Originally created 07/25/02

Elmer McCurdy really got around after he died



On vacation recently, I walked into the Blue Belle Saloon in Guthrie, Okla., and said something I had heard countless times in movies.

"Barkeep, give me a beer," I demanded after plopping down on a bar stool.

The two barmaids just looked at me blankly. I guess Old West cowboys could ask for a generic beer, but today everything comes with a name on the bottle. My wife leaned over to me and whispered, "Maybe you should ask for a sarsaparilla."

Instead, I asked for the whereabouts of Elmer McCurdy. Again, I received blank stares. No one knew anyone by that name.

Here we were in Guthrie, the first capital of the Oklahoma Territory, a town that sprang up in a day's time during the famous Land Run of 1889, a town rich in history and tourism, and no one knew about Elmer McCurdy.

I walked around the bar, looking at the photos on the wall of Tom Mix, the silent-movie cowboy star who had been a bartender at the Blue Belle in the early years of the last century. Framed on the wall was a pistol that had been found upstairs during renovation of the bordello.

Upstairs - OK, Miss Lizzie's Bordello is now a gift shop - the saleswoman also was clueless about McCurdy. Never having met a stranger in my life, though, I struck up a conversation with a family that was touring the shop. It turned out they are from South Carolina, and the daughter of the man I spoke with works just across the Savannah River from me. He knew all about McCurdy, and he told me where to find him.

We followed his directions, and there, in a section of Summit View Cemetery called Boot Hill, next to the tombstone of notorious outlaw Bill Doolin, was a big, white marker bearing these words: "Elmer McCurdy, shot by sheriff's posse in Osage Hills, on Oct. 7, 1911, returned to Guthrie, Okla., from Los Angeles County, Calif., for burial Apr. 22, 1977."

That's right. The train robber, who probably made more money from his day job as a plumber, wasn't put into the ground until more than 65 years after he was killed. He gained notoriety - and high mileage - only after his death.

In late 1911, after robbing the wrong train and getting away with only $46 and two jugs of whiskey, he split up with his two accomplices. A posse chased McCurdy's trail and surrounded the barn where he was holed up drunk. A shootout ensued. The next morning, they found the 31-year-old outlaw dead.

An undertaker preserved the body a little too well with arsenic, and with time, the outlaw became mummified. When no one showed up to claim the body, the undertaker stood it in the corner and charged visitors a nickel, which they popped into its open mouth, to see a real outlaw.

Five years later, two men showed up to claim their "brother." They actually were carnies, and for years they displayed McCurdy's body in sideshows. Passed down to other owners, it continued to shrivel, as mummies will, and gained a coat of wax.

Finally sold to a fun house in California, the corpse was hanging from a rope in the building - now closed - when an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man was to be filmed there in late 1976. As someone tried to move the body out of the way, its arm fell off. The TV crew discovered that instead of being a dummy, it was a mummy.

The medical examiner's office in Los Angeles examined McCurdy, and after learning his identity, notified Oklahoma. The city of Guthrie, wanting him as a tourist attraction and having the only Boot Hill in the state, paid to have him returned and buried him. They poured cement over the grave to make sure he never roamed again.

There's much more to the story of Elmer McCurdy, so go pour yourself a cold sarsaparilla, get on the Internet and learn all about it.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or gmoore@augustachronicle.com.