On October 11, 1911 an Oklahoma sheriff’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.
Cornered in a hayloft, McCurdy had sworn not to be taken alive, and he wasn’t. Brothers Bob and Stringer Fenton and Dick Wallace tracked him to the barn.
Bob 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. He didn’t know his father, though some historians speculate it was an older cousin.
Elmer grew up living with his mother and an uncle and aunt, and later his grandfather. After some troubled teenage years as a drunkard, he settled into the role of protector of his mother. He also apprenticed himself as a plumber. But at age 20, Elmer’s mother died. Left on his own, he went west. Over the next few years, Elmer traveled to Kansas, plying his trade as a plumber and taking work as a miner.
Life of Crime
In 1907 he joined the Army and learned about weapons and nitroglycerin, though apparently not much. Then 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, Kans. 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, they didn’t get much of a haul from the robbery.
The Katy Train Robbery
This teed up Elmer’s robbery of the Katy train, his third and final crime. (Some histories, though, say 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. His journey then took an even stranger turn.
Elmer McCurdy Beyond the Grave
After his death, 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.
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. Finally the Great Patterson Shows tricked him into giving Elmer up. 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 in books. In 1977, The Life and Afterlife of Elmer J. McCurdy: A Melodrama in Two Acts, told his story. And in 2003, Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw was published.
End of the Road
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 a seedy city pier in Long Beach, Calif., called The Pike. The year was 1977. The hit television show The Six Million Dollar Man, then in its fourth season, came to The Pike to film.
The Laff in 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 red mannequin hanging from a fake gallows. When a piece of the hand broke off, they discovered the mannequin was actually a human body. They took it to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office. The coroner found a copper-jacketed bullet in the chest and embalming fluid used in the early 1900s. Someone had stuffed carnival ticket stubs into his mouth. With the help of historians, they realized they had 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.
This story was updated in 2021.