A True History

The World’s Strangest Side Show Attraction: Elmer J. McCurdy

I came across the story of Elmer McCurdy online a few months ago and I have to admit, it prompted me to do a lot more research because when I first heard it, I thought for sure somebody made it up! It sounded too strange to be real, but I guess as we all know, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

And trust me, that is absolutely the case in the tale of Elmer McCurdy.

Elmer McCurdy was a young man from Maine who joined the United States Army in 1907. During his three year stint in the army, he was a machine gun operator that was trained in the use of nitroglycerin for demolition purposes. It’s a pretty popular belief that his training with nitroglycerin was minimal because whenever he used it after his time in the army, he always managed to mess everything up.

It all started after his honorable discharge from the quartermaster Corps in 1910. Within two weeks of his discharge, Elmer and his buddies were arrested for being in possession of burglary paraphernalia, but they swore up and down that those tools were all going to be used for creating their own foot operated machine gun. The jury apparently believed these claims because they found Elmer McCurdy not guilty.

Spoiler alert: He definitely wasn’t going to be using those tools to create a foot operated machine gun. McCurdy and his friends were absolutely going to be using the tools in bank robberies.

McCurdy was not exactly a bright man though, and he tended to bungle the robberies with his minimal training to use nitroglycerin. During one heist, he and another three men attempted to steal from the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train because he believed that one of the train cars had a safe with $400,000 inside. The four men successfully boarded the train and found the safe and McCurdy was able to put the nitroglycerin on the door of the safe to open it.

He used way too much nitroglycerin.

Not only was the safe destroyed, but so was most of the money inside the safe. Most of the silver coins ended up melting down and fusing to the frame of the safe.

A later bank robbery attempt included using nitroglycerin to light up a vault door which unfortunately failed to ignite and his final robbery was a train robbery where he ended up stopping the wrong train so instead of getting $400,000 in cash, he was only able to steal $46, an automatic revolver, some whiskey, the train conductor’s watch, and somebody’s coat. One newspaper called it “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery.”

It was big enough for Elmer McCurdy though who was implicated in the robbery and less than a week later was found by a posse of three sheriffs where he was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Just that part of Elmer McCurdy’s story is interesting in and of itself, I mean who doesn’t find it fascinating to hear about a string of really bad robberies committed by one untrained person?

His story doesn’t stop there though.

McCurdy was taken to a local funeral home where the owner used an arsenic-based preservative to embalm. These were used in embalming during that era in order to preserve a body for long periods of time when they didn’t know if there were any next of kin. The owner assumed it would take a long time for a family member to pick him up.

And boy was he right.

However, he didn’t want to just leave the body in the funeral home, not when he could make some money off the poor guy. He ended up putting street clothes on the body of McCurdy, placed a rifle in his hands and stood him up in the funeral home and anybody in possession of a nickel could stop by and see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” McCurdy ended up becoming an incredibly popular attraction for the funeral home.

Eventually two men stopped by the funeral home and claimed to be Elmer’s long lost brothers. They paid the owner to take their “brother” home with them. Only these two men, named James and Charles Patterson, were the owners of a traveling carnival know as the Great Patterson Carnival Shows.

Yup, you read that right, he was sold to a traveling carnival where he became a sideshow attraction called “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive.” McCurdy’s body was a popular attraction until 1922 when they sold the carnival.

Between 1922 and 1949, McCurdy’s body was used in multiple traveling museums and sideshows. At one point in this time, the corpse was even placed in the lobby of theaters where he was known as a “dead dope fiend” as a way to show the dangers of drugs. By the time his body was making the theater rounds, his body had become mummified; his skin was becoming hard and shriveled and he was now much smaller than he had been. However, they claimed that this was proof of his drug abuse.

After 1949, his body was placed in a Los Angeles warehouse until 1964, where he was lent to film-makers and appeared in the 1967 film “She Freak.” After that, his body was sold as part of a set with a bunch of wax figurines to the Hollywood Wax Museum.

Yes, that’s right, by the 1960s, the world was convinced that the body of Elmer McCurdy was just a wax figure.

And the world continued to believe that until December 8, 1976 when his body was being used to film scenes for the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man.” During the shoot, his body was moved by a prop man while it was being used in a scene where he was being hung from the gallows. When he was moved, his arm broke off and all the bone and muscle tissue were immediately visible.

The staff called the police and a coroner was able to identify him and finally put him to rest after 65 years of traveling all over the country in movies and sideshow attractions.

As my husband puts it, the poor guy pulled in more money when he was dead than he ever did in any of his failed heists.