The Outlaw Whose Corpse Got Lost In A Haunted House

The Outlaw Whose Corpse Got Lost In A Haunted House

Haunted houses are a fine spectacle of simulated spookiness. No matter how frightening, you're safe in the knowledge that the only thing truly macabre are the lives of the out-of-work actors trying to jump-scare you. But wouldn't it be a shock to find that one of the unconvincing mannequins hanging from the ceiling is, in fact, the real corpse of a malevolent man hidden behind a waxy facade?

No, this isn't some half-assed Goosebumps reveal. It's the (after)life and story of Elmer McCurdy, a Wild West bandit whose body traveled the carnival circuit for over half a century. Not that his exploits as a gunslinger merited such postmortem fascination. In life, McCurdy was an underwhelming Oklahoma outlaw responsible for a string of incompetent bank and train robberies. After melting thousands of dollars in silver (by misjudging his explosives) and accidentally robbing the wrong train, McCurdy's string of bad luck finally caught up to him in 1911 when he was gunned down in a barnyard shootout. And there, the tale of Butterfingers McCurdy should have ended.

But whatever glorious infamy he chased in life, the robber would find in death. With no one bothering to claim his corpse, the undertaker in charge of his body turned him into a necromantic peep show. Visitors to the mortuary could insert a nickel into McCurdy's lifeless mouth for a chance to gaze upon one of the last so-called Wild West outlaws. He became such a popular attraction that local traveling carnivals would enter bidding wars to get their mitts on his corpse. Eventually, posing as McCurdy's long lost brothers, the owners of Patterson's traveling carnival managed to pry his cold dead hands from the undertaker.

The deadest hand in the West.

This was the beginning of McCurdy's Weekend At Bernie's style career as a traveling dead outlaw. And every time he was sold off to another carnival, parade, or movie premiere, his undeserved cowboy legend grew. First billed as "The Embalmed Bandit," he soon became "The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive," "The Famous Oklahoma Outlaw," and eventually "The Thousand-Year-Old Man." By this time, in the mid-20th century, McCurdy's embalmed body had lost a lot of its luster. Missing fingers, toes, and ears, his waxy skin bore little resembles the man (or any man) he once was. Then one day, the body slipped into total obscurity, shuffled away in the backroom of carny history as just another cheap wax curio.

Until, after a decade, he was rediscovered by accident by the TV crew of The Six Million Dollar Man, the least inflation-proof superhero in American history. While setting up to film inside the spooky funhouse of Queen's Park in Long Beach, California, a set hand tried to move what seemed to be a garish and unconvincing mannequin -- until one of its arms fell off, exposing real bone and atrophied muscle. Underneath the layers of glow-in-the-dark orange spray paint was the flesh-and-embalming-fluid body of Elmer McCurdy, a corpse pretending to be a mannequin pretending to be a corpse. Embarrassed that they had been having small children pay to come to see a dead body for over four years, the park shipped McCurdy back to Oklahoma. Finally, in 1976, McCurdy's body was put into the ground -- with the state of Oklahoma pouring several feet of concrete over his grave in case he ever considered doing another encore. 

For more weird Wild West tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: W. G. Boag

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