- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

By Mark Svenvold
Basic Books, $25, 312 pages, illus.

Elmer McCurdy's body now lies in a handsome, well-marked grave in Guthrie, Okla., where it was interred with pomp and circumstance on April 22, 1977. That evening, his burial was mentioned by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, no mean achievement for a two-bit criminal who was killed in a 1911 shootout with an Oklahoma sheriff and whose mummy had been discovered by accident in a Long Beach, Calif., amusement park funhouse called the "Laff-in-the-Dark," where, painted infrared, it served to scare kids and the sailors and their dates who frequented the park.
Who McCurdy was and how his mummified body found its way into that seamy spot a whole continent away from and nearly a century after he had been born in Washington, Maine, in 1880, is the subject of Mark Svenvold's marvelous new book, "Elmer McCurdy," aptly subtitled, "The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw."
In telling this man's poignant, pathetic, and relentlessly hilarious story, Mr. Svenvold, who has published two volumes of poetry, taps a rich vein of Americana that allows him to play with some great themes including the closing of the American frontier and the American and very human penchant for making heroic, larger-than-life myth out of times gone by.
Here are the facts. McCurdy's 17-year-old mother, Sadie, wasn't married when she brought Elmer into the world and that was the beginning of his problems. Sadie's sister and her husband adopted the baby, but when he was 10, McCurdy found out who his real mother was. He learned too that the man who fathered him might have been a cousin of his mother's, but even that wasn't certain, it might have been someone else.
What was certain was that news of his illegitimacy undid the boy, on this his biographers agree. He became "difficult," a wild kid whose pals were the "bad boys" of the small Maine towns he grew up in. Around 1900, McCurdy headed west, merging with what Mr. Svenvold calls the "floating population of tramps and hoboes" from all over the East who moved in the same direction.
In 1903, McCurdy surfaced in Iola, Kans., where he worked in a plumbing shop. He had also acquired a taste for booze and for boasting. McCurdy told a fellow employee that he had killed a man in another state. Whether true or not, his colleague told their emplyer and McCurdy got fired instantly, a fate that wouldn't have happened in that place a couple of decades or more earlier when frontiersmen wouldn't have paid much attention to McCurdy's claims.
But by 1903 law and order prevailed in Kansas or at least was trying very hard to, and that was part of McCurdy's problem: He was a guy looking for the wild West when the West was no longer wild. He tried the Army for a while and may have learned to use explosives from 1st Lt. Douglas MacArthur, later general, who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth when McCurdy was there.
It was after he left military service with an honorable discharge that McCurdy's life made the turn from which it never recovered. Like many young men who go bad, he fell among thieves. "It's hard to imagine a family more disastrously enamored with the mythic aura of legendary criminality that Walter Jarrett, his two older brothers, Glenn and Lee, and their younger brothers, Buster, Floyd, and Earl," writes Mr. Svenvold. "All of them seemed to share, the same, doomed sociopathic crimp in the chromosomes, dangerous to themselves and to anyone who crossed them."
The Jarretts and a few other lads of similar ilk were McCurdy's main chums and it was in their company he met his fate. In the spring of 1911, the men broke into the general store in Centralia, Okla., stealing ammunition and tools for use in future robberies.
That was their first crime and the only one that went well. Tough the gang might have been, but they weren't very bright, and they were inept, though inept seems a weak word to describe this outlaw band's comic levels of clumsiness.
Four times, for example, they tried to blow open the safe after they'd stopped a train during their first try at train robbery a few miles north of Lenapah, Okla. The fourth time, they succeeded, but after four big four explosions, they found the loot $4,000 in silver coin fused into a solid mass and stuck inside the walls of the safe.
One night a few weeks later, they turned their attentions to the Citizens State Bank in Chautauqua, Kans. This time, "The explosion blew the outer vault off its hinges and it played through the building's interior like a freight train, crushing everything in its path," Mr. Svenvold notes. Amazingly, no one in Chautauqua awoke. The gang's take? $150 to be divided among the three men who participated.
Those robberies were small potatoes to the big event the gang planned, robbery of the Osage payment train carrying money to the Osage Nation. The sum involved was big $400,000 and attractive to McCurdy and his fellow bandits for two reasons. It would make them rich. But equally important, it would make their name, landing them among the likes of Jesse and Frank James and other legendary outlaws.
Yet nothing went right. They chose the wrong train the loot they sought was on an Express running a few hours behind the one they stopped and then they discovered that their train did carry attractive cargo, kegs of beer and jugs of whiskey they immediately cracked open and began to consume with abandon.
An escape was attempted, but even here, their basic ineptness won out. Recent rains softened the earth, making their tracks easy to follow. The men got caught or, as in the case, of McCurdy, got killed when they resisted arrest. His body got piled on a buckboard and taken to Johnson's Funeral Home in nearby Pawhuska, Okla.
Barely 31 and now dead, McCurdy's story had only begun. First came the newspapers. The Fort Scott (Kans.) Tribune called McCurdy a "notable criminal" and "the leader of a gang of outlaws who have held up and robbed trains and banks and committed much of the outlawry of the past few years."
According to the Daily Oklahoman, he was "a desperado who refused to surrender." At Johnson's Funeral Home, hundreds filed past his casket in the days following his death. Then, over the next five years, the body now loaded with preservatives, thousands more paid their respects at Johnson's, where McCurdy's body it was called "Johnson's outlaw" remained unclaimed.
In October 1916, five years after the shootout, The Great Patterson Carnival Shows acquired the corpse, Patterson's owners claiming to be Elmer's long lost brothers. McCurdy crisscrossed the country, visiting small town and large alike, traveling greater distances in death than he had in life.
In 1927, the Louis Sonney Wax Museum of Crime in Los Angeles purchased the mummy. It was a place where wax figures of infamous criminals Bill Doolin, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and the like were displayed on one side of a large room, while at the other side were (inexplicably) wax images of each of the presidents of the United States. McCurdy, no wax image he, but the real thing, got a room all of his own room devoted to the "Oklahoma Bandit," where Louis Sonney spun tall tales about McCurdy's past to entertain visitors to the museum.
In 1927, McCurdy was part of C.C. Pyle's Transcontinental Footrace, a contest which took long distance runners on daily segments on a race that ran the whole length between Santa Monica and New York City. To give the race greater attraction, the runners were accompanied in every town they stopped in by a carnival of wonders that included a five-legged pig, a dog that talked with its ears and McCurdy in outlaw garb and tied in an upright coffin. New York Times reporter John Kieran described it as "one of the greatest attractions in the sideshow."
But from there it was mostly downhill for McCurdy. Back in L.A., he did get to play a bit part in one of Dwight Esner's sensatonal, grade-B films of the 1930s, "Sinister Harvest," where he was "Elmer McCready, one of the Greatest dope Addicts of All Time." The film eventually got viewed back in Pawhawska, where "Johnson's Outlaw'" was recognized as a home-town lad who had somehow made it to Hollywood and made a movie.
After that, not much is known about McCurdy's adventures until his 1976 discovery in the Long Beach amusement park funhouse. That discovery made during a filming of an episode of TV's "$6 Million Man" led to an autopsy which found that McCurdy had been suffering from severe foot bunions, TB and a very bad case indeed of trichinosis when he died.
It also led to his name being mentioned in the newpapers and on TV and to a group of history minded citizens in Guthrie, Okla., who thought it would help bring tourists to their fair city if they brought McCurdy back to Oklahoma, except for his jaw. Somewhere between the time McCurdy left the funhouse and the moment he arrived in Guthrie, someone had broken off his chin, the wereabouts of which remain unknown.
Mr. Svenvold's book is a pleasure to read. He writes prose that is crystal clear and he's a first-rate storyteller. He also packs the book with pertinent material that's fun to read. It wasn't Horace Greeley, for example, who first advised, "Go West, Young Man," although that quip is almost always attributed to him. It was the now forgotten John Babsone Lane Soule of the Terre Haute (Ind.) Express who first uttered it and that was in 1851. It's impossible to imagine McCurdy's exceptional story being ever told better than it is here. This is a very funny book and it's often a very wise one, too.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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