The Bonkers Life And Death Of History's Dumbest Outlaw Cowboy
Every Wild West cowboy wanted to become a legend. Even if only slightly, there had to be some part of them that was mostly out there robbing trains and banks because it had already become so popular and romanticized that they thought they would join in on the fun. The problem was, by the time most of them got around to it, the whole thing had kind of been blown up, and there wasn’t much room for any more.
It’s kind of like someone trying to break into Twitch this late in the scene. Only, in this version, you’ve got four viewers (three devices in your own cowboy home pointed at your stream, and one dude in Romania just praying you’ll show your cowboy feet beneath them boots) sitting there spamming dogshit internet chat memes while you struggle to rob that damn bank. By the time any of these later-stage outlaws got around to any Wild West shenanigans, they were more likely to be shot dead and forgot about right there in the street.
But one particularly forgettable outlaw broke through all the noise, and it all only really began in earnest after he was shot dead and forgot about. This is the story of Elmer McCurdy and the outlaw corpse that wouldn’t die ...
Weekend at Elmer’s: The Prologue
Elmer McCurdy wasn’t always dead; in fact, records show he actually had a prolonged period of what medical science calls “being alive.” Born in Maine in 1880, Elmer had a relatively standard early life for those times. Of course, my vision of standard in the late 1880s would be that young Elmer was tasked with the family’s possum duty by three. I picture every kid in those times got possum duty. Where they had a nightly job of standing on the old wooden porch as waves upon waves of feisty, old-time possums came swarming the home, trying to raid and ravage it, and he had to stand his ground and wrestle and kick and bite the possums to death until there were no more possums coming around. Until tomorrow. Until the great possum swarm resumes.
Though there’s no evidence that McCurdy was on the beaches of possum Normandy, the one aspect of his upbringing that we do know helped set him on his course to cowboy activities was his status as an illegitimate child. Embarrassed, his birth mother sent Elmer to live with her brother, who raised him to believe he and his wife were his real parents. Upon finding out the truth when he was 17, Elmer kind of lost his shit. He is said to have drawn inward and turned to the bottle after learning the news. Now again, remember, this is the old days, so turning to the bottle didn’t mean Elmer threw back a few cold ones that night and had a good cry. It means he would now exclusively drink out of a brown medicine bottle filled to the brim with a super booze that would make insects fall out the trees overhead every time he popped the cork for his first morning first sip.
It’s following this downturn that Elmer becomes something of a drifter. Working mostly as a plumber, McCurdy drifts from job to job, presumably, dropping sticks of dynamite into clogged outhouses because what the hell else could a plumber even do back then? His wandering eventually brings him from the East Coast, all the way out to Kansas, where he enlists in the Army. Already deep down a more rebellious and ornery path, you’ll be shocked to find out that the Army didn’t work out too well for Elmer, who was honorably discharged just a few years later. But he did pick up one important little skill in there: McCurdy was trained in nitroglycerin for blowing shit up. And every good cowboy crew needs the guy who’s good at blowing shit up.
His first brush with the law was minor: He was picked up in Kansas for having a bunch of shit on him that sure looked like he was about to do some burglaring of the non-hamburger variety. Gunposwer, saws, money sacks, the standards. On trial, McCurdy was able to walk by convincing the judge that his weird guy stash wasn’t for robbing, but it was because he was working on his own invention for a brand new type of machine gun that was foot-powered. And, because the Wild West truly did live up to its name more often than not, the judge, of course, was more than satisfied to learn that this man wasn’t into robbing; he was just into machine gun making. From this, though, McCurdy got to work on the actual badass cowboy lifestyle.
One Shitty Cowboy
So that last sentence might not be totally true, as McCurdy definitely started to fall into the cowboy world, but he was far from a badass one. Actually, he kind of sucked at the whole robbing, shooting, bandana guy thing. The first evidence of this came in his very first real cowboying attempt. Now in Oklahoma, McCurdy was brought on to the crew to be their explosives guy because of his background in the Army. The train they were robbing had a safe on board with $4,000 inside, and someone would have to blow their way in. McCurdy was the man for the job. He just kind of forgot about the whole thing where safes keep the valuables inside and went ahead and blew the entire thing clean up, destroying everything. A clear sign that McCurdy had lied on his cowboy resume. Something that had to make the posse leader take closer inspection at his skills section, which read: “Horse riding, train jumping onto, train jumping off of, probably can do that thing where I spin the wheel around on my gun, I’ve worn hats, just trust me, I’m definitely a cowboy, it’s fine.”
After the crew’s first failed heist, they went for a bank. And again, McCurdy goofed up. This time, his explosives were too impotent, failing to blow up the safe door. Yet, he still remained with the crew for another mission to go after a huge score on yet another train. They believed the train they were hitting had $400,000 in cash aboard just waiting for them. The problem was, they picked the wrong train and ended up sticking up a passenger train for $46, a bit of whiskey, and a gun. After his third try at the whole cowboy thing was proving that he would never reach true outlaw status, McCurdy was gunned down by sheriffs on October 7, 1911. For most cowboys still lingering around at the time, this would have been the end of the ride for them. For poor Elmer McCurdy, it was only just beginning.
The Cowboy Corpse
With his body under the watch of a local undertaker and absolutely nobody coming to claim his ass, McCurdy was embalmed in arsenic. The undertaker was on some pretty weird shit where he seemingly went a bit out of order here, refusing to bury the man until someone claimed him and just up and Han Solo-ing him instead. Because nobody was coming around for the weird, dead, pseudo-cowboy corpse, the undertaker did what anybody would do next: he started putting the weird, dead, pseudo-cowboy corpse on display outside of his place. Dubbing him “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” he’d encourage passersby to put a coin in his mouth on their way by the store. A tactic that we might want to reintroduce. I’m far more willing to get roped into a restricting cell phone plan if I can jam nickels into a dead dude’s mouth outside the T-Mobile store instead of doing everything in my power to not make sad eye contact with the sign spinner on his last legs.
Months passed with the undertaker’s totally cool, totally normal lawn gnome outside before a few men appeared claiming to be Elmer’s brothers. They were here to collect his body. Though suspicious of their claims, the undertaker relented and gave him over to them anyway. Of course, because this was a time when there were about ten honest people in any city, and the rest were grifters working on a scam, these two dudes were not his brothers but a couple of carnival operators running their own show. Like how a chef might visit a restaurant he likes to try and figure out the recipe on his favorite dish to emulate … these guys … uh … stole a corpse they liked to put on their own weird corpse show instead. It was here that McCurdy became one of the most well-traveled dead people of all time, with these men taking him on a roaming tour as part of their carnival. The “Embalmed Bandit” was something of a hit. And why wouldn’t he be? Entertainment in those days was a bit different. Where today you might only need to flip open your phone for a getaway, people in the turn of the century were heading down the street to poke dead people and throw coins into their faces.
After doing his rounds on the carnival scene for a while, McCurdy’s body was eventually moved on to yet another owner. This time, in 1922, to Louis Sonney, a man who operated a traveling “Museum of Crime” with a bunch of wax figures of famous criminals. I guess he was looking to take that next step up as a collector, from the replicas to the real damn thing. It was in this ownership where McCurdy would stay for a while, being paraded out in different events and venues for people to continue messing with. He was even used as a prop for the film Narcotic!, one of those old-timey movies that were all about scaring people straight. This one was about drugs, and McCurdy was put into theater seats to show people what a real “dead dope fiend” looked like. At the very least, I hope people had transitioned to popping Milk Duds in the poor dude’s mouth at this point to give him a little break from all that coin eating.
McCurdy Gets Some Rest
As time wore on, people became less interested in the messed-up cowboy corpse attraction. With genuine entertainment gaining steam by then, people just didn’t need to go use a dead cowboy like a Wrestling Buddy to practice their Stone Cold Stunners on. Thrown into storage, he was eventually sold in the late-60s to the Hollywood Wax Museum, where he was sent out on loan to another local sideshow. McCurdy’s body was essentially a below-average minor league ballplayer, just being shipped from shitty town to shitty town, trying to breakthrough. During his transportation, they strapped his dead ass to the roof of the car like a cowboy Christmas tree, and his ears, toes, and fingers blew off in a windstorm. A slightly shittier version of when you get stuck behind that dump truck that’s spilling out over the top. Without his facial features, his new owner didn’t love the look anymore, so Elmer was sold once again. This time, to The Pike, a California amusement park, where McCurdy was covered in neon paint and strapped to the ceiling of a haunted house.
Though you’d think this is it for Elmer. His final indignity. Now looking like a laser tag prop in the rafters of a haunted house, he could maybe finally find some peace and quiet. But, of course, if there’s anything we know about this story is that he’s never truly done. When the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man came to The Pike to shoot an episode, a crew member went to move the neon prop, and a real, genuine human arm fell off, revealing bone and tissue and all that human stuff that’s in actual humans. Understandably concerned, the body was reported, and McCurdy was taken to the coroner. Finally, after an autopsy revealed his true identity, Elmer McCurdy was free from his duties as the dead traveling cowboy and laid to rest in an actual cemetery. To make sure he stayed there, he was buried under two feet of concrete so that nobody could come back and make a sequel to this terrible ride that he had already been put through.
Top image: Via Atlas Obscura