31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.
Grave of Elmer McCurdy (photograph by the author)
The flat green field of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, is scattered with the low granite monuments of the recently deceased and the rough concrete tombstones handmade by pioneers who roamed into this first state capital before it got stolen away by Oklahoma City. Yet there’s one curious tombstone that hovers between the new and the old Wild West. Chunks of its grey stone have been chipped away from its edges by visitors, and its curious epitaph reads:
Shot by Sheriff’s Posse
in Osage Hills.
On Oct. 7, 1911
Returned to Guthrie, Okla.
From Los Angeles County.
For burial Apr. 22, 1977
The story of those over six decades of posthumous wandering is a strange one, ending with a sideshow mummy that everyone had forgotten was real, until a careless person broke off its fluorescent-painted arm and was horrified to see an unmistakably human bone jutting from the shriveled flesh.
Elmer McCurdy pre- and post-embalming
Even though he’d claimed to have killed a man, Elmer McCurdy was a lousy outlaw, having only been arrested once for being drunk. Then he tried his hand at train robbing. The first attempt was in March of 1911 near Lenapah, Oklahoma. Although the train was carrying a substantial amount of silver, he pretty much melted it all with the explosives he employed to blast open the safe. He later made the exact same mistake in a Chautauqua, Kansas, bank.
Then there was another go at it that October, where he joined a group attempting to rob a train near Okesa, Oklahoma, that they believed was laden with the Osage tribal payments, but they got the timetables wrong and hit a passenger train instead, making off with just over $40 and a few jugs of whiskey. McCurdy seemed to take it in stride, or at least take kindly to the whiskey, and he was found imbibing in a barn near Bartlesville by law enforcement. Perhaps it was the liquid courage that made him declare he wouldn’t be taken alive, and he was subsequently obliged in the shoot out.
But what notoriety he hadn’t achieved as an outlaw, he was about to get as a corpse. The funeral director in Pawhuska preserved him in arsenic fluid until proper identification by authorities, after which he waited for any relatives. None showed, but the director didn’t seem to bothered, gleefully posing McCurdy in his shop in suspenders, a broad hat, and a gun slung in his lifeless hands. Visitors could pay a nickel to see the dead train robber, and one of the more whimsical local recollections even asserts that the funeral director put him on roller skates so the mummified McCurdy could suddenly lunge out of a corner, surely much to the delight of anyone visiting a funeral home.
The deterioration of Elmer McCurdy into an anonymous sideshow mummy
In 1916, some relatives finally did turn up, or at least that’s who they claimed to be. In fact, they were carnival owners who began displaying McCurdy themselves around the country as the outlaw who never gave up. Later he made it into a wax museum, and this is where people started to forget that this waxy character actually had a real life before his display. After a bit part creeping in the background of the schlocky 1967 horror film She Freak, McCurdy lurked his way into the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California, where he was displayed dressed as a cowboy (at least by coincidence his distant identity had somehow lingered in his clothes), and was hanging from a noose. He was coated in grotesque neon paint, and by then all memory that this mummy was actually a real mummy had totally faded.
Homemade concrete tombstones in Summit View Cemetery (photograph by the author)
That’s why, in late 1976 during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, a crew member got such a sickening shock to see how the accidentally broken arm showed a real skeletal fracture. Through forensics that turned up curious clues like a ticket to the Los Angeles Museum of Crime and a penny from 1924 in his dry mouth, his story was eventually traced back to Oklahoma. He was soon shipped back to the state where he met his demise, and a hearse that hadn’t been used since 1913 was dusted off and hitched to two white horses for a procession to Summit View Cemetery. There he was finally put to rest, and then a concrete truck standing by filled in his grave so that the mummy of Elmer McCurdy could go wandering no more.
THE GRAVE OF ELMER MCCURDY, Guthrie, Oklahoma
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