The Strange Story Of Elmer McCurdy – The Outlaw Whose Body Became A Film Prop

In the 1970s, the crew on The Six Million Dollar Man set got the shock of their lives – one of the "prop" bodies being used in a haunted house scene was a real dead body. It was soon obvious that the man was nearly mummified, and the crew was not responsible for his death. But the question remained: who was the man hanging from the funhouse ceiling?

Elmer McCurdy was a much more interesting man in death than he was in life. In reality, the now-infamous train robber had a very short and unsuccessful career as a wild west outlaw. His true career began after he was killed. When no one claimed his corpse, it was expertly embalmed and spent its immediate afterlife (around 60 years of it, at least) wandering across America. A sideshow performer, movie extra, prop at a wax museum – that body did it all. McCurdy's corpse may be resting peacefully today, but it sure took him a while to make it to his grave.

  • A Technician Noticed Something Was Amiss When What Should Have Been Papier-Mâché Looked Like Human Tissue

    It was just another day for the crew of The Six Million Dollar Man, shooting an episode called "Carnival of Spies" at the Nu Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. The goal that day was to get a shot of Steve Austin riding a spooky ride called the Laff in the Dark. Laff in the Dark was filled with haunted-house characters: demons, skeletons, and other terrifying ghouls.

    However, the crew got a little more than they bargained for; one of the technicians went to move a hanging body, and the arm broke off. He went to glue the arm back on but noticed that there were actual layers of tissue and bone at the fissure, not plastic or papier-mâché. It was a real human body.

  • Experts Found A Bullet, A Penny, And A Museum Ticket Inside McCurdy's Body

    When McCurdy's body was first discovered, law enforcement officials had no idea who he was. They took x-rays and bone measurements and examined his teeth in an effort to determine his identity. However, since his fingers were damaged, they couldn't pull fingerprints. The coroner was able to determine that he had undergone a previous postmortem examination, and a bullet was still inside his body.

    Further clues inside McCurdy included "a 1924 penny and a ticket from Sonney Amusement’s Museum of Crime in Los Angeles." The ticket and archived newspaper articles were what eventually led police to his identity.

  • Nobody Came To Claim His Body, So An Undertaker Turned McCurdy Into An Attraction
    Photo: W. G. Boag / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Nobody Came To Claim His Body, So An Undertaker Turned McCurdy Into An Attraction

    When he was killed by police in 1911, McCurdy was far from home, and no family members came to pick up his body from the funeral home. The mortician, seeing a lucrative business opportunity, decided to keep McCurdy's body around and put it to work. He propped it up in the corner of the shop, and charged visitors 5 cents to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up." Each person put the change in McCurdy's mouth, where the mortician collected it from later. It was a true money-maker, and the mortician ran the little sideshow for around five years. Many people made offers to buy the corpse, but he turned them all down.

  • His Body Was Extremely Well-Preserved, Considering What He'd Been Through

    Elmer McCurdy hadn't just been preserved – he had nearly been mummified. The mortician that had originally taken custody of his body after he died in 1911 had embalmed him with so much arsenic his body had barely decomposed over almost seven decades. He had been shipped around the country, put on display, used as a prop, and hung from a noose. He had even been painted fluorescent orange so he would glow better while on display at the funhouse. But in spite of everything his body had been through, his true identity was eventually discovered.

  • In Life, Elmer McCurdy Was A Petty Thief With A Passion For Explosions

    Born in Maine in 1880, Elmer McCurdy's early life was uninspiring. He moved to the Midwest, drifted around not doing much of anything, and eventually signed up for the Army in 1910. His time in the service wasn't much to talk about either. Apparently, the most memorable thing about McCurdy's time in the Army was his love of nitroglycerin demolitions. 

    After discovering his passion for blowing things up in the Army, McCurdy attempted to use his new skill for other ventures – primarily, robbing trains. However, his first robbery did not go according to plan. While trying to rob a Pacific Express Company train, McCurdy used too much nitro and melted $4,000 of silver into a massive blob. He and his partners frantically tried to pry it off the walls but only came away with about $450 in silver. The other men were not exactly impressed, and they chose to part ways with McCurdy.

  • He Was Killed By Police After Robbing A Train Of "$46 And Two Jugs Of Whiskey"
    Photo: Edwin S. Porter / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Was Killed By Police After Robbing A Train Of "$46 And Two Jugs Of Whiskey"

    Armed with a second set of partners, McCurdy tried his hand at train robbery a second time in 1911. He managed to get away with a heist of $46 and two jugs of whiskey, but the police of Okesa, Oklahoma, were hot on his trail. They found him hiding in a barn near the Kansas border, and McCurdy was killed in the shootout that followed. As he was being chased, he declared that the police would never take him alive – and he was right.