Elmer McCurdy’s arm fell off

by Richard Goldstein writes the Western Gems column for The Examiner

He wasn’t much of an outlaw, as outlaws go, but Elmer McCurdy, in spite of himself, will have his place in American history anyway.

He probably thought of himself as having been born too late, having missed the “glory years” of American outlawry, the period from the Civil War to the end of the 19th century. But Elmer wasn’t one to let a little thing like that stop him. He would become an outlaw anyway.

In March 1911, McCurdy formed a small gang and robbed a train near Coffeyville, Kan., getting a pitiful amount of loot for their trouble. They may have also committed some other insignificant holdups in the next few months, but there is not enough evidence to be certain.

By October, the gang was hungry again, and on Oct. 4, they held up a Missouri, Kansas and Texas train near Okesa, Okla. (Some researchers claim that it was a Missouri-Pacific train.) Again, they failed to collect much of value. (It is interesting to note that in both of their unsuccessful robberies, the outlaws narrowly missed holding up trains which actually were carrying large payrolls and valuables.)

McCurdy’s share from the second robbery consisted of $45 and two jugs of whiskey, which he made quick use of. When a posse caught up with him three days after the robbery, he was dead drunk, and very shortly was no longer drunk, but just dead, having been killed in what the posse members reported to be a shootout.

The outlaw’s body was taken to nearby Pawhuska for identification and burial. When no one claimed the body, the undertaker stuck it in a corner of his shop where it stayed for five years. Somehow, a traveling sideshow came into possession of Elmer’s embalmed remains, and exhibited him around the country for years as “The Famous Oklahoma Outlaw,” and at times as an ancient cadaver. After a few years, it was forgotten that his was the body of a real person.

The “lucky” outlaw spent his next years as an exhibit in a freak show, and coated with wax as a dummy in a wax museum, right next to the wax figure of the famous Oklahoma outlaw Bill Doolin. He may even have been a prop in an episode of a popular TV show. It is said that while he was part of the wax museum display, a buyer of wax dummies refused to purchase him because he did not think he looked lifelike enough.

Finally, in the 1970s, it was decided to use Elmer and other wax figures for a motion picture. But, Elmer’s body had taken all of the beating it could stand. One of his arms fell off. An autopsy concluded that McCurdy was killed while lying down, probably while drunk, and was dying from pneumonia at the time.

It was figured out who the cadaver was, and it was shipped back to Guthrie, Okla., where, 66 years after his death, he was buried in the Summit View Cemetery, right next to, guess who, Bill Doolin, his former neighbor in the wax museum. This time, Elmer was back to stay. A load of concrete was poured over the grave to keep him from straying again.