Elmer McCurdy: Failed Train Robber or Successful Mummy Prop? (folktale)

Happy Monday!

Today’s tale is brought to you by my very funny friend Chris from Poorly Drawn Thoughts.  He draws web comics about a bearded man.  Occasionally said beard punches people.  It’s glorious. Go check him out.

Born on the first day of the year 1880 in Maine to Sadie McCurdy.  The father’s identity is unknown but Sadie’s Brother George and his wife Helen offered to adopt young Elmer.  In 1890 George died of tuberculosis at which point Sadie decided to tell her son, Elmer, that she and not Helen is his biological mother.  This disturbed Elmer and in his teens he started drinking.

He began working for his grandfather as an apprentice plumber and seemed to be competent at it.  Then the Panic of 1893 plus the loss of his biological mother and his grandfather culminated in him loosing what was left of his family and his job.  With nothing left, he took to the road.  Drifting along the east coast looking for work and a stiff drink.  However work wasn’t consistent, mostly due to his drinking, but eventually he would join the U.S. Army in 1907 where he would learn how to work as a demolition tech.

This, like most things in his life, didn’t last long.  Honourably discharged in 1910, he decided to take his new found love for exploding things on the road and hit it big by robing a train.  His first proper job was an attempt to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri train which was said to have $4000 worth of silver on board.  In today’s money, that’s roughly equivalent to ~$98,000 (or ~£78000, gotta love that inflation though) in today’s money.  Elmer and the three other men were able to successfully stop the train and locate the safe, however Elmer used way too much Nitroglycerin on the safe which resulted in not only blasting open the safe but also melting almost all of the silver they were after.  The were able to scrape about $450 (~$11,000/~£8,800 today) worth of silver off the walls and floor of the safe  before they made their great escape.

After the bungled robbery Elmer was able to convince two more folks to help him try and rob The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas.  Apparently they spend about two hours banging away at an outer wall before Elmer pulled out some more nitro and blew it away.  Then to open the safe, nitro again.  However the nitro didn’t ignite and they stole about $150 (~$3600/£2800 today) worth of coins that were in trays outside the safe and split.

In one final job in 1911, Elmer and two other guys decided to rob a Katie Train in Oklahoma which was rumored to contain $4000 worth of silver.  They stopped the train only to realize it was the wrong train and managed to steal: a revolver, a coat, the conductor’s watch, two demijohns (1 demijohn = 1 imperial gallon/8 pints/64fl oz/1.8 L) of whiskey, and a whopping $46 (~$1100/~£882 today) from the mail clerk.  News papers called it “The smallest train robbery in the history of train robbing”.

In the first job, let’s assume they split the $450 evenly among the 4 of them.  Then in the second job, the look out man ran away midway through so we can guess that Elmer and his remaining partner split the $150.  In the final job, we can guess that the 3 men split the $46 even for ~$15 a piece. Elmer has made $112 + $75 + $15 for a total of $202 (~$4900/~£3900 today) in his short bank robbing career.

After the botched job, Elmer took at least one of the demijohns of whiskey (maybe both) and drank with some ranch hands at the place he was staying.  What he didn’t know was there was a $2000 bounty on his head which lured 3 sheriffs to come for him and they had a shoot out resulting in Elmer taking a slug in the chest.  The sheriffs found one of the demijohns empty.

Normally this is where the life of a robber/piss-head would end however, Elmer was about to make more money after death than in life.

Elmer’s body was taken to the local funeral home to be preserved until he was claimed, this was a common practice at the time so that when someone came to claim or identify the body it was still…identifiable.  Time passed and no one claimed Elmer’s remains and the funeral director refused to release or bury the body until he got his money.  This was when he got an idea to put Elmer out for display to make his money.  For just a nickel ($1.23/99p today) you could see the body of “The Train Robber Who Wouldn’t Give Up”(1).  His body became a wild attraction gaining the attention of carnival folks everywhere.  The funeral director rejected all offers to sell the body.

In 1916 James and Charles Patterson, owners of “The Great Patterson Carnival Show” which was a traveling circus, contacted the funeral director under the guise of being Elmer’s “long lost brother” claiming his body for a proper burial.  After some legal convincing, the funeral director released the body where it went on to live under the show name “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive” until 1922 when they sold the show to Louis Sonny.

Louis Sonny opened a traveling show called “Museum of Crime” where Elmer was among much more successful robbers like Bill Doolan and Jesse James.  In 1928 Elmer was used as a prop to advertise a film, Narcotic! which is basically an early 1930’s propaganda film about the horrors of drugs.

After Sonny’s death in 1949, Elmer’s body was stored in a L.A. storage unit until 1964 when Sonny’s son lent the body to film director David F. Freidman to feature in his 1967 film She Freak.  This process of selling the corpse kept on for years until Elmer’s body found a home in the amusement park, The Pike in Long Beach California, in the fun house “Laff in the Dark” as a hanged man.

In 1976 the crew of The $6.000.000 Man were filming the episode “Carnival of Spies” on location at The Pike.  They decided they wanted to remove the hanging man, Elmer’s body, for the shot and in trying to remove what was assumed to be a wax figure the arm fell off exposing mummified flesh and prompting an investigation.

The identity of the body was a mystery until the medical examiner discovered a 1924 penny and a ticket stub for Sonny’s Museum of Crime in the mouth of Elmer’s remains.  After all this time Fred Olds who represented the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns claimed the body for burial in Oklahoma where he was buried next to Bill Doolan.  To insure Elmer’s remains were left to rest, he was buried under 2 cubic yards (1.5 cubic meters) of concrete.

So what’d we learn, folks? Crime doesn’t pay? Drugs are bad? No, what I choose to take away from this story that even if one is a failure in life, there’s a whole life after death which one can enjoy success.  Rest in peace, McCurdy.



  1. His corpse was also known as “The Mystery Man of Many Aliases”, “The Oklahoma Outlaw”, and “The Embalmed Bandit.



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