The Bandit That Wouldn’t Give Up

If you’ve been looking up information on Jonah Hex in anticipation of the upcoming (as of this writing) movie, you might have noticed that (in the comic’s continuity) his body was stuffed and displayed in various venues after he died. Sounds far-fetched or something that could only happen in a comic book, doesn’t it?

Think again…

Elmer McCurdy was born January, 1880 in Washington, Maine to an unwed teenager named Sadie McCurdy. The father was unknown, although was rumored by some to have been the young woman’s own cousin! Sadie’s brother (and his wife) adopted Elmer to protect her reputation, with little Elmer growing up thinking that his mother was actually his aunt. Ten years later, he learned the truth and it all went downhill from there. Elmer took to drinking and getting into fights. Moving in with his grandfather, who helped him discover the art of plumbing, did calm him down somewhat. Sadly, this was not to last. After the death of both his mother and grandfather in 1900, Elmer took to wandering and eventually wound up in Oklahoma. McCurdy’s old habits resurfaced and he soon got involved in the world of armed robbery.

His most famous heist (for all the wrong reasons) was the October 6, 1911 robbery of a Missouri Pacific train. Intending to rob a train carrying thousands of dollars, McCurdy accidentally robbed a passenger train instead (due to a delay holding his original target up). The total haul turned out to be $46 and some liquor. A small posse found him in a barn a few days later. After he refused to surrender, they opened fire. Unsurprisingly, Elmer McCurdy did not survive.

Being an unidentified body in a place without any nearby family members, McCurdy’s corpse lay unclaimed at the local funeral home. Having a very well-preserved cadaver on hand (thanks to the arsenic-based embalming methods of the time), the undertaker displayed Elmer McCurdy under the name “The Bandit That Wouldn’t Give Up.” For the princely sum of five American cents, deposited right into the corpse’s gaping maw, visitors could gawk at the deceased robber for as long as they pleased. Attracted by the profits, many attempted to buy the carcass despite the fact that the undertaker refused all prior offers. So when one of the McCurdy clan showed up to claim the body, it seemed like Elmer would finally rest in peace.

The thing is, the “family member” (one source claims it was two people) was actually someone who worked for a carnival and lied about their identity in order to get the body. McCurdy’s stint at the carnival foreshadowed his being sold from business to business and appearing in a long string of sideshows, “crime museums,” haunted houses and the like over the decades. At one point, he came into possession of legendary exploitation film producer/director Dwain Esper, who allegedly used him as a prop in several films! So far, I’ve only been able to confirm his use in Narcotic (thanks to sample pages from Mark Svenvold’s Elmer Mccurdy: The Life And Afterlife Of An American Outlaw on Amazon). In fact, his body was also displayed in the lobbies of theaters playing said film as a “victim of drug abuse!”

According to this, the mummified body later came into the hands of fellow exploitation mogul Dan Sonney, whose father had previously displayed Elmer McCurdy in his “Museum of Crime.” At some point, one of the owners decided to coat the body in wax in order to help preserve it. After seeing how the body looked after the waxing (compare to this page’s “before” picture), it’s easy to see why it’s claimed that one haunted attraction owner passed on buying the body since he thought it was a poorly-constructed dummy. Eventually, it wound up as a hanging man in the “Laff in the Dark” haunted house in California’s now-defunct “The Pike” amusement park, its ghastly nature unknown to all.

That came to an end during the filming of the “Carnival of Spies” episode of The Six Million Dollar Man at the haunted house in 1976. One of the crew members accidentally snapped one of the “dummy’s” arms off and was shocked to see a bone sticking out of it. Further inspection also revealed intact genitals, which prompted the crew to contact the authorities.

The body was brought to the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, better known as Dr. Thomas Noguchi. If the name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he was one of the inspirations for Quincy, ME. However, McCurdy was examined by Dr. John Choi by the request of Dr. Noguchi. Although the hole found in McCurdy’s chest was originally suggested by some to have been from a chest tube (used to treat tuberculosis in the olden days), it was confirmed to have been a bullet hole. Opening the corpse’s mouth yielded a 1924 penny and a ticket stub from “Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime.” These, along with the make of the bullet jacket found in the body, provided the authorities with enough information to research the identity of the mysterious mummified body before them. The trail led them to Elmer McCurdy, but old photos of the corpse in its pre-wax days were superimposed over x-rays of the body in its current state in order to make a definite match.

With his identity confirmed and the case closed, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest under his own name in Oklahoma’s Summit View Cemetery. As is the case with many articles on the man, I’d like to close this by noting that concrete was poured into the grave in order to ensure that he would be able to rest in peace.

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  1. […] or could it have been real human corpse that had been altered for dramatic effect? After all, at least one real human corpse had traveled the sideshow circuit before, so the idea isn’t technically […]

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