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Elmer McCurdy: Dead Reckoning

pikes peak  It's December 1976, and there's some excitement at the

  fairground Queens Park (otherwise known as The Pike,

  or Nu-Pike) in California.The attraction 'Laff in The

  Dark' is closed to the public and is a-bustle. Why? This

  ride, essentially a ghost train ride, is temporarily in the

  charge of Universal TelevisionStudios.




It's been hired as sixmil a film location for an episode of the successful TV fantasy adventure series,

'The Six Million Dollar Man'.

Carnival of Spies, episode 17 of the fourth season, called for the ride to double as a secret

control room, disguised as a fairground attraction, for intercontinental missiles. As

Universal's set dressing crew set to work, a figure, suspended by the neck from the room's

ceiling was spotted. The desiccated dummy had been covered in phosphorous paint, so it

glowed in the dark. It wasn't thought to be appropriate…it had to go.

                                                                         elmer hanged


Teamster (lorry driver) Chris Haynes was among the crew, and he discovered that the figure wasn't a dummy.

Studying the hanging figure, Chris noticed that it had been cut open and crudely stitched. Wondering why a

dummy should have been autopsied, Chris spotted 'human features' no prop or mannequin would have. Chris

indicated these points to a fellow crew member. As he tried to move the figure's hands away from its groin for a

clearer view, the right arm snapped off at the elbow. Dried muscle and bone were revealed – this was no dummy.

Outside, Chris found a Long Beach Police Officer, who'd was looking after the production. Chris told him about the

body. The officer looked at the hanging figure, realising that the unfortunate man was long dead. Chuckling, the

officer said, . "Ha! Just what Long Beach needs, another dead sailor!"

The policeman took no action and left Chris Haynes was due to go back to Universal Studios and collect a

truckload of material for another location. He first notified the Long Beach Fire Department's Fire Safety Officer,

who was present on the set. He was also amused, and said, "Hey! I'm gonna call out the paramedics and tell them

I have a guy suffering from extreme dehydration."

Chris had to go but the Fire Safety Officer clearly called in a superior to have a look at the body. Long Beach Police

were contacted. This in turn contacted Los Angeles County Coroner's office, in an attempt to discover any records

of a human body having gone astray.

Police report No. 765-0028, filed on the following day (the 8th December 1976), describes what happened next…

Criminologist E. Williams accompanied the police to the 'Laff in the Dark' ride, at 210-A-A-A, West Pike. They

examined the 'display'. The resemblance to a human cadaver, as regards size and proportion, was noteworthy.

Under the figure's outer covering , were bone-like joints and a bone-type structure, and traces of hair could be

seen on the back of a leg.

Body Talk

The Six-Million Dollar Mannequin was indeed the remains of man. But which man? Who was he and how did he

wind up hanging in a fairground ride?

The mystery body was taken to the Los Angeles County medical examiner's office, where it was tagged as being

the remains of  'John Doe, No. 255'. The examiner, LA Country Coroner Dr. Joseph Choi, confirmed that the body

had been embalmed for burial and was effectively a mummy.

                                                     mummy    elmer head


The man had been killed by a .32-20 calibre bullet, which had entered his chest. Dr. Choi also fund a copper bullet

jacket (or gas check) embedded in the body's hip bone. Some say that the item was an actual bullet rather than a

bullet jacket. In any event, a gas check made between 1905 and the 1950s was found.

Using this and additional evidence he found, Dr. Choi was able to state that 'John Doe' died after 1905 and before

the late 1920s or '30s.



Equipped with information concerning what happened and when, the investigating team needed to find the body's

identity. Coroner's office spokesman Donald Dryman put out a news release containing the findings so far. A

family, the Sonney family, saw this and called the Los Angeles Police Department. The Sonneys believed that the

remains were those of one Elmer McCurdy.

The L.A. medical office quickly contacted the Oklahoma State Historical Society, which in turn called the

University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma. The university had a Western History Collection. Dr. John Ezell

was the collection's curator. He found a photograph of Elmer McCurdy, with a caption that read…

Elmer McCurdy. Shot by Sheriff's posse near Pawhuska. Okla. 10th October 1911.



The investigators had their man, but what's in a name? Further research uncovered a truly bizarre story, which

was definitely stranger than fiction.

The Rise and Fall of Elmer McCurdy

Elmer was born to Sadie McCurdy in January 1880, in Washington, Maine. Seventeen-year-old Sadie was single.

Short-term lodger and Sadie's cousin Charles Davis, seven years her senior, was the prime suspect in the

paternity stakes but Elmer didn't have the benefit of a male parent…or legitimacy.

Sadie's brother George and his wife Helen were childless and adopted Elmer. Helen bore George a son a year later,

whom they named Charles. The two boys loved Helen and George, and Elmer's mother became 'Aunt Sadie'.

George McCurdy died of tuberculosis in early 1890. This left Helen McCurdy bereft and unable to keep on taking

care of Elmer, despite Sadie's moving into the household to help. The two women told Elmer the truth about his

parentage. At first, he seemed to accept this but acceptance didn't last. For poor Elmer, 'Auntie' was actually

Mum, while 'Mum' was really Auntie. At 15 years old, Elmer felt let down by his mother. He became rebellious,

turning to drink. In 1895, he ran away from home.

Harden and Abbey McCurdy, Elmer's grandparents, came quickly to the rescue, allowing Elmer to live with them.

Grandfather's steadying influence saw Elmer learn plumbing, successfully completing an apprenticeship. Three

months later, Elmer decided to go back to live with his mother. He became a loving son, and very protective of

Sadie. Sadly, illness struck Sadie, and she and Elmer moved back to the grandparents' home. In 1899, Bright's

disease (kidney disease) claimed 38-year-old Sadie's life. Weeks later, Harden McCurdy passed away.

It was 1900. Elmer was left alone at the age of 20. Leaving Maine, he became an peripatetic plumber. He lived in

Cherryville, Kansas, and Webb City, Missouri. By 1907, the plumbing trade had palled for Elmer, who returned to

Cherryville to take up mining, vocation he didn't follow for long.

Roosevelt needed troops, 100,000 of them, to maintain the occupation of Cuba and the Philippines. To Elmer, the

call to arms was also a way of seeing the world. Enlisted, he was sent to join the 13th Infantry. However, Elmer's'

enthusiasm was misplaced. Soon after Elmer's army inclinations were processed, the 13th Infantry was posted to

Fort Leavenworth. Leavenworth County, Kansas, was hardly the Philippines. Elmer was assigned to the

quartermaster's stores. An unremarkable three years followed, after which Elmer was discharged, on the 7th

November 1910.

Presumably disheartened, Elmer went to St. Jospeh, Missouri, in search of work. None was available, and Elmer

again began drinking heavily. Soon, he was arrested, for 'Possession of burglars' tools', a crime punishable by

between two and ten years in jail. Predictably, Elmer was falling in with bad company. Sitting in Buchanan County

Jail, awaiting trial, he met one Walter Jarrett.

Arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, and unable to pay his $50 fine, Jarrett had served 30 days of his 50-

day jail sentence. He bragged, of multiple bank robberies in Oklahoma. Walter and Elmer befriended one another

and Walter invited Elmer to visit anytime, after his release.

Walter Jarrett was released from jail. Elmer's hearing came up and he won over the jury, persuading them that

his so-called 'burglar's tools' were in fact plumbing hardware. Elmer was released. Within four weeks, he was with

Walter Jarrett – his new friend – in Lenapah, Oklahoma. Walter introduced him to his brothers, Lee and Glen, as

""Missouri McCurdy, an expert cracksman from St. Joe". Walter was seeking to impress his siblings in order to

persuade them to help him and Elmer rob a train.

The Best Laid Plans…

train     …Of mice and men often go awry. So it was for 'Missouri  

  McCurdy'. Elmer, Walter Jarrett, his brother Lee and one

  Ab Connor boarded the Iron Mountain train near Lanapah.

  It was after dark, on the 23rd March 1911.

  Elmer's safecracking debut went badly wrong. He used far

    too much explosive, which caused the safe's door to be blown    

  through the opposite side of the railway carriage.  4,000 dollars

  in silver coin from the safe was scattered on the floor; a large

  lump of melted coin lay in a corner. Seizing a coal pick, Elmer

  tried to hack the mass free. He was unsuccessful – when the train

  arrived in Kansas City, a crowbar was needed to prize apart the  

  melted  silver coins.


The robbers made off with a paltry $450.

Walter and Elmer wisely went their separate ways. Calling himself 'Frank Curtis', Elmer set out for the Osage

Hills, where he got a job with the Selby-Downard Construction Company in Pawhuska. Within two weeks, he'd

been persuaded to take part in a bank robbery with a man called Amos Hayes.

On the night of the 21st September 1911, Elmer, Amos Hayes and a man named Higgins broke into the bank in

Chautauqua, Kansas. As before, Elmer was generous with the nitroglycerine. The Sedan Times Star later


' [The explosion]… blew the outer door off the safe and threw it with terrific force against the front door of the

vault. That vault door, with its iron frame, was blown out of place and across the room to the plate glass window.

It plowed its way through the furniture, leaving everything in its path a complete wreck.'

Half deafened and shaken by the massive explosion, Elmer and Amos rushed back into the vault, to find the safe's

inner door unharmed. Elmer was setting another charge when Higgins pointed out that the town was waking up –

lights were showing everywhere. Elmer and Amos grabbed some coins from a nearby tray, mounted their horses

and made off…with just $150.

Third Time Lucky?

Amos Hayes next idea was to rob the Katy railroad train, which carried Osage Indian payments. This time, the

protagonists were Elmer, Amos Hayes and a man named Sears. At 1am, about three miles South of Okesa,

Oklahoma, held up the M.K. & T. passenger train Number 23. In fact, they held up the Number 29 Kansas City to

Oklahoma City train.

According to the Bartlesville Enterprise of October 6, 1911, our heroes got…

  $40 in currency.
  The mail clerk's Hampton watch, worth $25.
  McCormick the conductor's $25 Cravnette coat.
  Train auditor Paul Hagan's revolver, value unspecified.
  Parts of two kegs of beer, sipped at during the robbery.
  Two gallons of whisky.

The fleeing men had executed one of the worst-paying felonies in the history of train robbery. Nevertheless, fifty

lawmen were in pursuit, among them a number of federal officers, drafted in from Pawhuska.

Elmer, now calling himself 'Frank Amos', was tracked to a ranch. After having enjoyed a few drinks with the ranch

hands, Elmer asked for sleeping accommodation. He was taken to the hayloft. A few minutes after Elmer went to

sleep, brothers Robert and Stringer Fentons and Dick Wallace, of the pursuing posse appeared. Know Elmer had

settled, they arranged themselves around the barn and waited for dawn.

McCurdy's Last Stand

Dawn came and Elmer McCurdy began shooting at the lawmen. Three shots went in Stringer Fenton's direction,

and then Elmer began firing at Dick Wallace. Shots were exchanged for an hour, then the gunfire stopped. A young

ammoranch hand cautiously entered the barn, followed by Pawhuska Police

Chief William Floyd Davies. Placing his hat on the end of his rifle barrel,

Davies pushed the barrel up into the hayloft. No response. They found

McCurdy dead, with a .32-20 bullet in his chest.

Only Stringer Fenton had used a 32-20 calibre weapon, a Winchester

rifle. The conclusion over who shot cCurdy is obvious.

                                             shooter   rifle

A New Career

Come evening, Elmer McCurdy's corpse was placed on a wagon and taken to Pawhuska. The wagon stopped in

front of the Johnson Funeral Home, where Elmer's body was placed in a wicker casket and photographed by

William J. Boag. Soon afterwards, the posse appeared and identified the corpse as Elmer's.


Elmer McCurdy, pictured in his wicker coffin

The undertaker, supposing that he might have to keep Elmer's body for some time, extracted the bullet, tied off

the split arteries and set to work with embalming fluids. Even after six months in the back room of the mortuary,

Elmer's corpse remained unburied and unclaimed. The mortician had done his work well. Elmer was perfectly

preserved, and could be placed to stand vertically.

Noting the local interest in 'The Embalmed Bandit', Mr. Johnson, the mortician, dressed Elmer in the clothes in

which he'd been killed. Elmer was placed, standing in a corner – an unknown helper added a touch of

verisimilitude by giving the corpse a rifle.

Elmer stood in the corner for five years.

In October 1916, the Sheriff and County Attorney was visited by two men, who wanted to see him about Elmer.

One man said he was Elmer's brother, and that Elmer's mother, who lived in Kansas, was worried and unwell. The

sympathetic, if gullible, coroner told Mr. Johnson to give Elmer's body to the men.

Gullible? Oh yes. The two men were the Patterson brothers, James and Charles. James owned and managed

Patterson Carnival Shows. Charles, who was a salesman for the Lesh Oil Company, lived in Arkansas City, Kansas.

He'd heard about Elmer's being on show in Pawhuska. James's travelling show had stopped in Arkansas City.

Charles told his brother about Elmer and the pair had cooked up a plan to acquire a new exhibit.

On the 5th October 1916, Mr. Johnson was called long distance from the Pattersons in Arkansas City. According

with their wishes, Elmer was put aboard a Midland Valley Railway train. The next morning, The Great Patterson

Show headed of for a week in Woodward, Oklahoma, before venturing on into the Texas Panhandle. Word soon

filtered back to Pawhuska. Elmer was on show in a street carnival. His new career had begun!

Elmer travelled the USA with Patterson's roustabouts for six years, until 1922. Louis Sonney had a sideshow in

Los Angeles, the 'Museum of Crime'. This was a rogue's gallery of outlaws, represented in wax by Sonney. The

show featured notorious luminaries including figures of the Dalton Brothers, Bill Doolin and Jesse James. Louis

Sonney realised that this august company would benefit financially through being joined by a real outlaw, albeit a

dead one. So, Elmer's body changed hands, for an undisclosed sum. Dorothy Sonney, Louis's wife, described

Elmer, noting that… "He had shrivelled up so much and he was so tiny. He looked like an eight year old child."



Elmer was at the Museum of Crime for a long time, until 1971. When Louis Sonney passed away, his son sold

Elmer's body to Spoony Singh, for display in his 'Hollywood Wax Museum. This show was failing by October 1971,

and Elmer's corpse was sold to Ed Liersch, and a partner D.R. Crydale.

Liersch and Crydale leased space at the Pike in Long Beach, California. They opened a wax figure show, including

Elmer. By now, Elmer's remains were in poor condition. His casket had disintegrated years ago, so Elmer now

occupied a cardboard box. Ambitiously billed as 'The 1,000-year-old-man", Elmer had been dead for 60 years.

Five years later, Elmer was hanging in the 'Laff In The Dark' ride.



Full Circle

Is this the end of Elmer's story? Not quite. The denouement is to come, after a couple of additional facts…

When Dr. Joseph Choi carried out the Post-Mortem examination in 1976, he found items in McCurdy's throat. A

1924 penny was in there, along with ticket stubs marked, 'Louis Sonney's Museum of Crime, 521 S. Main Street,

Los Angeles'. This is how Louis Sonney's son was traced.

Following the re-discovery of Elmer's identity, history repeated itself. No-one wanted to claim his remains. U

Ultimately, the self-styled 'Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerners' made contact. An osteologist from

Oklahoma City, Dr. Clyde C. Snow, went to Los Angeles, to identify the body. How did he do this? By comparing

X-rays of the corpse with contemporary picture of Elmer just after his death. The L.A. Times reported on the

14th April 1977, leading with the immortal line, 'Tests Conclusive, Scientists Agree. Mummy Is Indeed

Oklahoma Badman'.

Two days later, Elmer was on the road again, for nearly the last time. He was taken to Guthrie, Oklahoma, where

the Ponca City's Gill-Lessert Funeral Home, brought a contemporary-style, horse-drawn hearse, with glass sides

and velvet drapes. Truman Moody had supplied a white pine coffin, the lid decorated with a simple, imprinted

cross. And Elmer got a gravestone, courtesy of The Warren Monument Company of Guthrie.

At 10am on the 22nd of April 1977, Elmer's final journey began, from Pine Street, in Guthrie, about a quarter-mile

North of the cemetery. Elmer's remains had been taken to the Smith Funeral Home in Guthrie, from which he was

transported, by car, and placed in the black, glass-sided hearse. The funeral procession, which included only

horse-drawn vehicles and horseback riders, made its way to the cemetery, with dignity and a sombre style. It was

a far cry from Elmer's previous ride after death, on a buckboard to the funeral home in Pawhuska.



The hearse drew up by the side of the newly dug grave. Elmer's coffin, capped with a spray of white lilies, was

carried by the pall bearers to the grave. Elmer's Christian burial went to plan. A eulogy was read out as Elmer's

coffin was lowered into the ground, and a young girl, a ninth-grader from the local History Club, dropped a solitary

red rose onto the top of the coffin.

History shows that Elmer McCurdy was anything but a successful outlaw. In fact, it's believed that far more

money came to him, as it were, after his death than he ever had in life. But Elmer wasn't buried just anywhere. He

l lies in the Boot Hill section of Summit View Cemetery, Guthrie, Oklahoma. In the plot by the side of Elmer's lies

none other than Bill Doolan, the outlaw whose waxwork was displayed with Elmer's body in the 'Museum of Crime'

for so many years. Other famous outlaws occupy this section of the cemetery.


Elmer McCurdy's journey through life was hardly smooth. He managed to survive 31 years, from cradle to death.

From death to burial, Elmer's 'career' spanned 65 years, 6 months and 16 days.

The McCurdy story closes with a revelation that's practically a twist in the tail. The single red rose was dropped

on Elmer's coffin; symbolic handfuls of earth were cast into the grave. These were followed by two-and-a-half

cubic yards of concrete, poured from a Dolese cement lorry. In accordance with the State Medical Examiner's

orders, Elmer would never be disturbed again.

Thoughtful? Certainly, but this was probably not the only reason for the concrete. Shrinkage or not, Elmer's body

was so well preserved that the pathologist who examined the body in 1977 could see lung damage. He theorised

that Elmer had died suffering from tuberculosis or pneumonia, or had lived on after being shot, for long enough to

inhale food or some stomach contents.

Mr. Johnson, the mortician, had clearly carried out an excellent job of preservation on Elmer McCurdy. As it

turned out, the method he used turned out to be one that had been is use in Ancient Egyptian times. Elmer was

preserved using arsenic. It is not known whether exposure to the poisonous mummy contributed to anyone's

death or even made anyone unwell. But it's relevant that Elmer McCurdy will wander no more – he could be



Rest in peace eternally, Elmer, your work is done.


                                                                                Copyright Gatekeeper 2014