We’ve all heard some form of this ubiquitous urban legend: an eerily lifelike (deathlike?) mannequin of a dead body hangs suspended from the ceiling of an amusement park haunt.
But, upon closer inspection, this particular prop that drew screams and snickers from scores of children turned out to be a little too real; for what they were dealing with was no average piece of horror decor. More than just a dead ringer, it was the genuine article—a long-dead, leathery corpse.
Stranger than Fiction
Apologies in advance for the nightmare fuel, but this macabre myth is 100% true. The body in question was discovered by an unsuspecting television crew and its violent and uncanny past was revealed after unearthing the bizarre contents found inside the dead man’s mouth.
A wannabe Wild West gunslinger, Elmer McCurdy spent the last year of his life as an outlaw. His short-lived career ended after being killed in a drunken shootout with a sheriff’s posse. An unconventional life followed by an unremarkable death. But it was his afterlife that was truly bizarre. The well-traveled, mummified mountebank crisscrossed the country for decades while in the midst of decomposition. And people paid to see it.
Unraveling the Truth
It was two weeks before Christmas of ‘76 and the cast and crew of The Six Million Dollar Man—an iconic television series of the seventies about an everyday astronaut-turned-crime-fighting-android—were filming on-location in Queen’s Park, Long Beach, California.
While producing an episode for its fourth season, Carnival of Spies, the crew were filming a scene with an evil German spy at odds with the bionic superhero inside of an existing funhouse. Scattered throughout were assorted automatic set-pieces triggered to deliver pop-up scares.
In between scenes, the art director attempted to stage an emaciated-looking dummy, spray-painted with glow-in-the-dark orange and adorned with a hangman’s noose. For four years, the antique had been hanging from the gallows, relegated to a back corner. The rush of rickety passenger carts sent it swinging back-and-forth through the otherwise still air. As it moved, there was a dry snap.
They didn’t have the technology to rebuild him, so the dummy’s brittle wax arm was separated from its ancient wax body.
Except the wax arm wasn’t made of wax. The hapless crewmember discovered this when they noticed that in the center of the accidentally-amputated appendage, was a human bone surrounded by muscle tissue. It was with dawning horror they realized that the oversized piece of beef jerky they were handling was actually the desiccated remains of a human being.
Dead Man’s Mouth
Production ground to a halt. Police and firefighters were called, who, in turn, contacted paramedics to report a severe case of dehydration.
The paramedics arrived and, upon seeing just how severe this case of “dehydration” was, burst out in uproarious laughter after discovering the corpse.
The petrified body was taken to a Los Angeles County coroner’s office, where it was determined that the cause of death was from a turn-of-the-century bullet jacket lodged in its chest. At one point an able-bodied man, the mummy had withered away to nearly a skeleton, shriveled down to a height of 5’3” and a paltry fifty pounds.
The body had sustained significant wear-and-tear, including wind damage resulting in the loss of several fingers, toes, and most of both ears, though it still maintained some wisps of hair—talk about dead ends. To accommodate the noose, a hole had been drilled through its neck, which seeped an unseemly yellow goo.
Initially, their only set of clues, to figuring out the life of this far-deceased man, were recovered from inside the body’s mouth—tickets to the Museum of Crime alongside a penny dated 1924. And with that, the secret behind this mummy’s mysterious saga, his antemortem career, and his postmortem life finally began to unravel.
Portrait of a Man
More pictures survive of Elmer McCurdy in death than those captured while living. The only existing photograph taken during his natural life is a grainy mugshot that depicts his front and side-profile with unkempt hair and beady eyes.
Born on New Year’s Day, 1880, McCurdy experienced a turbulent childhood—one that the likes of only Maury or Dr. Phil are equipped to handle. With all family either estranged or dead, turn-of-the-century economic downturn directed him westward. A drifter, looking to manifest his own destiny on the hinterlands, he undertook a revolving door of odd jobs that had a habit of getting botched due to chronic alcoholism.
McCurdy served in the U.S. Army for four years before settling in the Midwest. He gained a rudimentary understanding of nitroglycerin—the explosive element of dynamite—and rapidly proved that a little bit of knowledge is, in fact, a dangerous thing. Incapable of earning an honest living, McCurdy joined a cabal of crooks and committed a string of poorly executed bank and railroad robberies across the Great Plains.
Literally every single one of his recorded safe-cracking endeavors ended in abject buffoonery. Tales of his legendary exploits include:
- An arrest for public intoxication and possession of burglary implements, the latter of which he was able to get off by claiming the tools were needed to invent a “foot-operated machine.”
- During a train heist, he overestimated how much nitroglycerin he should use, destroying a safe he believed to be holding $4,000. Instead, he made off with only $450 in melted silver.
- Unable to ignite the fuse to open a bank’s vault, he scrambled to collect $150 in bags of coins.
- After hiding in a farmer’s hayshed, he resurfaced to commit the heist of the century: robbing a train purported to be carrying $400,000. McCurdy robbed the wrong train. He made off with $46, two jugs of whiskey, and a handful of personal items he stole on the way.
McCurdy’s newfound frontier identity just wasn’t working out for him. While hiding out after the last railway foray, a $2,000 bounty had been put on his head. To make matters worse, his ability as a gunman was comparable to his prowess as a thief. On October 7, 1911, abandoned by his banditti with stolen whiskey in hand, McCurdy was tracked to a hayshed by three sheriffs and a pack of bloodhounds. He opened fire and an hour-long gunfight ensued. When the smoke cleared, McCurdy was down in the dirt and dead as a doornail.
Keep Calm and Embalm
Elmer McCurdy was a lousy crook. Which begs the question, how did this putz achieve enough notoriety to make the history books? By virtue of the incredibly bizarre Old West fad of putting dead bodies up for show.
Dating back to the Civil War, enterprising embalmers put unclaimed bodies on display at their mortuaries to not only help with identification but as an advertisement for their services. When nobody claimed McCurdy’s body in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, funeral director Joseph L. Johnson was horrifically determined to be compensated for his work.
The remnants of Elmer McCurdy were embalmed with an arsenic-laced ultra-preservative that would allow the body to last in a strikingly lifelike condition indefinitely. This was the norm at the time for the unclaimed dead, which left the preserved body waiting for its next of kin. Johnson decided that the most reasonable of all available options was to repurpose McCurdy as scenery for his funeral parlor, where he stiffly stood with a gun by his side, propped-up like a ficus for five years. He was posthumously billed as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.”
Johnson charged visitors five cents to see the dead man up close. Even worse, visitors paid their fare by inserting coins into McCurdy’s mouth. Though hardly the first funerary practice that saw objects placed in the mouth of the deceased, feeding McCurdy change like a coin-op arcade was certainly the tackiest. But this was not the only escapade his body was involved with during his residency at the Johnson Funeral Home. One alleged incident saw the undertaker’s children living it up Weekend at Bernie’s style, putting roller skates on McCurdy and rolling him throughout the house. Dead man walking rolling!
Zany hijinks aside, McCurdy was proving to be quite the sensation. Word traveled fast of Johnson being in possession of an attraction that was drawing huge crowds at the box office. Carnival promoters from all over the country made offers to purchase McCurdy, but as far as Johnson was concerned his human taxidermy was not for sale.
After five years, a pair of men visited the mortician claiming to be Elmer McCurdy’s long-lost brothers there to give their kin a proper burial. They took Elmer to his homeland and he was finally laid to rest.
Just kidding. Elmer’s “brothers” were Charles and James Patterson, a pair of carnies who feigned bereavement to capture McCurdy’s carcass and take the sideshow on the road for the next six decades.
Hitting the Carnival Circuit
Elmer’s mass appeal should come as no surprise. Morbid curiosity about the effects of decomposition is naturally understandable, and, unless a given vocation called for it, people did not often have the opportunity to know what a dead body looked like before the days of the internet.
Cheaply-made dime novel melodramas—the precursor to pulp fiction magazines—were sensationalizing the myth of the American West. The heroes and villains of these tall tales were the stereotypical “silent, noble frontiersmen,” cowboys who doggedly pursued the “lawbreaking, mustache-twiddling, tie-a-damsel-on-the-railroad-tracks,” scoundrels in the name of frontier justice.
To take advantage of that, given an entertainment venture that immersed itself in all-things-lurid, what would be a better top-billing than a bona fide cowboy corpse? Or, at least, a cowboy-clad cadaver!
McCurdy found himself suddenly thrust into a sea of tents, fried food, cotton candy, rigged games, and screaming children on clunky rides. “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” had more stage names than a luchador, variably coined as “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive,” “The Embalmed Bandit,” “The Famous Oklahoma Outlaw,” “The Mystery Man of Many Aliases,” and, finally, “The Thousand-Year-Old Man.”
Demand grew as McCurdy was swept across the country, further harmonizing his status as a drifter in both life and death. After he was done headlining at one of the traveling troupes of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows, alongside characters like the Strong Man, Alligator Girl, and the Torture King, McCurdy became part of a traveling Museum of Crime in 1922. Later, he joined the sideshow that accompanied the 1928 Trans-American Footrace.
Lost Memories and Hollywood Exploitation
Over the years, McCurdy would be pawned off from gig to gig; each time, both the body and memory of who he was further decayed. So, too, did the sideshow scene. Growing increasingly less lucrative as an exhibit, Elmer McCurdy answered the inevitable call of Hollywood.
Acquired as promotional material for the 1933 drugsploitation film, Narcotic, McCurdy was displayed in the lobby of movie theatres as an attention-grabber and a warning. Now mummified and beginning to shrink, his physical condition was credited as the result of being a morally bankrupt dope fiend.
McCurdy was periodically lent out, including to a traveling sideshow near Mount Rushmore where he sustained extensive wind damage, presumably from being transported on top of a truck like a Christmas tree. He was also a prop in the 1967 schlocky, carnival-themed horror film, She Freak. The following year he was sold in bulk to the Hollywood Wax Museum, who elected not to exhibit him due to the grotesque, rapidly deteriorating condition of his body.
It was around this time that McCurdy, having seen far better days, was forgotten to have ever been a person at all. Now, he was simply an artifact. Within a few years, he made his way to the Queen’s Park Laff in the Dark funhouse, waiting for a television crew to find him.
Elmer McCurdy’s biography is compiled with a bottomless pit of quirky contradictions that build upon the natural tension between life and death.
An admittedly enthralling story for all its peculiarity, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that McCurdy was more than a profitable sideshow exhibit or historical oddity. This prop was the vessel of a troubled soul who, like all of us, once had hopes, dreams, and the capacity to love and be loved. Sometimes it takes the spectacle of a traveling, rotten shell of a corpse to remind us of our own capacity for a disquieting lack of humanity.
After his discovery and subsequent identification, the lawbreaker was finally laid to rest in the spring of 1977. Interred in Guthrie, Oklahoma, his requiem was attended by over three hundred spectators. There, laid next to actual Wild West outlaw Bill Doolin, whose body had once been exhibited alongside McCurdy’s, his grave was covered with several feet of concrete to prevent any further unauthorized exhumations or desecration.
There he remains, enjoying a well-earned rest. Presumably, at least. Now retired from show-business, his tale ends where it always belonged: the crypt.
By Kris Levin, contributor for Ripleys.com
Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and Locker Room Detective. He can be seen internationally as television wrestling’s most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin