Elmer McCurdy lived his life with one foot in the grave. A schemer and heavy drinker, he saw himself as an outlaw. Problem was, he kept botching the job. A train robbery in 1911 went up in smoke after Elmer applied too much nitro to the safe—destroying the strongbox and the loot.
After lifting a measly $46 and two bottles of whiskey later that year, McCurdy was finally gunned down by a sheriff’s posse in Oklahoma.
His sordid tale might have ended there, if not for one enterprising undertaker. After preserving McCurdy’s unclaimed body in arsenic, the mortician opened his parlor to the public. Spectators were charged a nickel each to see the exquisite corpse. They actually slid their coins through McCurdy’s parted lips—like a ghastly piggy bank.
The funeral home made a pretty penny with their star attraction. Then, in 1916, a visitor appeared claiming to be McCurdy’s brother. He wished to give his sibling a proper funeral. The mortician obliged.
Alas, a sucker is born every minute. The mystery man was actually a carnie from a traveling circus. Within weeks, McCurdy’s embalmed body was center stage at the freak show.
The corpse went on tour with different carnivals and spook houses—sometimes billed as Oklahoma’s outlaw mummy, other times merely an ancient cadaver. New owners came and went; along the way, many forgot the body was even real. Eventually, McCurdy’s remains came to rest in Long Beach, California, as a creepy funhouse prop at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park.
For years, thrillseekers crept up to the ghoulish figure, unaware they were face-to-face with a dead man. In 1976, the secret was finally revealed. A production crew set up inside the funhouse to shoot scenes for The Six Million Dollar Man. Someone reached out to move a dummy hanging by a noose—then an appendage snapped off in his hand.
Exactly what part of McCurdy’s body tore away is unclear – some say a finger, while others contend it was his whole arm. In either case, the desiccated skin and jagged bone proved to the crew that they were standing before an actual corpse. After an extensive examination at the L.A. coroner’s office, experts were able to identify the body as Elmer McCurdy.
McCurdy’s remains were shipped back to Oklahoma. A crowd of people attended the funeral. To ensure his soul remained at rest, mourners reportedly poured concrete over his casket.
Images: Wikimedia; Flickr Commons; Long Beach Heritage Museum
This post by The Lineup Staff originally appeared on The Lineup. It has been republished with permission.