The Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

Apr 6, 2022 0 comments

What happens to our bodies when we die? Some are buried with grandeur in oakwood caskets, some cremated on holy pyres of amber flames. But the homeless, unfamiliar and the strange often remain unclaimed, left to wander the streets in death as in life. One such orphaned vagabond was Elmer McCurdy, the ghost of whose life came back to haunt the living some 60 years after his death. He was a man who crawled through a desultory career in his life, but gained fame and prosperity in death. This was because after passing away in 1911, the corpse of Elmer McCurdy continued to pass along the hands of men until 1977 creating showbiz for the rich and pennies for the opportunists.

Who was Elmer McCurdy?

Born in 1880, McCurdy was an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle in his birth city, Maine. Shaken by the reality of his origins, the young man took to boozing, finding inconsistent work as a zinc miner, plumber and soldier in the west. He learnt about explosives at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, but as fate would have it the knowledge was used only to enjoy a fleeting career as a safe robber. He’d conspicuously blow up banks, only to find the vaults inside remaining unharmed; and hijacked trains on false alarms to find the safes inside empty. The botched robberies forced men of law to track him down as a priority, and a drunken and diseased Elmer was killed in a shootout in a barn with gunshots to his chest.

A Career of Infamy in Death

Elmer was as alone in death as in life. No kin stood up to claim his body. The corpse lay unattended, until the funeral director Joseph L Johnson decided to take charge. He covered Elmer’s body in an arsenic laced balm to preserve it, which would mummify the corpse for years to come. Fate had been hard on Elmer, but destiny’s betrayal was nothing compared to the incompassion of fellow men. This man decided to showcase poor Elmer’s embalmed body to the intrigued public, calling them to shove pennies in his lifeless mouth. Five cents a visit, and Johnson was on an entrepreneurial roll. Soon imposters were trying to take over the business, and a few finally succeeded.

How Elmer Mccurdy was stood up on his two feet for the public to see.

They were a group of carnival men who reached the mortuary in 1916 disguised as Elmer’s brothers. The ruse was that they would take him home to his mother, but once out of the morgue, they made the dead man into a moving attraction for the masses on the roads. The man who had been many things in life, became many more things in death: an exhibit in the Los Angeles museum of crime, a side act at carnival shows and a prop in films of horror. His final dalliance with the show business at a Long Beach amusement park called ‘Laf in the Dark’. Called ‘The Thousand Year Old Man’ and covered in glow-in-the-dark paint, Elmer hung here by a noose for years to come.

Finding Elmer McCurdy

By 1977, the once thriving park was a rundown place shuttered with wooden planks and cobwebs. All was dark and dank here, with no signs of life and no inklings of a glorious past in entertainment. This was when the crew of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ reached the site, ready to shoot for the plot. The hanging corpse of Elmer McCurdy was discovered in the haunted house then. As the crewmen tried to unhook the body, its arm broke off into their hands to reveal rotting bone under frail, desiccated skin. The revelation that a real man—once alive and breathing—hung here, caused the crew to make the discovery public. While the fragments of bullets in his chest were the strongest identifying factor, there were stranger things that helped investigators name the corpse. Tickets from the Los Angeles museum, a penny dated 1924 and remnants of pneumonia in the lungs confirmed to the coroner that this was in fact Elmer McCurdy, the outlaw who had been killed by disease and bullets in 1911.

Elmer McCurdy’s grave. Photo: Jack Gray/Flickr

After six decades, the authorities decided to give the man a respectable burial at Boot Hill in Guthrie, Oklahoma. The corpse was buried under a layer of concrete with a gravestone marking his year of death and burial. The macabre fate of the stray man caused many a laugh along the years, but looking back, it now leaves one wondering if there is any moral obligation humans ought to feel towards the dead. To find the answer, one can head to the cemetery even today, where a nearby bed and breakfast hosts walks to the grave as part of its murder mystery weekends.

# New York Times
# Elmer McCurdy by Mark Svenvold


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