Emily Ruth Verona
Weird History: A Real Corpse in the Funhouse
You ever go to a haunted house attraction only to later learn that one of the "props" was actually the mummified corpse of a turn-of-the-century outlaw? Nope. Me neither. But in 1976, this unlikely scenario became a reality at an amusement park in Long Beach, California.
Before we dive any deeper, let's start from the beginning. Born in 1880, Elmer McCurdy was known in the early 1900s as a bank robber. According to NPR, his specialty was explosives. You know the guy in the western who lights the fuse to blow a safe open so they can grab the goods? That was Elmer's job. But NRP goes on to note that he wasn't exactly a talented explosives expert. He once managed to blow up an entire bank, destroying everything except for the safe he was trying to bust open.
After a rather middling life of crime, Elmer was killed by authorities during a shootout in 1911. And that might have been the end of it. But, for Elmer McCurdy, death was only the beginning of his unique story.
Following his death, Elmer's body went unclaimed. The mortuary preserved the corpse as best it could with the hope that someone might come for him eventually. When that did not happen, the mortician decided to make the best of a bad situation by posing Elmer's corpse with a rifle and charging five cents a head for spectators to get a glimpse of the "Embalmed Bandit."
A few years went by with Elmer's body displayed as a local attraction and in 1916, a pair of carnival promoters decided to cash in on the spectacle. They told the mortician they were Elmer's brothers (they weren't) and said they wanted to bury him back home (they didn't). Once Elmer's body was in their possession, these promoters took it out on the road!
That's right. Elmer went national. SF Gate notes that Elmer's body was in decent shape for a dead man and that "his features remained remarkably lifelike" even as time passed.
Eventually, Elmer ended up on display in Los Angeles. One story has it that he was covered in wax and included in a wax museum before going into storage sometime in the 1930s or 1940s.
In the 1970s, Elmer's body went back on display in a series of west coast wax museums (it's possible that covered in wax, no one suspected the body to be real) before finding a home at the House of Horrors funhouse at The Pike in Long Beach, California.
This brings us back to the top of the page. During a 1976 taping of the ABC series The Six Million Dollar Man, someone in the props department went to move what he thought was a mannequin. But when he touched the body, an arm fell off. What he saw underneath did not look like a mannequin. At all. There was bone sticking out. The police were called.
Investigation Discovery explains that Elmer's body was eventually identified through the joint efforts of a coroner and a forensic anthropologist. They were able to determine is name and origin but yet again, no one came forward to claim Elmer's body.
Still, the media attention got him noticed and through volunteer efforts, Elmer McCurdy was returned to Oklahoma. His body was laid to rest on a rainy day in 1977 at Summit View Cemetery in the city of Guthrie. The Star-News reported at the time that over 300 people attended the funeral service, including children who had been excused from school in order to be there.
The Oklahoma Gazette reports that visitors left coins at Elmer's gravesite, likely in tribute to his afterlife as a roadside attraction. The newspaper credits minister Glenn Jordan as saying:
"We cannot condemn you because we don't know the conditions that existed in your
time. We realize now that you were a part of our heritage and a part of us, and
therefore with respect and decency we commit you to the earth."
Once Elmer's coffin was in the ground, a 4-inch layer of concrete was poured over the casket—just to be safe. Then, the dirt was filled in. To this day, people still leave coins at the base of his tombstone.
[Image credit: Elmer McCurdy photo via Wikimedia Commons and The Pike Amusement Park photo via Wikimedia Commons]