The Long, Strange, 60-Year Trip of Elmer McCurdy
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Underground" episode. And you may think we're speaking figuratively when we speak of the underground, but not today. Come with me. Imagine yourself walking into an antique boardwalk amusement parlor, take one step down. Watch your next step - there, there, careful, careful. There's so little light there. Imagine now, you take a seat in the car. The attendant slides the arm-bar closed, and with a jerk, the car lurches forward, the door to the entrance slam open into the House of Horrors.
On your left - a blood spattered torture chamber, an iron maiden. The car makes a sharp, 90 degree turn and now, you're flying past an axe murderer. At the end of the ride, you see a ghostly, glowing figure floating in the distance, cobwebs brush against your face. You get closer and suddenly (Screaming) a light shines on the figure. It's a man hanging from a noose. Now, you can say, please, these kind of rides don't scare you. They're for kids. Maybe.
So imagine instead that the theme park has been closed, abandoned and you're walking around in the boarded up House of Horrors. And now, the rubber faces of the victims look even more weirdly grotesque with the lights on. Perhaps, it's because it's clear how truly lifeless they are. And wandering around this abandoned ride, that's just what the crew of a TV show did in 1977. They were getting ready to shoot an episode right there, and they needed to move the hanged man. Even though he was painted neon orange, he was weirdly realistic.
The crew guessed he was made out of paper mache. The crewmen grabbed him, tried to pull him down and the hangman's arm ripped right off. Everyone laughed at first, until they took a closer look. Inside the arm was a human bone. The hanged man was a real, mummified corpse. The police were called, who then called the paramedics reporting a case of severe dehydration. When the paramedics showed up, everyone had a grand old laugh. This completely bizarre scenario made it easy for people to poke fun, but this was a corpse of a real man who led a real life.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office attempted to pin down exactly who this man was. The coroner found gunshot wounds in the body with bullets from the turn of the century. And strangely, they also found a corroded penny in the body's mouth dated 1924 and several ticket stubs to a wax museum. All this evidence pointed toward one name, Elmer McCurdy. Elmer was a man that could not catch a break. He lived in the early 1900s. He'd been an orphan and later in life, he kept losing jobs because of his alcoholism. He suffered from tuberculosis due to his time working the lead mines and eventually, Elmer turned to a life of crime.
His specialty was explosives - blowing open safes. Only problem was, Elmer was terrible at it. In fact, one time, Elmer blew apart entire bank, but in the morning, the only thing they found standing was the safe - unscratched and unharmed. Later, Elmer tried to hijack a train that was supposed to have $400,000 on it, only to discover the safe was empty. Elmer had hijacked the wrong train and this time, the authorities were ready. Elmer and his crew fled up into the hills but they couldn't cover their tracks.
The next morning, the police found Elmer hiding out in a barn and after a brief shootout, they killed him with a shot to the chest. But no one claimed Elmer's body. He had no family. He didn't even have any friends who cared enough to give him a memorial. And so Joseph L. Johnson, a funeral director, took his body preserved it with a huge amount of embalming fluid laced with arsenic, effectively mummifying him. Johnson was so proud of his handiwork that he stood Elmer up on two feet right there in his funeral parlor and charged people money to come see him. The payment was placed in Elmer's open mouth.
At one point, Johnson's children even put roller skates on him and rolled him about chasing smaller children in some morbid, slapstick prank. Eventually, a man claiming to be Elmer's long-lost brother, showed up at the funeral parlor incensed, demanding to get his brother's body back so he could give him a decent burial, and preserve his tarnished dignity. Two weeks later, Elmer popped up as the main attraction at a carnival in West Texas. No peace for Elmer, in fact, his struggles in death rivaled those in his life.
Elmer made the rounds at the sideshow and carnival circuits - headlining next to bearded ladies and five-legged pigs. And while he was subjected to a number of injustices during the tour - including the time a guy ripped off his arm and chased his secretary around the office with it, Elmer was achieving a type of immortality. He was billed as an outlaw. He went down in history as a cowboy and a train robber. And even though he'd never successfully had blown a safe in his lifetime, Elmer's hard, wrinkled body was placed next to the exhibit of Billy the Kid.
That is, 'til the late '60s. By this time, Elmer had been passed from hand to hand. His value lessening each time as traveling freak show carnivals had become gimmicky and unfashionable. Eventually, one of his new owners drilled a hole into the back of his neck. They say a yellowish goo seeped out when they did so. Elmer was put into a contraption in a haunted house where he'd appear to twitch and jiggle when cars rode by. They called him the Thousand-Year-Old Man.
And there, as he twitched alone in the haunted house, even Elmer's name was stripped from him. Someone eventually coated Elmer in several layers of glow-in-the-dark spray paint and hung him from a noose. The hanged man. But, back to 1977 - with Elmer lying in the coroner's office, the coroner cross-referenced his body with what they knew about Elmer McCurdy. The tuberculosis in the lungs, the scar on the wrist - they declared this corpse to be Elmer. And after 60 years, Elmer was himself again.
WASHINGTON: They decided to give Elmer a proper burial this time. They shipped him to Guthrie, Oklahoma, the place where he had died. People dressed as mourners. A bowl was put out for donations. An army of press snapped pictures. And they poured six feet of concrete over Elmer's body to make sure that this would be his very last show. Now then, the best book that we've read about Elmer in researching this story was "Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of American Outlaw," By Mark Svenvold. Check it out. That story was produced by Stephanie Foo. When SNAP continues, someone wants the king drawn and quartered, and we here at SNAP are not going to stand idly by when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Underground" episode continues. Stay tuned.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.