Strike up the banjo, and get that fiddle playin’ low and sad, for this here heartbreakin’ tale is about…
Elmer McCurdy, The Six Million Dollar Dead Guy.
Let’s start with the facts: Elmer McCurdy was a decent plumber, but a lousy robber.
After losing his job during the economic slump of 1898, along with most of his immediate family dying, he headed west. Elmer lived for a while in Cherryvale, Kansas, a couple or so hours south of Kansas City. He had a serious problem with booze, and ended up joining the army in 1907 when not much else was available. There, at Ft. Leavenworth, he learned how to use a machine gun, and how to blow up stuff wth nitroglycerin. He got an honorable discharge in 1910, and moved to St. Joseph with an army friend, and resumed drinking. Very shortly thereafter they were arrested with all kinds of burglary paraphernalia- hacksaws, chisels, nitroglycerin, money bags, etc. Elmer testified in court that they weren’t for robbery- they were part of their work on the invention of a foot-operated machine gun. They were found not guilty.
Of course, once they got out, the robberies began. Only problem was, Elmer liked to use a pinch too much nitro in his efforts. In 1911 they robbed a train carrying a safe with a rumored 4000 dollars in it. Elmer tried to blow the door off of the safe. He did. And the top. And the sides. Basically he blew up the safe, destroying it and most of the money. Of the 4K in cash, they got away with about 450 bucks in melted silver coins.
Later that year they robbed a bank in Chautaqua, Kansas. Elmer put nitro around the door to the bank’s outer vault. It blew the door into the bank, destroying much of it, but not hurting the safe. He tried to blow the door on the safe- but the nitro wouldn’t ignite. They got away with about 150 bucks in coins, from what was left of the teller trays.
A month later, Elmer and accomplices tried to rob a train in Oklahoma, after Elmer heard it had 400,000 dollars in cash on it. Problem was, they stopped the wrong train, and ended up with 46 bucks, a few gallons of whiskey, a coat, and a watch. Newspapers called it “One of the Smallest in the History of Train Robbery.” Ouch.
Sick with tuberculosis, trichinosis, and a lot of Charlie Brown angst, he and some ranch hands spent a night drinking. He fell asleep in the hayloft. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that a 2000 dollar bounty was on his head by now. The ranch hands, however, DID know.
Next morning, a sheriff’s posse surround the hayshed. They were waiting for Elmer to come out, but instead some lead did. For and hour Elmer took shots at the three sheriffs and their posse members. According to an interview with Sheriff Bob Fenton, “We do not know who killed him.” Which is weird, because he was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest. Which he got while lying down Huh.
Downtrodden, mean, drunk, unable to hold a job or blow a safe, he died in the dirt. But for Elmer, the real insult is just beginning.
His body was taken to an Oklahoma funeral home, where it went unclaimed. The undertaker refused to bury it, because he hadn’t been paid. So he embalmed Elmer with arsenic, shaved his face, put him in a suit, put a rifle in his hands, and stood him up in a box in the back of the funeral home. There, folks could pay a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give up.” Soon enough the undertaker had carnival promoters offering to buy Elmer’s mummy, but for whatever reason, the undertaker wouldn’t sell him.
FIVE YEARS LATERS, a man arrived who said he was Elmer’s brother from California. The stranger had already contacted the county sheriff and a local attorney, so he could take custody of Elmer and ship him to San Francisco for a proper burial. The next day the guy – and another guy who said he was a brother too- loaded the coffin on a train, and off Elmer went to rest in peace.
His body actually went to Arkansas City, Kansas, where those two guys- who were brothers, but not McCurdy brothers, more like Patterson brothers- owned “The Great Patterson Carnival Shows,” a traveling carnival. Elmer traveled with them for the next six years, until the Pattersons sold their operation to Louis Sonney in 1922.
Louis exhibited Elmer in a traveling “Museum of Crime” show, which mostly had wax replicas of bad guys.
In 1928, Elmer was put in a sideshow that went with something called the “Trans-American Footrace.”
In 1933, he was leased to a movie director as a promotional tool for a movie called, with an exclamation point at the end, NARCOTIC! Now, however, even Elmer’s title as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” was stripped away, and he was place in theater lobbies with the title “dead dope fiend.” By this time the body had mummified, shriveling down to be pretty much unrecognizable as anything Elmer.
In 1949 Louis Sonney died. He’d had Elmer for 27 years. Elmer got stuck in an LA storage warehouse for 15 years. In 1964 Sonney’s son lent Elmer to a filmmaker, who put Elmer in a movie called “She Freak.” Then, in 1968, Sonney’s son sold Elmer, and other wax figures, to the owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum. He bought them for two Canadian guys, who exhibited them at a show at Mt. Rushmore. During a windstorm there, Elmer lost the tips of his ears, his fingers, and his toes. When he was returned to wax museum owner, he decided Elmer looked too gruesome, AND NOT LIFELIKE ENOUGH, to display. He sold Elmer to a part-owner of an amusement park in Long Beach, California. By 1976, Elmer McCurdy, the Bandit who wouldn’t give up, was hanging in the “Laff in the Dark” funhouse.
Elmer, the story that wouldn’t die. Almost there.
December 8, 1976. The Six Million Dollar Man is filming scenes for an episode called “Carnival of Spies.” Guess where they are? Yup, at The Pike, inside the “Laff in the Dark” funhouse. A prop guy needed to move that goofy looking dangling mannequin, and when he did the arm broke off. Nothing a little Elmer’s glue and duct tape wouldn’t fix, right? Except this paper mache fake body had a real bone sticking out of it.
Police were called, and autopsy was done, and the corpse was that of a human male who died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Elmer had become petrified, due in great part to having been covered in wax, then covered in layers of glow-in-the-dark paint. He weighed 50 pounds, and was 63 inches tall.
Investigators found some clues. No bullet, but the bullet jacket was found- which gave them a clue as to when the death could have occurred. Tuberculosis in the lungs. And when they removed the jaw to check dental records- a 1924 penny was found in his mouth, along with a ticket stubs to the Pike, to a side show, and to Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime. They called Sonney’s son, now Sonney Senior, and he told them it was, in fact, Elmer McCurdy.
That was December of 1976. Finally, on April 22, 1977, in the boot hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Elmer McCurdy was laid to rest next to another outlaw named Bill Doolin. To make sure nobody stole his body and send Elmer on another sideshow odyssey, they poured two feet of concrete over his casket.
And thus, The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Be Buried, reached the end of the line.
(LISTEN TO THE STORY OF ELMER HERE, IN SHOW #005: https://soundcloud.com/podensteinslab/show-005-the-ides-of-march-lots-of-dead-ahead)