The Mummified Train Robber Who Became a Circus Prop
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because apparently some of us join a traveling carnival when we die.
By Fiona Zublin
Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.
Propmen from Universal Studios were at the Laff in the Dark fun house in Long Beach, California, in December 1976, prepping for an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. When the crew tried to move an eerie red mannequin hanging by a noose under fluorescent lights, one of its arms snapped off … and revealed a human bone.
The mystery of the fun-house mummy lasted for five months, when a positive identification was finally made, but investigators had guessed the corpse’s identity within a few days: It was Elmer McCurdy, an ill-fated train robber who was shot dead by a posse of officers in 1911 after a not-so-illustrious career.
His body was dumped at the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where it was dutifully embalmed with arsenic. But nobody ever came to collect the corpse.
Born in Maine in 1880, Elmer was involved in three heists after migrating to the Midwest, trying his luck in Kansas and Oklahoma. The first netted him and his four accomplices about $450 from a train safe holding more than $4,000, a haul that the bungling burglars managed to melt most of when they set off an explosive to open the safe. During Elmer’s second attempt, at a bank, he made the same mistake, netting just $150. The third time? He got shot. He and two compatriots were trying to rob a train stuffed with $400,000 bound for Native Americans at the Osage reservation. The money was on train No. 23, but the would-be bandits held up No. 29. “They just robbed the wrong train,” says Rod Beemer, author of Notorious Kansas Bank Heists. “They weren’t too bright, to put it bluntly.” Three days later — with a $2,000 reward on his head — Elmer was shot and killed by a group of deputies.
That was the beginning of Elmer’s journey to the California fun house. His body was dumped at the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where it was dutifully embalmed with arsenic. But nobody ever came to collect the corpse. So Elmer hung out in the back room of the funeral home until staffers realized the corpse was stable enough to stand upright — and that there was interest in the dead outlaw. The funeral home dressed Elmer in his old clothes and stood him in the corner holding a rifle; curious visitors were charged a nickel apiece to view him. After all, the home hadn’t been paid for their embalming work; this way, Elmer could earn his keep. “Local memory has the younger Johnson boys mounting the body on roller skates, as a kind of spook-house exhibit to scare younger kids,” writes Mark Svenvold in Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw.
Five years later, someone finally came to collect Elmer’s body. A man claiming to be his long-lost brother took possession of the corpse, ostensibly to bury it. But what the faux frère really did was put it on display in traveling carnival shows. Mummies were in high demand for low-brow traveling entertainments — Beemer estimates embalmed corpses sold for as much as $10,000 each to such shows. Eventually, a bad debt on the part of his owners left Elmer in the care of Louis Sonney, who displayed him in a silk-lined coffin in his traveling Museum of Crime. The other exhibits were largely wax; Elmer — by then shriveled to the size of an 8-year-old — was remembered fondly by Sonney’s family as a sort of mascot. For $100 a month, he “served” as a dead addict in lobby exhibits of movie theaters showing the 1933 exploitation film Narcotic. Following Sonney’s death in 1949, Elmer was in and out of warehouses until 1971, when a man named Spoony Singh bought him to exhibit at Mount Rushmore. Bad weather cost Elmer half his fingers, several toes and the tips of his ears, which got him booted from the wax collection for being too gruesome. Several owners later, he wound up at Laff in the Dark, covered in red phosphorescent paint — until his humanity was accidentally discovered.
The Los Angeles coroner’s office took possession of the remains, inspecting every inch for clues to its identity. Some enterprising amateurs who knew of Elmer’s case piped up, and by April 1977, they were vindicated: Elmer McCurdy had been found. His body was flown c.o.d. to Guthrie, Oklahoma, where, after nearly 100 years on Earth, it was buried next to another gunned-down outlaw, Bill Doolin. Five hundred people attended Elmer’s modest funeral and were forced to run for cover when a cement truck dumped concrete on his grave — to ensure he would finally stay put.