The Dead Body That Joined a Traveling Carnival
When Elmer McCurdy was shot and killed after a bank and train robbing crime spree, no one expected that his dead body would travel around the country with carnivals and shows
In December of 1976, a production crew for the show The Six Million Dollar Man went to The Pike amusement park in California to film for an upcoming episode. During the shoot, a member of the crew moved a wax mannequin, causing one of the arms to break off. Upon closer inspection, human bone and muscle tissue were discovered.
It wasn’t a prop.
It was a real human body.
Elmer J. McCurdy was born in Maine in January 1880. His mother was only 17-years-old at the time of his birth and was also unmarried. McCurdy’s father is unknown, but theories state that it could have been his mother’s cousin. In order to save Sadie McCurdy the shame of being an unwed mother in the 1800s, her brother George and wife Helen adopted Elmer into their own family.
After Elmer’s adopted father died of tuberculosis in 1890, both Sadie and Helen moved Elber to Bangor, Maine. It was then that Sadie told Elmer the truth about who his real mother was. The news came as a shock to Elmer, who reacted by becoming a rebellious teenager. He began to drink heavily, a habit that would carry on through his life.
Later, McCurdy moved in with his grandfather and became an apprentice plumber. He was said to be a good worker, but during the economic downturn of 1898, McCurdy lost his job. Only two years later, his mother died of a ruptured ulcer, and a month later, his grandfather died of Bright’s disease. After the deaths of his closest family members, McCurdy left the state and began to drift across the country as a lead miner and plumber. Due to his alcoholism, he was never able to hold a job for very long.
McCurdy was constantly relocating until he joined the United States Army in 1907. He was stationed in Fort Leavenworth, where he worked as a machine gun operator. He was honorably discharged on November 7, 1910.
Afterward, McCurdy traveled to St. Joseph, Kansas where he met up with a friend he made in the Army. While there, McCurdy and his were arrested for possessing burglary paraphernalia such as chisels, hacksaws, and money sacks. They claimed that the tools were only intended to be used to work on a foot-operated machine gun they were trying to invent. McCurdy was found not guilty in 1911.
Soon after, Elmer McCurdy would start his career as a bank and train robber.
Back in the army, McCurdy was trained to use nitroglycerin for demolition purposes. McCurdy decided to use this training to his advantage by including nitroglycerin in his robberies. He started his crime spree in Oklahoma, where he and three other men decided to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train after discovering that one of the cars contained a safe with $4,000 inside. They managed to stop the train and locate the safe, but McCurdy wasn’t as skilled with the nitroglycerin as he originally claimed.
McCurdy used too much nitroglycerin on the safe’s door to open it, destroying a majority of the money in the explosion. The group only managed to take $450 in silver coins, with most of it being melted and fused onto the safe’s frame.
The next robbery came in September of 1911 when McCurdy and two others robbed the Citizens Bank in Kansas. They spent over two hours attempting to break open the safe with a hammer before McCurdy placed a nitroglycerin charge around the vault. The explosion once again failed to get them inside the safe. McCurdy and his crew stole $150 in coins that were in a tray outside the safe before fleeing the scene.
McCurdy’s final robbery occurred two months later. The three men planned to rob a train after hearing a rumor that it contained $400,000 in cash that was intended to be royalty payment to the Osage Nation. But their first mistake came when they entered the passenger car by accident. They ended up only stealing $46 from the mail clerk, two bottles of whiskey, an automatic revolver, a coat, and the train conductor’s watch.
McCurdy was so disappointed by the haul that he began to drink himself away.
Meanwhile, McCurdy was completely unaware that he had been implicated in the robbery. There was a $2,000 reward out for his capture. In early October, three sheriffs arrived at the hay shed McCurdy was living in. They surrounded the shed and waited till daylight to make their move.
In a 1911 interview for the Daily Examiner, Sheriff Bob Fenton stated:
“It began just about 7 o’clock. We were standing around waiting for him to come out when the first shot was fired at me. It missed me and he then turned his attention to my brother, Stringer Fenton. He shot three times at Stringer and when my brother got undercover he turned his attention to Dick Wallace. He kept shooting at all of us for about an hour. We fired back every time we could. We do not know who killed him … (on the trail) we found one of the jugs of whiskey which was taken from the train. It was about empty. He was pretty drunk when he rode up to the ranch last night.”
McCurdy would die of a single gunshot wound to the chest.
McCurdy’s body was later taken to Pawhuska, Oklahoma where it went unclaimed. The undertaker embalmed him with an arsenic-based preservative that was used to preserve bodies for long periods of time. He went on to shave McCurdy’s face, dress him in a suit, and store his body in the back of the funeral home. McCurdy remained unclaimed, but the undertaker refused to bury him without being paid for his services.
To make up for the money, the undertaker put McCurdy’s body on exhibit. He dressed the body in street clothes and placed a rifle in his hands, standing him up in the corner of the funeral home. For only a nickel, he would allow people to visit the body named “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” The corpse quickly became a popular attraction in the city, drawing the attention of many spectators. It even captured the attention of carnival promoters, but the undertaker refused to sell McCurdy’s body.
That was until 1916 when two men called Aver and Wayne contacted the undertaker claiming to be McCurdy’s long lost brother. He got permission from the Oklahoma sheriff to take custody of the body and ship it to San Francisco for proper burial. The undertaker released the body, but instead of being shipped to San Francisco, it was sent to Arkansas City, Kansas.
It turned out that Aver and Wayne weren’t actually McCurdy’s brothers, but rather James and Charles Patterson, the owners of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows. After hearing about the body from Wayne, the two decided to create a scheme to bring the body in for their own show. They would showcase McCurdy until 1922 when the Patterson’s sold the carnival to a man named Louis Sonney.
From there, McCurdy’s body was used in the traveling Museum of Crime show, which showcased famous outlaws such as Bill Doolin and Jesse James through the use of wax replicas. In 1928, the body was switched over to the sideshow that went along with the Trans-American Footrace. Over the next few years, McCurdy’s body would be bought by director Dwain Esper to be used in film promotions and theatre lobbies. But by the time Esper had custody of the body, McCurdy was mummified. His skin had begun to grow hard and his body had shrunk.
After Louis Sonney died in 1949, the body was put into a Los Angeles storage warehouse. Sonney’s son Dan let filmmaker David F. Friedman borrow the corpse for a scene in the 1967 movie She Freak. Afterward, Dan Sooney sold the body for $10,000 to Spoony Singh, the owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum. While being exhibited in the show, McCurdy’s corpse sustained damage on the ears, fingers, and toes through a windstorm.
After two more location changes, McCurdy’s body was eventually seen as too ‘gruesome’ to exhibit. So the body was finally sold to The Pike, where he was hung in the “Laff in the Dark” funhouse exhibition, where he would later be discovered by the film crew.
After the discovery, Elmer McCurdy’s body was sent to the Los Angeles coroner’s office. The autopsy was conducted by Dr. Joseph Choi, who determined that the body was in fact a human that had been shot in the chest. The body had been completely petrified, covered with layers of phosphorus paint and wax. Some hair was still visible on his head and he weighed only 50 pounds.
Testing showed that there were traces of arsenic in his skin tissue, which was a common component of embalming fluid in the 1920s. There were also signs of tuberculosis in his lungs, along with bunions and scars that McCurdy was documented to have. The bullet jacket was founding his chest, which was commonly used between the years 1905 through 1940.
By using these clues, investigators were able to determine that the man had been killed in the 1910s. They discovered his true identity by taking the mandible out of his mouth for analysis, where they found a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to the Pike, Side Show, and the Museum of Crime. The police contacted Dan Sooney, who confirmed that the body was Elmer McCurdy, the not-so-famous bank robber that had died in 1911.
It wasn’t long before the story of Elmer McCurdy’s traveling body took over the media. Funeral homes called in and offered to pay for the funeral, but investigators eventually decided to wait and see if any relatives would come forward.
But no one ever came forward.
A representative from the Indian Territory Possee of Oklahoma Westerns eventually convinced the coroner to let the body be buried in Oklahoma, where a funeral procession was conducted to transport McCurdy’s body. His body was finally put to rest in 1977 when he was buried in the Summit View Cemetery. Over 300 people attended the service, where McCurdy was buried beside fellow outlaw Bill Doolin.
Two feet of concrete was poured over the casket, ensuring that Elmer McCurdy’s body would never be moved again.
Resources for this article include Bangor Daily news, Roadside America, and the National Cowboy Museum.