The story of how Elmer McCurdy, born in 1880 in the Knox County town of Washington and raised in Bangor, went from everyday Mainer to notorious train robber to, eventually, one of the most bizarre footnotes in 20th century history, is quite the saga. It spans nearly a century, crossing the country from Maine to California, and ends with “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV show, and McCurdy’s mummified corpse, hanging from the rafters in a haunted house.
Yes, you read that right: his mummified corpse. But let’s start at the beginning: Who was Elmer McCurdy?
According to Mark Svenvold’s 2003 book, “Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw,” McCurdy was born in Washington in 1880 to 17-year-old Sadie McCurdy, an unmarried teenager. To spare her the shame of raising an illegitimate child, Sadie’s brother George and his wife Helen adopted Elmer, who grew up believing that they were his parents.
After George died of tuberculosis in 1890, Sadie and Helen moved to Bangor with Elmer. Not long after that, according to Svenvold, Sadie told her son that she was actually his mother, news that apparently so disturbed McCurdy that he began to fall apart, getting into trouble and, eventually, starting to drink heavily.
By the time McCurdy was 20 years old he’d lost his job as a plumber, and his mother had died; Sadie McCurdy is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bangor. Elmer set off for points west, drifting around, working as a plumber and a miner until eventually heading to Kansas. In 1907, he joined the U.S. Army, and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was honorably discharged in 1910. Then he began his brief and explosive criminal career.
McCurdy was trained in the army as a nitroglycerine expert, and used the substance during his robberies. Unfortunately, McCurdy was pretty inept, as evidenced by his robbing of a train in Oklahoma in March 1911, in order to steal a safe holding $4,000. When McCurdy went to blow up the safe doors with nitroglycerine, he destroyed most of the money along with the safe.
McCurdy’s final robbery was of a train in Oklahoma that was supposedly carrying $400,000 in cash. The hapless criminal picked the wrong train to rob, however, choosing a passenger train instead and stealing just $46, a gun, some whiskey and the train conductor’s coat. Authorities caught up with McCurdy on October 7, 1911, and after a shootout at the hay shed where McCurdy was staying, he was shot dead by a single gunshot wound to the chest.
McCurdy’s story was just beginning, however.
His body was embalmed by an Oklahoma undertaker with arsenic, as was common in that era when a body needed to be preserved for a long period of time. As there was no next of kin, McCurdy’s body lay unclaimed, with the undertaker, Joseph Johnson, refusing to bury or release the body until he was paid for his services.
After about six months, Johnson began displaying McCurdy’s corpse and charging people a nickel to see it, dubbing him “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” and having spectators put their coin in the corpse’s mouth. His gruesome and deeply unethical sideshow became quite successful, and gained some notoriety.
In 1916, two men from California, claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers, took possession of the body from Johnson. They were not his brothers, however — according to an article published by the Library of Congress, they were James and Charles Patterson, who operated the Great Patterson Carnival Show. The brothers concocted the scheme to in order take possession of the mummified body, and display the “Embalmed Bandit” in their traveling show.
In 1922, the Pattersons sold the mummy to Louis Sonney, who operated a traveling “Museum of Crime,” featuring wax figurines of famous criminals. Sonney and, later, his son Daniel, owned the corpse for more than 45 years, loaning it out to a variety of people. In 1933, he was put on display in movie theater lobbies to promote the exploitation film “Narcotic!”, with studios claiming the body was of a “dead dope fiend.” As the years went on, McCurdy’s true identity became ever more obscure and eventually forgotten.
By the 1950s, the mummy was mostly spending its time in storage, though Daniel Sonney did loan it in 1967 to filmmaker David Friedman, and it can be seen, briefly, in the 1967 B-movie “She Freak.” In 1968, Sonney sold it to Spooney Singh, owner of the Hollywood Wax Museum, who later loaned it to a traveling sideshow near Mount Rushmore. While being transported there, strapped to the roof of a car, McCurdy’s ears, fingers and toes blew off in a windstorm.
Singh now felt the mummy was too gruesome to show in public, and as a final indignity after decades of desecration, in the early 1970s it was sold to the owner of The Pike, an amusement park in Long Beach, California, where it was hung from the rafters in a haunted house, covered in neon paint.
Here, finally, is where “The Six Million Dollar Man” comes in. According to an entry on the Ripley’s Believe It or Not website, in 1976, the show was shooting on location at The Pike. When a crew member tried to move what he thought was a prop dummy, the dummy’s arm snapped off, revealing a human bone and muscle tissue.
The corpse was taken to the Los Angeles coroner’s office. An autopsy — which involved getting through multiple layers of paint and wax — determined the man had died from a gunshot wound. Further examination found a 1924 penny and a ticket stub from Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime in its mouth, and dental analysis and a forensic anthropologist later confirmed that the petrified corpse was none other than Elmer McCurdy, the embalmed bandit.
The coroner’s office eventually released McCurdy’s body to the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, where in April 1977 Elmer McCurdy was laid to rest at the town’s Summit View Cemetery. He was buried in the “boot hill” section reserved for outlaws and criminals, alongside the considerably more successful outlaw Bill Doolin, founder of the Wild Bunch.
Given the extremely checkered history of McCurdy’s remains, he was supposedly buried under two feet of concrete to deter any would-be thieves from digging up his body and putting him back on display. Though, not surprisingly, his final resting place is still a tourist attraction.