BY ANDY TAYLOR
A recently released book on the history of Kansas bank history brings to light the career of a former Cherryvale man whose bumbling career included an attempt heist — by means of nitroglycerine — of a Chautauqua County bank in 1911.
In December, author Rod Beemer of Minneapolis, Kan., released “Notorious Kansas Bank Heists: Gunslingers to Gangsters” through The History Press. The paperback book chronicles the history of early-day Kansas bank heists.
Among the events found in the book is the story of Elmer McCurdy. His life in and around southeast Kansas could have been the plot for a movie mystery. In fact, in the 21st century, the story of Elmer McCurdy does conjure occasional references on history documentaries about true crime.
Here’s the story . . .
Elmer McCurdy was born in Maine in 1880 but found his way to southeast Kansas in his early adult years as a plumber in Cherryvale. He later moved to Iola and relocated to Webb City, Mo. Along the way, a serious bout with alcoholism put him at odds with local constables.
To dry out from his persistent binge drinking, McCurdy joined the U.S. Army in 1907 and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth where, among his many aspects of training, he learned how to use nitroglycerine for demolition purposes.
After his discharge from the U.S. Army, McCurdy stumbled back to southeast Kansas and Oklahoma Kansas where he began a short-lived career as a bank robber. His first attempt as a yegg was in Lenapah, Okla., in March 1911 when he and three other men decided to rob the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train. McCurdy heard that one of the cars contained a safe holding $4,000 in currency.
The robbers successfully stopped the train and found the safe. McCurdy attempted to put his nitroglycerin knowledge — paid for by Uncle Sam — to work by blasting open the safe door.
However, McCurdy mismeasured the nitorglycerne . . . by putting too much nitro in the charge. Not only did the blast blow open the safe door but it destroyed the safe entirely . . . and all $4,000 in currency.
They did manage to pocket about $450 in silver coins . . . however most of the coins were welded together from the fierce heat caused by the nitroglycerine explosion. Most of the coins were fused to the safe’s frame.
Thinking that he learned from his failed train robbery, McCurdy attempted a bigger haul with less nitroglycerine in his pocket. This time it was in Chautauqua, Kan, in September 1911. McCurdy and two other men spent two hours attempting to break through the bank wall of the Citizens Bank in Chautauqua. Once inside the bank, they attempt to blast the door to the bank’s vault.
McCurdy once again attempted a nitro blast that, if successful, would have put him inside that vault. He believed he could have been like a kid in a candy store — easy pickings with delicious temptations.
However, McCurdy’s nitroglycerine blast of the vault door proved costly. Not only did he mismeasure the amount of nitroglycerine (the explosion literally blew the vault door through the entire of the bank lobby, before coming to rest in an wall on the opposite side of the bank) but he miscalculated the vault itself.
For inside the vault was most of the bank stash — safely tucked way inside a steel safe.
McCurdy quickly tried to use a nitro blast to open the safe, but the charge failed to ignite. Knowing that the initial explosion likely awakened a sleepy town, McCurdy and Company grabbed as much money as they could inside the vault, which amounted to about $150 in coins.
Later that night, they found safe harbor at the ranch of friend Charlie Revard near Bartlesville. McCurdy and his accomplices split up with McCurdy staying on the ranch inside a hayseed. He drank heavily for several days, planning his next robbery in between flasts of whiskey.
His final robbery came on Oct. 4, 1911, near Okesa, Okla., which is southwest of Bartlesville in Osage County. McCurdy and two men heard that a Katy Train was bound for Pawhuska carrying the prized royalty payments for members of the Osage Nation. They made a plan and attacked a train near Okesa.
However, their robbery proved unsuccessful. Rather than rob a freight train carrying heavy loot, they mistakenly robbed a passenger train with little to no money on board. They were able to scamper away with $46, a couple of demijohns of whiskey, a revolver, a coat and the train conductor’s watch.
McCurdy was hurt by the haul and returned to the Revard ranch to pout and drink away his spoils.
He stayed up drinking with some of the ranch hands before falling into a deeper slumber in the hayloft.
Unbeknowst to McCurdy, the hayseed would be surrounded by a sheriff’s posse the next morning.
The posse surrounded the structure until McCurdy awakened with a massive hangover. The posse’s audible call for McCurdy’s arrest was met McCurdy’s firearms. What ensured was an hour-long shootout between McCurdy and the posse.
Finally, one shotgun blast from the posse ended McCurdy’s life. He died outside the hayshed — a criminal who had little prize in his quest for fortunes.
However, his greatest fame was yet to come.
McCurdy’s body was eventually taken to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Okla., where it was embalmed using an arsenic-based preservative that was typical in that era of body preparation. No family members claimed McCurdy’s body, and the corpse remained in the funeral home — unclaimed yet preserved — for six months. Rather than release the body for burial and assume the costs himself, funeral parlor owner Joseph L. Johnson decided to make a profitable spectacle out of McCurdy. He propped McCurdy’s stiff body in a wicker coffin and placed it upright in the funeral parlor lobby. He even had a shotgun placed in McCurdy’s cold, dead hands. And, for a nickel, people could examine the corpse and even be photographed next to it.
McCurdy would remain a fixture in the Johnson Funeral Home until 1916 when it was collected by two men claiming to be long-lost brothers of McCurdy. They claimed the body and told others that McCurdy would be given a proper burial in California.
What Johnson and others did not know is the two men were nothing more than carnival barkers for a traveling circus.
So, Elmer McCurdy, more than five years dead and many times photographed, was now a traveling circus exhibit for the Great Patterson Carnival Show. McCurdy was touted as “the outlaw who would never be captured alive.”
The Patterson circus would change hands in 1922 when it was sold to Louis Sooney, who used McCurdy’s fame to create the Museum of Crime. Not only was McCurdy a chief attraction but so, too, were wax figures of Bill Doolin and Jesse James.
McCurdy’s body would become part of a sideshow for the Trans-American Footrace in 1928 before being loaned for a brief time by film director Dwain Esper to promote his film “Narcotic.” The corpse was placed in movie theatre lobbies as a “dead dope fiend” whom, Elmer claimed, had killed himself while surrounded by police after he had robbed a drug store to support his habit.
By this time, Elmer McCurdy’s dead body had shriveled and hardened. His frame had reduced to the size of a child. Esper claimed that McCurdy’s skin condition and small frame were the result of his continual drug habit.
After Sooney died in 1949, the corpse was placed in storage in a Los Angeles, Calif., warehouse. It was later found and used as a movie prop and in a traveling wax museum. However, the years of travel had left McCurdy’s stiffened body into a state of woeful deterioration. By the 1970s, McCurdy’s ears had fallen off and his fingers and toes had disintegrated. Not wanting to rid him of a circus show and possible movie prop, McCurdy’s new owner, Spoony Singh had McCurdy’s disintegrating body painted with wax. Appendages were replaced with balsa wood, and once-wrinkled features were filled with putty.
Singh then sold the corpse to Ed Liersch, owner of The Pike, an amusement park in Long Beach, Calif., who used it as a prop — McCurdy was viewed hanging from a hangman’s noose — in the Laff in the Dark funhouse exhibit. His body was painted with several coats of glow-in-the-dark neon paint.
McCurdy’s identity had been long forgotten by the time the his body was used painted and puttied. And, when the amusement park closed its doors for good in the mid-1970s, the life of Elmer McCurdy — then hanging from a rope in a darkened amusement park — was left to the ages.
Or, so it seemed.
When the dead amusement park was purchased by Universal Studios, prop crews found a prime location for shooting an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” starring Lee Majors. The former Laff In the Dark funhouse, featuring what prop crews thought was a mannequin hanging from a noose, would make an excellent scene for a television episode.
So, while getting the scene prepared for film shooting of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” prop crews began dusting off the equipment from The Pike, including the mannequin hanging in the laffhouse.
When they grabbed the arms of the mannequin, aka Elmer McCurdy, one of the arms fell off, exposing bone and mummified tissue to the horror of the television crew, who obviously thought the mannequin was only a dummy and note a real mummy.
Law enforcement officers were contacted, and the life of Elmer McCurdy — who had been dead for more than 60 years — was starting to come back to the headlines.
A forensic pathologist was summoned to make a positive identification.
By December 1976, the story of mummified and petrified Elmer McCurdy was making national news. Rather than see McCurdy continue to be abused by traveling circuses and television prop crews, an Oklahoma organization procured McCurdy’s remains and vowed to give him a proper burial.
So, Elmer McCurdy, whose remains had shriveled to only 50 pounds, was on his way back to the very state where he died: Oklahoma. The Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns paid for McCurdy’s funeral expenses. The organization buried McCurdy in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla., on April 22, 1977. A graveside service attended by approximately 300 people saw McCurdy’s coffin lowered into a grave that was adjacent to another well-known Oklahoma outlaw, Bill Doolin, whose fate was similar to McCurdy: killed by a posse.
To ensure that McCurdy’s body would not be stolen, two feet of concrete was poured over McCurdy’s casket — a thick barrier that Elmer McCurdy would have loved to blast open with the help of nitroglycerine and insatiable desire for easy money.