Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery, available on Amazon.
Have you ever heard the term “worth more dead than alive”? For one Oklahoma outlaw, the words could have been changed just a bit to “more famous dead than alive.” We learned the strange story of his life and death while touring the Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie. While Elmer McCurdy didn’t amount to much when he was breathing, after he died he became quite a well-known personality.
McCurdy was a small-time petty thief and bumbler who turned to train robbery, hoping to increase both his take and his reputation. With a gang of equally inept cohorts, McCurdy robbed a passenger train but the pickings were slim. The outlaws got away with only a passenger’s revolver and a few dollars.
Determined to do better the next time, McCurdy and his pals held up another train a few days later, on October 4, 1911. The train was supposed to be carrying over $400,000 in cash. But again, the outlaws goofed, robbing the wrong train. Only after blowing out the entire side of the baggage car with a too-heavy charge of nitroglycerine and dynamite did the robbers realize their error. Their loot from this heist was only $40, a coat, a pocket watch, and two gallons of whiskey.
Drowning his sorrows in stolen booze, McCurdy was drunk when a posse caught up with him three days later and killed him. That was when the bizarre odyssey of Elmer McCurdy really began.
The outlaw’s body was taken to a funeral home for embalming, but nobody came forward to claim it. So for the next five years, McCurdy’s remains stood propped up in a corner of the mortuary, where people frequently used him as a hall tree to hang their hats and coats on.
Finally, sometime in 1916, five years after his death, a man showed up at the Oklahoma mortuary claiming to be a relative of Elmer McCurdy, coming to take his remains home for a proper burial. But the long lost relative was actually a con man, who put the outlaw on display at carnival sideshows around the country. For many years McCurdy toured the country as the “Oklahoma Outlaw,” the “Dope Fiend,” and the “1,000 Year Old Man.” Carnival crowds in small towns from border to border viewed the body, coming away thrilled and titillated with their taste of the “wild life.” McCurdy even made the big screen as a prop in the 1950s movie She Freak.
Sometime after that, the outlaw’s body seems to have dropped out of sight. Years later workers were renovating an old California arcade-style funhouse for the 1970s television program The Six Million Dollar Man, when a crew member accidentally knocked the arm off a dummy. When he attempted to repair it with electrical tape, he noticed a bone sticking out of it. The police and coroner were called, and further investigation revealed the “dummy” was our long lost outlaw friend, Elmer McCurdy
California authorities contacted Oklahoma, and only after it was promised that McCurdy would be given a respectful burial was the body released. On April 22, 1977, outlaw Elmer McCurdy was buried with full honors in Guthrie, Oklahoma’s Summit View Cemetery, his long years as a celebrity on the road finally over.
Thought For The Day – It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand.