October 7, 1911
Osage Hills, Oklahoma
Bank robber Elmer McCurdy is killed during a shootout, his body eventually becoming a prop in a haunted house
McCurdy and his gang intended to rob a train carrying a $400,000 (roughly $10.5 million in 2018) royalty payment to the Osage Nation, but they attacked the wrong train; the one they robbed was a passenger train. The bandits made off with $46, some whiskey, a coat, and a watch. Despite the paltry haul, a $2,000 reward was offered for McCurdy’s arrest. Sheriffs tracked McCurdy and his gang down, and McCurdy was killed by a single gunshot wound to his chest.
McCurdy’s body was brought to a funeral home and was embalmed with an arsenic-based preservative, typically used on bodies that were not immediately claimed (the formula preserved the bodies longer to allow time for the remains to be claimed). With no one stepping forward to claim McCurdy, and in turn pay for the services rendered by the funeral home, the undertaker decided to display McCurdy’s corpse to recoup some of the cost of McCurdy’s embalming.
McCurdy’s corpse, billed as “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” and “The Embalmed Bandit,” drew a large audience, large enough to make sideshow promoters take notice. Though many made offers, the funeral home declined all.
Until the day before the fifth anniversary of McCurdy’s death.
On October 6, 1916, two men claiming to be McCurdy’s long-lost brothers came to claim his body which was released to them for burial. In actuality, one of the men owned a traveling carnival and obtained the embalmed body to display. McCurdy traveled with the carnival until he was sold in 1922, and traded hands often enough to lose his identity. He was also kept fresh-looking by layers of wax and paint. By the 60s, McCurdy easily passed for just another wax model.
In 1976, while filming an episode for The Six Million Dollar Man, a crew member moved what was assumed to be a prop and accidentally broke the “mannequin’s” arm. As the crew attempted to repair the broken arm, they noticed a bone protruding from the joint. The body was examined and found to have been killed by a gunshot wound to the chest. With thorough investigation, McCurdy’s identity slowly unraveled as keys to his life — and life after death — were discovered. The type of embalming fluid used and a bullet jacket found in his chest helped narrow down a timeframe, and ticket stubs to two of the sideshow locations McCurdy’s body resided were found in his mouth. A call to one of the establishments stated the body was that of McCurdy and a forensic anthropologist confirmed the statement.
As news of McCurdy’s postmortem ordeals spread, funeral homes began offering to lay him to rest, free of charge. He was buried in Oklahoma with approximately 300 in attendance. To prevent any further commercialization of his body, two feet of concrete was poured over his coffin.
McCurdy’s body soon after his death
A side-by-side comparison of McCurdy shortly after his death and after his body was rediscovered