From 1902 to 1979, “The Pike” in Long Beach, California was a premiere location for family fun and excitement. Packed with rides and amusements, it entertained generations of Californians and tourists. One of the rides, a funhouse, featured skeletons, monsters and a gallows with one extremely realistic victim hanging from it. In life that corpse was known as Elmer McCurdy, but no one realized that they had a real dead man hanging in their haunt until decades later.
Elmer McCurdy was born in 1880 to an unwed 17-year-old Sadie McCurdy in Washington, Maine. Saving herself the shame of being a single mom, she had her brother and his wife adopt Elmer, a fact Elmer learned of when he was a teenager. The news sent Elmer down a path of delinquency and heavy drinking. After arrests for public intoxication and loosing his job as a plumber, Elmer joined the Army. Stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Elmer was a machine gunner, but also briefly trained in explosives.
After an honorable discharge in 1910, Elmer teamed up with some of his Army buddies to carry out a short-lived and not-so-successful life of crime. In March of 1911, Elmer and his crew planned out the robbery of an Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train as it traveled past Lenapah, Oklahoma. Although successful in stopping the train and locating its safe, containing $4,000 dollars, Elmer’s lack of knowledge in explosives became extremely evident. The blast nearly destroyed the entire train car and did destroy thousands of dollars contained inside the safe. The gang was, however, able to make it off with $450 dollars in silver coins.
In 1911, his crew attempted the robbery of The Citizens Bank of Chautauqua, Kansas. Once again using his cursory knowledge of explosives, Elmer attempted to blow off the bank vault door. In what would have made a great scene for Cohen brothers’ movie, Elmer managed to blow up the bank, but leave the vault completely intact. Elmer tried once more to blow the door off of the vault, however the charge failed to ignite. The gang cut their losses, grabbed what little coins they could find in the rubble and ran off into the night. Elmer was then held up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma where he spent most of his time getting drunk.
Then on October 4, 1911, Elmer heard of train traveling with $400,000 dollars in cash. Unfortunately, Elmer and his gang stopped the wrong train. Although they stole far less than $400K, they did manage to relieve the passengers on board of $46, two jugs of whiskey, and the train conductor’s watch. A posse was soon organized to chase down the gang. The gang split up, and Elmer sought refuge in a barn where he spent the majority of his time getting drunk on the two jugs of whiskey he had stolen. On October 7, 1911, three sheriff’s deputies showed up at the barn. A piss-drunk Elmer began taking shots at the deputies, none of which came close to hitting the mark. In the end Elmer was taken down by a single gunshot to the chest, his body found next to an empty jug of whiskey. However, this would be only the beginning of Elmer McCurdy’s strange journey.
His body was taken to Johnson funeral home where it remained unclaimed. As was the practice of the time, the funeral director embalmed the body with an arsenic based fluid that would preserve it for a longer period of time until it could be claimed. Refusing to release the body to anyone until he was paid for his service, Elmer remained at Johnson Funeral Home. Trying to recoup his losses, the funeral director dressed Elmer in street clothes, gave him a rifle and propped him up in the corner where he charged a few bits a gander. Then in 1916, two men claiming to be Elmer’s long lost brothers showed up to claim the body. The two men James and Charles Patterson were in fact carnival owners, and of no relation to Elmer. Instead of giving Elmer a final burial, they put his body on display as part of their traveling carnival. For decades, the body passed from carnival to carnival. With each new owner Elmer’s backstory would change. In 1933, he was purchased by Dwain Esper and used to promote his film NARCOTIC. Elmer found himself in the lobby of several theaters where he was touted as a drug addict killed by police during a robbery. In 1949, Elmer made his way to Los Angeles, where he was placed in storage and remained there until 1964. He was lent out to filmmaker David F. Friedman who gave Elmer his first screen credit in the 1967 film SHE FREAK.
Elmer changed hands yet again as he was sold, along with several wax figures, to The Hollywood Wax Museum. After a brief time on display, Elmer was sent to Canada where he was put on display as part of an exhibit on Mount Rushmore. Finding Elmer to be too gruesome and not life-like enough, the body was returned to Los Angeles, where he was sold to Ed Liersch, the owner of the Pike Amusement Zone.
Then in 1976, a strange discovery was made during a taping of the television show THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN at Pike Amusement Zone. The art director on the shoot was making a few last minute changes to the fun house set when he decided to move a wax dummy hanging from the gallows. In doing so, the art director accidentally tore the arm off of the dummy. While attempting to glue the arm back on, he discovered bone and muscle and immediately called the police. An autopsy and a trace of the corpses bill of sale identified the “wax” dummy as none other than Elmer McCurdy.
Elmer was finally laid to rest on April 22, 1977 in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In order to make sure that this would be the final stop in Elmer’s tour, a two-foot-deep layer of concrete was poured over the body. So rest in peace Elmer McCurdy. You traveled farther in death than some people ever have in life.