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.

 

Footnotes:

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

 

Good Morning, Mr. Magpie (Urban Legends #2)

Happy mystery Monday!

Several months back, I did a post on an urban legend from my home town of St Louis about the spooky Zombie Road and to quote one of my favourite you tubers, Ross Scott of Accursed Farms, “Like a porn series that already knows it’s going to have a sequel, I’m putting a big number 1 in the title.”, I named the last post “Urban Legends #1” because I knew that this is a subject that I would like to revisit because I value the tradition of story telling and urban legends are something I feel like are waning in style.  I don’t mean to say I feel like they’re going obsolete nor that I believe there will ever be a time we move away from them, in fact Slender Man is arguable proof that urban legends are alive and well(1), however there are smaller local legends that rarely leave the city or place of their origin unless told and retold by wandering bards(2), like yours truly.

This one, however, is much less sinister then the two previously mentioned but none the less has an element of morbidity which, I’ve come to terms with, is quite an attractive element in stories to me(3).

scary-stories-to-tell

This was one of my favourite images from the my favourite anthology series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”.

I first learned about this story because I was walking with a friend and we saw a solitary Magpie and she saluted it and said “Good Morning, Mr. Magpie. How are the wife and kids?” and kept going like it was something completely normal well adjusted adults do.

magpie

Just in case if you didn’t know what they look like. I had never seen any before coming to England.

And I’m not one to judge I talk to animals and plants like they’re people all the time however, never have I ever considered saluting one (or anyone for that matter). I asked and they just told me “That’s just what you do when you see one alone.” and then recited the following nursery rhyme:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.

“Brilliant. That Explains everything. ಠ_ಠ”

So I did what I do and learned a few things about the magpie and why this became a thing.

I learned that magpies, like many species of bird, mate for life and that seeing a solitary magpie is a sign of sorrow because it can mean the solitary bird has lost its mate and if you see two it is a sign of joy ergo the rhyme “One for sorrow; two for joy…”.  The salute is a sign of respect, similar to tipping of the hat, and asking after its wife and kids is to assume that it just happens to be away from the family.

The rest of the rhyme comes from a tradition of divining the future based on the behavior of birds called “Augury”, IE if you see five magpies you’re in for some money.

augur-magic

I *finally* understand the name of this card.

The depth of the myth goes on with variations of the rhyme, why magpies are bad luck (or in Chinese symbolism, they’re actually good luck), and different ways to ward off the bad luck crossing a singular magpie.

If you have a piece of urban lore you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment below about it.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Slender Man seems to fit the definition of “urban legend” as provided by dictionary.com

Urban Legend (n)

a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror
2. I realise that “bard” is defined as “one who composes and recites poems” and as I do write poetry (rarely) but do not identify as a “poet” I am abiding by the archaic Greek definition of poet meaning “maker, author”, the use of poetry can be seen as recently as 1821 by Percy Shelly‘s essay “A Defense of Poetry” which is an excellent and extremely empowering read for any writer.
3. In talking to one of my friends about some of my favourite authors, bands, poets, movies, video games, and the stories I’m working on she said to me “Fin, I think you might be a little death obsessed.”  Now I’m taking a Victorian Gothic Horror class at university and I kind love it.  Love thy self, right?

 

Zombie Road (Urban Legends #1)

I just finished binge watching the first season of the Netflix original Stranger Things (SPOILER ALERT: It’s fantastic however unless your further out of the loop than I am, like the Zombie Road area(1), you’ve probably already seen it and are thinking “My carby goodness(2), Fin. How are you so behind?”) and it got me thinking about my own encounters with the paranormal and ask most St Lousians about the subject and they’re likely to mention either Lemp Mansion (another story, for another time) or Zombie Road.

The infamous Zombie Road (formerly the Lawl Ford Road, now apart of the Al Foster Trail) has gotten notoriety since the 50’s as a “creepy little hang out in the woods” however there’s a lot of good reasons why the little road is creepy as hell at night.  One being that there is like no light back there.  On a full moon night, you might be able to see the shadow of the tree line which is cool as all get out since light pollution is making it increasingly hard to find places where one can really understand palpable darkness, since experiencing darkness that thick I can appreciate a healthy fear of the dark.   Another reason the place gives me the fantods is all the death.  There have been several recorded incidents of suicide, people being run down by trains, people falling in the river, and one particularly strange incident in the 70’s where a teenager boy lost his footing and got caught on a fork shaped branch on his fall to his demise.  The forked branch managed to rip his face and scalp off leaving behind a grotesque mask.  Top it all off, there are stories about run away mental patients, dead barge works roaming as zombies, sightings of human shadows in the woods, vengeful Native American spirits (it’s believed to originally be a trail used by Native American peoples and when the Pacific Railroad company came through it likely didn’t end well for the Natives).

Naturally, being an (increasingly) rebellious boy and growing up in the dreadfully dull West County (much of it is the picture of suburbia) there wasn’t much to do OTHER than investigate places like Zombie road.  However, now it’s gotten much riskier with the cops issuing up to 1,000$ trespassing tickets now. I guess kids have Pokemon Go now, but think of all the Ghost type Pokemon you could capture down there!  Anyway, one night me and a friend decided to go explore and see for ourselves what Zombie Road had to offer.

I don’t remember much now, ten years later, but I do remember getting down there and walking for a good 20 minutes not really hearing anything or feeling anything unusual until we decided to leave.  As soon as I said, “Man, this is kind of lame.  Lets go.”  both my friend and I heard a deep WHOMP.  Similar to the sound of a grocery bag full of ground red meat and water exploding on the ground.  This got our attention.  So we decided to continue further down and we heard an extremely loud/deep hammering into the ground.  As if someone was repeatedly dropping a giant tamper and the sound was getting closer.  We kind of got wigged out by this point and decided to make our way out when I was assaulted by what I can only assume was a bat in the face.

baseball bat

Not a bat.

bat man

Not the bat.

bat

A bat.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve pissed my pants literally, sober and intoxicated, many times in my adult life.  This wasn’t one of the incidents, but it’s an honourable mention.  After that was a blur of running through the pitch black back to the car.  That was the last time I went to Zombie Road, day or night.

Have any good Urban Legend experiences to share? Feel free to leave a comment below explaining your encounter with the esoteric.

 

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Footnotes:

  1. This is a really bad local-vernacular based joke, “the loop” generally refers to a trendy St Louis attraction The Delmar Loop and I live, currently (I move a lot, on average 1.1 moves per year), in the Webster Groves area and further “out of the loop” would be Zombie Road aka the Al Foster Trail all the way out in Wildwood which is in the dreadful West County area.
  2. Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM)