Elmer McCurdy – The “hanging man” in a funhouse that was a real corpse

Elmer McCurdy was an American bank and train robber who operated in the early 1900s.

He gained notoriety after being killed in a shoot-out with police following a train robbery in Oklahoma in October 1911.

McCurdy became known as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” and his mummified body was put on display in an Oklahoma funeral home.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, McCurdy’s remains became a staple of the travelling carnival and sideshow circuit, changing ownership several times before ending up at The Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California.

In December 1976, McCurdy’s body was discovered by a film crew of The Six Million Dollar Man.

The early life of Elmer McCurdy

In 1907, McCurdy joined the US Army and was trained to use nitroglycerin for demolition purposes as a machine gun operator.

He was honourably discharged in 1910 and then moved to Kansas where he and a friend were arrested for possessing burglary tools. They were found not guilty by a jury in January 1911.

McCurdy soon began his career as a bank and train robber, incorporating his knowledge of nitroglycerin into his heists, though his lack of expertise in handling the explosive often led to bungled robberies.

McCurdy then relocated to Oklahoma. It was here, on March 24th, 1911, McCurdy and three others robbed an Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train and managed to net $450 in silver coins.

In September 1911, McCurdy and two accomplices attempted to rob a bank in Chautauqua, Kansas but failed to open the safe with nitroglycerin. They fled with only a small amount of coins, and McCurdy sought refuge at a friend’s ranch in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he drank heavily for weeks.

The death of Elmer McCurdy

On October 4th, 1911, McCurdy and his accomplices attempted to rob a Katy Train after hearing it carried $400,000 in cash.

However, they mistakenly stopped a passenger train and ended up with just $46, two jugs of whiskey, a revolver, a coat, and the conductor’s watch. This was considered one of the smallest train robberies in history.

McCurdy was unhappy with the haul and spent the next days drinking the whiskey he stole at his friend’s ranch near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. At the time he was suffering from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and trichinosis.

A $2,000 reward was issued for his capture, which he was unaware of.

At around dawn on October 7th 1911, a posse of three sheriffs found McCurdy after tracking him using bloodhounds. According to Sheriff Bob Fenton, McCurdy fired first and the three men shot back.

McCurdy was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest during the shootout.

McCurdy’s body

McCurdy’s body was taken to undertaker Joseph L. Johnson in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where it went unclaimed. Johnson refused to bury or release the body until he was paid for his services.

To make his money, Johnson kept the body at the funeral home and charged visitors a nickel to view “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” (also called “The Mystery Man of Many Aliases,” “The Oklahoma Outlaw,” or “The Embalmed Bandit”).

He dressed the corpse in street clothes, placed a rifle in McCurdy’s hands and stood him up in the corner of the funeral home. The popular attraction drew the attention of carnival promoters, but Johnson refused to sell the body.

In 1916, two men claiming to be McCurdy’s long-lost brothers took custody of the body, but they were actually James and Charles Patterson, who wanted to feature it in their travelling carnival.

McCurdy’s body was displayed in the travelling carnival run by James Patterson as “The Outlaw Who Could Never Be Caught Alive” until Patterson sold the carnival to Louis Sonney in 1922.

Louis Sonney showcased McCurdy’s body in his travelling Museum of Crime, exhibiting wax figures of notorious outlaws such as Bill Doolin and Jesse James.

During the 1928 Trans-American Footrace, McCurdy’s corpse was displayed as part of the official sideshow.

In 1933, film director Dwain Esper temporarily obtained the body to promote his film Narcotic! He presented the mummified remains as a “dead drug addict” who killed himself while surrounded by police after a drug store robbery to feed his addiction. Esper claimed the body’s shrivelled and hardened skin was evidence of drug abuse.

After Louis Sonney’s death in 1949, McCurdy’s body was stored in a Los Angeles warehouse.

In 1964, Sonney’s son lent the body to filmmaker David F. Friedman, which later appeared briefly in Friedman’s 1967 film “She Freak”.

In 1968, Dan Sonney sold the body along with other wax figures for $10,000 to the owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum, Spoony Singh. The figures were displayed at a show at Mount Rushmore but sustained damage from a windstorm and returned to Singh.

Singh then sold it to Ed Liersch, a co-owner of the amusement park “The Pike” in Long Beach, California. By 1976, McCurdy’s mummy was displayed in the “Laff in the Dark” exhibit at The Pike.

Newspaper clipping of "Elmer, The Bandit, Hangs Around After Death". The Hour. December 11, 1976. pp. 1–2.
“Elmer, The Bandit, Hangs Around After Death”. The Hour. December 11, 1976.

The rediscovery of Elmer McCurdy

On December 8th, 1976, the crew of “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV show shot scenes for the “Carnival of Spies” episode in Long Beach, California at The Pike amusement zone.

While filming, a prop man mistakenly handled what appeared to be a wax figure hanging from a gallows, causing its arm to break off and reveal human bone and tissue.

The body was taken to the LA coroner’s office where an autopsy revealed it was a human male who died of a gunshot to the chest.

The body weighed 50 lbs and was 63 inches tall, covered in wax and layered with phosphorus paint, with hair on the head and incisions from previous autopsy and embalming.

After removing the mandible, a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime were found inside the mouth.

Forensic anthropologist Dr Clyde Snow was brought in to make an identification. He took radiographs of the skull and compared them to a photo of McCurdy taken at the time of his death. Snow was able to match the skull to McCurdy through dental analysis and superimposition.

Dan Sonney was then contacted and he confirmed the body belonged to Elmer McCurdy.

On December 11th 1976, the story of McCurdy’s journey was widely reported in newspapers and on television and radio.

Officials waited to see if any living relatives would come forward to claim the body, but when none did, Fred Olds, who represented the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns, convinced Dr. Thomas Noguchi to allow him to bury the body in Oklahoma.

Newspaper clipping of "Elmer McCurdy Goes Home To Boot Hill". Lakeland Ledger. April 23, 1977.
“Elmer McCurdy Goes Home To Boot Hill”. Lakeland Ledger. April 23, 1977.

On April 22, 1977, a funeral procession was held to transport McCurdy to Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

A graveside service was attended by approximately 300 people, and McCurdy was buried next to another outlaw, Bill Doolin. His casket was covered with two feet of concrete to prevent his body from being stolen.