Crime and Scandal

The Strange Life and Stranger Afterlife of Maine’s Elmer McCurdy

Movie poster for the Great Train Robbery.

On October 11, 1911 an Oklahoma Sherriff’s posse had Elmer McCurdy on the run.  The Maine man – a plumber-turned-outlaw – had robbed a train a few days earlier in Katy, Okla. The robbery was a disaster for the would-be gangster. It was his second train robbery and one of his gang had been captured. That man had turned the sheriff onto McCurdy, and they had tracked him by bloodhound to the Osage, Oklahoma Badlands.

Movie poster for the Great Train Robbery.

Movie poster for the Great Train Robbery.

Cornered in a hayloft, McCurdy had sworn not to be taken alive, and he wasn’t. Bob and Stringer Fenton and Dick Wallace were the men who tracked him to the barn. Fenton told what happened to the Oklahoma State Register in a story headlined: Katy Robber Pays Price of Train Holdup in His Own Blood: “He took a shot at me first. Then he shot at Stringer. Then he took three shots at Wallace before we opened up on him. It took an hour before he dropped. I don't know which of us hit him.”

The path that Elmer McCurdy followed to Oklahoma from his early days in Bangor and Washington, Maine, was a curious one. He was born to Augusta "Sadie" McCurdy in 1880 in Washington, Maine. His father was unknown to him, though some histories speculate an older cousin was his father.

He grew up living with his mother and an uncle and aunt, and later his grandfather. After some troubled teenage years as a drunkard, Elmer settled into the role of protector of his mother and apprenticed himself as a plumber. But when he was just 20 years old, Elmer’s mother died, and he was left on his own. Over the next few years, Elmer traveled west to Kansas, plying his trade as a plumber and taking work as a miner.

In 1907 he joined the army and learned about weapons and nitroglycerin, though apparently not much. With his three-year stint in the Army behind him, Elmer took his first steps toward being a criminal in 1910. He and a gang of friends tried to rob a Pacific Express train. They hopped aboard and Elmer planted a nitroglycerin charge at the door of the train’s safe.

An enormous explosion followed. So enormous it melted most of the silver in the safe and blew shards of it into the wall. The gang got away with little money.

Elmer next partnered with another man to rob a bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. Elmer placed an explosive charge on the safe and blew the outer door off. The blast woke up half the town, and the men had to flee before they could blast away the inner door. Again, the haul from the robbery was limited.

This teed up Elmer’s robbery of the Katy train, his third and final crime – though some histories say that Elmer had killed a man in Colorado at one point. The robbery of the Katy train also did not go well. Some have theorized that Elmer and his gang actually robbed the wrong train, that their actual target was an express due later carrying gold.

Elmer and the gang took control of the train, uncoupled the passenger car from the engine and left it standing on the tracks. They stole less than $50 from the passengers inside and made off with a couple of jugs of whiskey. Was their plan to use the passenger car to block the oncoming express to get a better haul? Perhaps. Either way, it never happened.

With little to show for his efforts, Elmer hid out in Osage where the posse surrounded him and killed him. He was nearly 32 years old. This is where his journey took an even stranger turn.

Elmer McCurdy Beyond the Grave

After he was killed, the sheriff had Elmer McCurdy transported to Pawhuska, Okla. He was embalmed at a local funeral home and placed in a back room awaiting someone to come forward to claim his body. Nobody did.

Elmer McCurdy in life.

Elmer McCurdy in life.

Laws governing human remains were less strict in those days. The undertaker decided that if no one would claim the body and pay for his services, he would at least use Elmer to display the excellence of his work. He propped Elmer, dressed in his gangster clothing and rifle in hand, in a corner. Some say he charged a small fee to view Elmer McCurdy, the Embalmed Bandit.

Over the next five years the undertaker turned down offers to sell McCurdy’s body to various freak shows and carnivals, but he was tricked into giving up the corpse to the Great Patterson Shows. The carnival had two of its men masquerade as relatives of Elmer McCurdy. For decades, Elmer would travel the west and Midwest as a freak show attraction. Displaying bodies of dead gangsters and other famous and infamous people was not uncommon.

His story has been told numerous times in television shows around the world and books such as 1977's The Life and Afterlife of Elmer J. McCurdy: A Melodrama in Two Acts and 2003's Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw.

Elmer’s journey finally came to an end after 66 years on the road. He had been on display at a haunted house amusement called the "Laff in the Dark" at the seedy city pier in Long Beach, Calif. called The Pike. The year was 1977. The hit television show The Six Million Dollar Man was in its fourth season and came to The Pike to film.

The Laff the Dark was to be the backdrop of an episode titled the “Carnival of Spies.” As crews readied the ride for use, they moved what they thought was a mannequin. When a piece of the hand broke off, they discovered the mannequin was actually Elmer McCurdy’s body under layers of Day-Glo paint.

After identifying McCurdy, the Oklahoma Historical Society arranged for McCurdy to be transported to Guthrie, Okla. where he was buried in the Boot Hill section of the cemetery that housed actual fellow bandit Bill Doolin and his Wild Bunch gang. Though more successful as gangsters, the Wild Bunch’s career couldn’t hold a candle to Elmer McCurdy’s nearly 100-year odyssey.

To make sure he stayed put, the Oklahoma authorities poured two yards of concrete on top of Elmer McCurdy’s grave.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Diane Coose Littlefield

    Diane Coose Littlefield

    May 6, 2017 at 8:45 am

    STRANGE THING.Lat night I was watching a ‘ghost hunters’ program and THEY were at the grave of Elmer McCURDY!! Got some strange answers to their questions and don’t tsk tsk this… as I’m just telling what I saw…….

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