The True Tale of Elmer McCurdy: My Family’s Ghost Story

The bizarre yet true tale of one of my ancestors, Elmer McCurdy, is an example of when the dead don’t die (cue Sturgill Simpson now).

My dad shared with me that all McCurdy’s in the U.S. were descended from the same Scottish family that came here many years ago – therefore we claim Elmer McCurdy as a long lost uncle. He is notably the most famous family member I have, but famous for the wrong reasons.

What makes his story so bizarre is that he was not laid to rest until 66 years after his death.  He had just as much of an interesting life after death as he had during his life. He’s the outlaw that just wouldn’t give up and still haunted the living…

His gravestone is modest and includes the details on his return from Los Angeles for burial in 1977. There’s not enough space on stone to begin to tell the full story of how he ended up in L.A. to begin with (because he actually died in my native state of Oklahoma in 1911).

Summit View Cemetery

Elmer was an infamous bank robber in the west. He also was not the most skilled because he made some rookie mistakes (for example he would use explosives that would end up melting the silver he wanted to steal).

In October 1911 he decided to rob a train at the Oklahoma and Kansas border. The train he was wanting to rob would have been carrying Native American tribal payments, but instead he got the train schedule incorrect and ended up robbing the wrong train. All he got was $46 and two jugs of whiskey for his efforts and inability to properly check the train schedule.

Summit View Cemetery, Guthrie OK

The unfruitful robbery also costed poor Elmer his life. Him and his accomplices fled to barn and when police found him they shot him dead.

His body was taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska, OK. Sadly, no one claimed his body. The owner of the funeral parlor decided that he would capitalize on having this famous bandit in his possession.  He would charge local gawkers to stop by the funeral parlor and pay a nickel to see the famous bandit by slipping the coin through his lips.

Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie, OK

After some carnies heard about this funeral home profiting on a dead body, they figured it would be the perfect business plan for them to acquire him and gain some extra cash for their sideshow. They knew the funeral home would not sell it outright, so they lied and claimed they were indeed Elmer’s relatives.

The funeral home was either very trusting or just wanted to get rid of Elmer. All it took for these carnies to get his body and take it around the United States was a lie.  They would charge visitors across the nation to come and see “the bandit who wouldn’t give up”.

The gun the police used to kill Elmer on display at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie, OK

As the years passed, Elmer would continue to be passed around to other sideshows, wax museums, haunted attractions – and all the while, the fact that he was a real dead body was ignored and instead he was blending in as a prop.

In 1976, Elmer ended up in Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California in the “Laff in the Dark” fun house attraction.  By this point he was assumed to be a typical dummy prop and all the workers at the park thought as much.

Later that year, film crews were setting up to film an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man at the park and in doing so, one crew member moved or bumped into Elmer detaching his arm and exposing a human bone.

Police were called to the scene to investigate. After doing DNA testing the medical examiners and authorities discovered that this was no dummy, but the long forgotten bandit, Elmer McCurdy. McCurdy’s decade long afterlife as a posthumous side-show attraction began to be unveiled.

In 1977, Elmer would finally be laid to rest at Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, OK.  Concrete was poured over the top of his casket to ensure no one else would be able to profit from him as a sideshow act and so that he could get some much needed peace and quiet.

I visited ole uncle Elmer’s grave two weeks ago to pay my respect for his untimely demise and for his willingness to not give up.

If you want to relive his tale and life in an exciting ballad, check out “The Ballad of Elmer McCurdy” below by Mustard’s Retreat. 

Stay spooky friends (and check your fun house dummies),

Callie Jo


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