCurdy
The 1,700+ mile journey Elmer McCurdy took in 31 years of life could have never compared to the thousands of miles he would accumulate in the next 66 years. 

As the sheriff's posse cleaned up the scene, McCurdy's body was taken to the undertaker in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.  The Johnson Funeral Home agreed to prepare McCurdy's body but the search was on to find kin to not only claim the body but to pay for services. In order to make sure the body lasted until family members showed up, the mortuary used an arsenic-based preservative to preserve Elmer. This was common practice before the deadly effects of exposure to arsenic were fully understood.

So McCurdy was shaved, dressed and embalmed. But no family showed up. The undertaker, Joseph L. Johnson, was out the money he invested in preparing the body so he decided to earn a bit back. His idea was to prop Elmer's body up in the back of his shop and charge folks a nickel to take a look at him. With a rifle for a prop, Elmer was posed and advertised as "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up".

Exhibiting McCurdy earned him money and attention. Word began to spread about "The Embalmed Bandit", "The Oklahoma Outlaw" - Elmer began to be "The Mystery Man of Many Aliases" in this second incarnation. Carnival owners started popping up offering Mr. Johnson a fee to buy Elmer off of him. But being a man of principle, he refused in the hopes that rightful family would come eventually.

Almost five years later to the day Elmer McCurdy was killed, in October of 1916, Johnson thought his wish had finally transpired. Aver McCurdy showed up at the funeral home, explaining that he was Elmer's brother and had been in contact with the sheriff and a local attorney about gaining possession of his brother's remains to have him properly taken home and buried.

Agreeing to the brother, Johnson prepared things and the following day, Aver's brother, Wayne McCurdy, showed up and they both gladly loaded up Elmer for the trek home to his eternal rest.  Johnson's fees were paid, everything was set right and everyone breathed a sigh of relief that things were finally over for the unlucky train robber.

And those who breathed the biggest sigh of relief were Aver and Wayne McCurdy - better known as the brothers Patterson.  James and Charles Patterson were owners of The Great Patterson Carnival Shows, a circus and sideshow act that had heard of the embalmed bandit. Knowing it would make for a great curiosity, their scheme worked. They had the body. Now to make real money.

For the next few years, the Pattersons traveled with Elmer McCurdy in their circus. Some sources say that Patterson sold the circus off in 1922, some say 1925, but for all intents and purposes, it is safe to say that regardless of what exact year, the circus toured the Eastern United States in the estimate of 3,500 miles a season. A located 1924 circus schedule of the Gentry/Patterson circus, courtesy of the Pfening collection shows a route between Kansas and Connecticut between April and October.

Little did McCurdy's family know that, for several years, he came within less than 200 miles of finally being home. Elmer could have never imagined that the 1,700 miles between Maine and Oklahoma he journeyed in life would pale in comparison to his travels in the afterlife. Estimating the circuit from the 1924 schedule, it is easily possible that Elmer traveled ten times further dead than he ever did alive - covering over 15,000 miles in the circus!

As the years passed, the Pattersons sold the circus to Louis Sonney, who used the body in his 'Traveling Museum of Crime' and changed his history to that of a crazed drug user who took his own life when surrounded by police. The embalming and years of touring in less than ideal conditions had worn at the body and lent to the fantastic story dreamed up by Sonney. There Elmer remained amid wax figures of Bill Doolin and Jesse James for the next decade.

In the mid 1930's, Elmer briefly took a break from the sideshow life to help film director Dwayne Esper advertise his new movie Narcotic! in theaters. He haunted the movie theaters as a dead dope fiend in the hopes of deterring the public of experimenting with drugs. Afterwards, he was returned to Sonney.

When Sonney stopped touring, everything went into storage, including Elmer McCurdy. With Sonney's death in 1949, everything was forgotten for a time. When filming began in the mid 1960's for the horror film, She Freak, McCurdy's body came out of storage with permission of Sonney's son, Dan, and was lent to be featured as a prop in the film. After the film was released, the family sold the body along with other wax mannequins from storage to Spoony Singh, owner of The Hollywood Wax Museum.

Now thought to be a wax mannequin, Singh lent Elmer and some other mannequins to two Canadian men who were hosting a feature at Mount Rushmore. Now over five decades since being embalmed, McCurdy's body was showing signs of wear and the harsh elements of the South Dakota landscape did no favors. Elmer endured a windstorm during his showcase there and lost the tips of his ears and some fingers and toes.

Once returned to Singh, he saw the damage and decided that the figure was too gruesome to be displayed any further and sold it to a Long Beach California amusement park company called The Pike. Mostly known for its boardwalk attractions, The Pike had a ride called 'Laff In The Dark' where Elmer was set up as a spooky character to scare riders. Now painted fluorescent red, he was a grotesques ghoul in a funhouse on the other side of the country from where he started. Hanging from a rope, he startled and repulsed, all the while his real truth remaining a mystery.

Almost five years later, now the mid 1970's, a crew came in to use The Pike, and specifically the Laff In The Dark area for filming of an episode of 'The Six Million Dollar Man'. As a prop man was setting up a shot, he unfortunately tried to move McCurdy's body as it hung from the gallows in the funhouse ride and broke off Elmer's arm. Seeing that the mannequin had bones, authorities were immediately notified and McCurdy was taken to the Los Angeles coroner's office.

With expert help from Dr. Joseph Choi, it was determined that this had been a man in his 30's who had perished from a gunshot wound. Even with the damage from years of touring the country, he discovered the original incisions from the autopsy and embalming over sixty years ago. He tested the body and found the high levels of arsenic, the evidence of tuberculosis, the bullet jacket from the sheriff's posse and even tickets in Elmer's mouth from Sonney's traveling crime museum shows.

With the tickets placing McCurdy back in the 20's and the bullet jacket being a gas check design, which was first used in 1905, investigators began to approximate the time in which the body had lived. By contacting Sonney's son, Dan, to ask about the tickets in Elmer's mouth, Dan verified that his father had purchased the mummified body from a circus back in the day and gave the name Elmer McCurdy.

Forensic Anthropologists were called in to radiograph the skull and use a superimposition technique to try and match old photographs to the skull. The examination lined up and it was indeed the unsuccessful train robber from last century. The media got wind of the story and that December of 1976, everyone was hearing about the strange case of the funhouse mannequin who turned out to be real.

Funeral homes contacted the LA coroner's office to offer burial services free of charge. But just like Joseph Johnson from decades ago, officials held onto Elmer in the hopes that a direct descendant would come forward to claim their relative. Elmer's luck, as it was in life, was the same in death and no living family members contacted them.

As it turned out, Fred Olds, who represented the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns, requested to accept the body and give it a proper burial in Oklahoma. Working with the county, Olds was finally given custody.

That spring, April 22, 1977, with a proper horse drawn hearse and a plain pine coffin, Elmer McCurdy's remains were taken to Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. There, in the 'Boot Hill' section of the grounds, his body was finally interred alongside other noted Oklahoma outlaws like Bill Doolin. Over 300 people came to attend the burial and pay respects. To insure that the body would not be disturbed, two feet of concrete was poured over top the grave.

A little over one hundred miles from where he had breathed his last in 1911, Elmer McCurdy was finally at rest.

In a strange postscript to this tale:

The following summer, newsstands carried an issue of Johah Hex, a DC comic about a gunslinger having supernatural adventures. In the special series #16, an aging Hex is shot and killed, sent to a taxidermist to be preserved and then the body endures a series of adventures similar to a certain Mr. McCurdy. Although the character does not eventually get a peaceful rest as Elmer did in real life, it makes one wonder whether fans of the comic book hero realized that, in this case, fact was much stranger than fiction.

And when I'm go-one 
and at my grave you stand
Just say God called home 
your Ra-amblin' Man

-- Hank Williams Sr,  Ramblin' Man
Editor's Note: Be sure to Carrie new Facebook Page! Click Here!

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!

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