Jan 29, 2020 I Brent Swancer

The Time an Early 20th Century Outlaw’s Corpse Turned up as a TV Prop

In 1976, a television crew from Universal Studios arrived at the Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California, in order to film an on-location scene for the then popular show The Six Million Dollar Man, which follows the adventures of Steve Austin, who was outfitted with a bionic arm following an accident. The scene was to feature the protagonist riding a haunted house type ride called “Laff in the Dark,” which utilized various Halloween style props such as ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, and mummies. As the crew was setting up the scene and the props, one of the crew members reached for what he assumed to be a creepy mannequin hanging from a noose, obviously one of the props, but when he grabbed the arm the limb fell off right in his hand. Any thoughts that this was just a cheap prop were dissolved immediately when it was found that the arm was not plastic, but rather withered skin and mummified flesh with a bone in the middle, in other words a real arm and a real dead guy. And thus continued the adventures of a hardened 20th century outlaw who had one of the most bizarre adventures in death.

To understand how a real human body came to be hanging with Halloween props at an amusement park funhouse ride we have to go back some years to the early 20th century in the U.S. state of Oklahoma, which had become the haunt of a bank and train robber by the name of Elmer McCurdy. An alcoholic and unruly drifter who had moved around through several states, McCurdy had taken to petty crime and gradually worked his way up to staging bank and train robberies, but by all accounts he was kind of a buffoon and not very good at what he did, having once blown up a safe and most of the money within when he misjudged the amount of nitroglycerin needed to break into it, and another time had blown to smithereens the inside of a bank but failed to actually crack the safe. He was kind of an idiot, in other words, and his final crime would not go much better.

On October 4, 1911, McCurdy and two of his accomplices prepared to rob a train near Okesa, Oklahoma, which was supposed to be carrying a fortune of $400,000 aboard that would make them all rich. At least, it would have if McCurdy hadn’t screwed it up in spectacular fashion. Rather than the money train, he and his men mistakenly robbed a passenger train, notably not carrying a king’s ransom of cash but rater just some terrified passengers and a conductor. Indeed, it is said the crew only managed to steal $46, a watch, a revolver, and two jugs of whiskey for their trouble, and it was actually mocked in news articles of the time as being one of the most pathetic train robberies of all time. Regardless, the law was after him, and a $2,000 reward had been posted for his capture unbeknownst to him. What he had lacked in skill, McCurdy had always made up for in luck, always managing to get away, but this time his luck would run out.

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Elmer McCurdy

McCurdy ended up holing up at a remote farmhouse near the Kansas border, but at this point he didn’t realize what a wanted man he had become, and instead of getting as far away as possible he went about downing the whiskey he had stolen along with his men and some ranch hands. He would get smashed and pass out in the barn, but when morning came the law was waiting outside for him in the form of an actual old west style Sherriff’s posse. McCurdy then purportedly opened fire on them, and in the resulting shootout, which allegedly lasted for a full hour, the hungover outlaw was shot in the chest and killed, later found sprawled out on the hay of the barn with an empty jug of whiskey not far away.

After his death, McCurdy’s corpse was embalmed by a local undertaker named Joseph L. Johnson and put on display in his funeral home, but no one ever claimed the body, perhaps not surprising as he had been estranged from the little family he had left and was not well-like by anyone in general. This was a bit of a predicament for Johnson, as with no next of kin to claim the corpse he wasn’t paid, and so he had the macabre idea to put it on display for money, calling the embalmed body “The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up," and charging a nickel per customer, which they were asked to leave in the dead man’s mouth. Stay classy, Mr. Johnson. Strangely, rather than sending people screaming the other way McCurdy’s corpse became a big draw, making Johnson his money back and more, to the point that he refused to bury, sell, or otherwise get rid of it.

This went on for several years, until in 1915 two mysterious men showed up at the funeral home claiming to be McCurdy’s long lost brothers, and it turned out they had gained permission to claim the corpse from the sheriff and a local attorney. Although Johnson was sad to see his cash cow go, he was legally obliged to give up the corpse to them, and so the two strangers whisked it off on a train. Unfortunately for everyone involved, especially McCurdy, these were not relatives seeking to give him a final proper burial, but scam artist travelling carnival promoters by the names of James and Charles Patterson, who had resorted to underhanded techniques after Johnson had refused to sell. And so McCurdy would begin his next adventure.

The now mummified corpse, still quite well-preserved and looking pretty good all things considered, found its way to a carnival called the Great Patterson Carnival Shows, and was rebranded “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive.” The corpse would remain with the carnival as a "real life dead outlaw" to the morbid delight of throngs of customers for nearly a decade, after which it passed on to another owner by the name of Louis Sonney, who put it in an exhibition called the “Museum of Crime” alongside various wax replicas of famous outlaws like Jesse James. The corpse then began a sort of strange odyssey of exchanging hands with several owners, including other carnival shows and bizarrely falling once into the possession of a movie director and displayed in the lobby of a movie theater labelled as a “dead dope fiend” to promote the 1933 film Narcotic! The director even went as far as to claim he had killed the criminal himself after the degenerate fiend had tried to stick him up for drug money. After ending up at a Los Angeles warehouse the corpse would actually end up appearing in some other films as well, such as the elegantly titled 1967 movie She Freak.

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The corpse as it originally appeared (left), and looking a little worse for wear (right)

It would go on to be featured at the Hollywood Wax Museum and even made an appearance at an amusement park at Mt. Rushmore, where it was sadly damaged by a windstorm. The damage had disfigured the face of the mummified body, and this was one of the reasons it would finally be sold to the Pike Amusement Park, where it would be painted up with gaudy colors and used as a spooky prop in their “Laff In the Dark" funhouse, with none of the paying customers aware that this was an actual real corpse popping out of the darkness at them. In fact, the corpse had been used in the attraction for many years with nobody the wiser before that film crew member had broken off the arm off to discover the gruesome secret, after which a forensic investigation had tracked down its origins and pieced it all together. After this, the body of Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest in April of 1977 at the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, right next to another outlaw named Bill Doolin, his decades long journey in death finally at an end.

It is quite the odd little historical oddity. Here we have this loser of an outlaw who would have been pretty much a nobody otherwise, lost to history, but in death he seemed to have found a second life. It is all quite the weird odyssey that this corpse should go through all of these adventures for over half a century, only to show up after finally being uncovered at a funhouse by a TV crew filming an action TV program. It doesn't really get much weirder, and at the very least we can say that Elmer McCurdy perhaps had more success in death than he ever had in life.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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