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On October 7, 1911, small-time crook Elmer McCurdy was shot dead by police on an Oklahoma farm, and his showbusiness career began.
McCurdy had been tracked down by a posse after pulling off a hold-up that one newspaper mockingly called “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery”.
McCurdy and two accomplices had heard that a $400,000 cash payment from the US Government was being sent to the Osage tribe by rail. That’s something like $12,000,000 (about £8.7 million) in today’s money – enough for McCurdy and his pals to retire on.
Unfortunately, the hapless trio stuck up the wrong train and ended up with a paltry haul of $46 in cash, two bottles of whiskey, a pistol, a coat and the train conductor's watch.
McCurdy was tracked to an old barn and was killed in a hour-long shootout. Most criminals’ stories would end there.
But when the local undertaker realised no-one was coming to claim McCurdy’s body, he decided to make a few extra bucks by charging the public a nickel to view the outlaw’s corpse.
The paying customers actually dropped their coins into McCurdy’s mouth, as if they were making a deposit in a macabre piggy-bank.
Because McCurdy had proved to be a profitable attraction, the undertaker decided not to bury him, and the body slowly dried out and became mummified in the funeral parlour’s back room.
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But then a few years later two men came along to claim the body – explaining that they were long-lost relatives of the dead outlaw.
They were nothing of the kind. James and Charles Patterson owned a travelling carnival and, having heard of the brisk trade the undertaker was enjoying, decided to grab some of it for themselves.
Within weeks McCurdy was an attraction at The Great Patterson Carnival Show, billed as “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive”
Over time McCurdy’s origins became forgotten. At one point he was used to promote a 1933 exploitation movie called Narcotic, with director Dwain Esper claiming the body was of a dead heroin fiend that he himself had killed in a bloody shootout.
Over the years, McCurdy’s desiccated corpse was passed from one freak show to another. By 1976, was part of the the Laff in the Dark funhouse exhibition at a California amusement park called The Pike.
By this time, the condition of the body had deteriorated so much that The Pike's owners assumed it was a creepy dummy.
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It was there that a nine-year-old Mark Taylor, who would grow up to be one of the designers of the hugely-successful He-man toys encountered the defiant outlaw’s mummified corpse.
Taylor later told a Netflix documentary crew that he remembered the Laff in the Dark attraction smelling “like somebody’s dead”.
And years later he still remembered the moment he came face-to-face with McCurdy’s remains: “All of a sudden I knew this was a real person, no question,” he said. “This absolutely was a real person.”
“This was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen,” he added, “and that’s where Skeletor came from.”
Even then, most people thought the body was a mannequin. It was only when an episode of Seventies TV series The Six Million Dollar Man was being filmed at The Pike that the truth came to light.
A member of the science fiction show’s production crew moved the “dummy” and to their horror a large piece of the body came away in their hand – revealing that the grisly attraction had once been a living human being.
Police were called and the bedraggled corpse was taken to the Los Angeles coroner's office. The grim discovery was, according to one detective “too much like Vincent Price time.”
Over the years the body had been covered in wax and a layer of luminous paint. After some detective work, it established that the body had once been the hapless train robber. One clue was the fatal 1911-issue bullet, which after all this time was still lodged in McCurdy’s chest.
Even then, the poor man’s journey wasn’t quite over. Another sideshow offered to buy the now-notorious corpse from the California coroners. A spokesperson declined the offer, saying “you can’t just paint it red and use it for laughs”.
Instead, the much-abused body was taken back to Guthrie Oklahoma, where McCurdy’s remains were laid to rest in Boot Hill cemetery, alongside some of the most celebrated outlaws of the Old West.
To ensure he was never molested again, the authorities poured concrete over McCurdy’s coffin, ensuring that his long delayed burial was permanent.
- In the News
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