Thursday, November 10, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Elmer McCurdy, the Bionic Mummy

It’s said the Old West ended in 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states. No more West to be had. Well, still plenty of unexplored ground to cover, but the ‘frontier’ was conquered. No more swaggering ranchers, fierce miners, vicious robbers and bold lawmen blazing our path through a great wilderness. It was over.
For everyone that is, except Elmer McCurdy. He didn't intend to, but he saved a piece of the Old West and dragged it with him right on into the present day. Along with a hell of a lot of weird.
Elmer was born in 1880 and had a hard life that, coupled with his own nature, kept him from getting out in front of anything. He liked to make trouble and vex folks and pretty much kept that up to the day he was finally buried in 1979.
Maybe Elmer saw the West ending in 1911 when he took up robbing banks and trains. Maybe he thought himself one of those hard types that could make a name for himself. Maybe he was just greedy. He certainly wasn’t bright so I doubt he gave either much thought. Elmer liked explosives so that was his calling card when he worked a job. A little nitroglycerine, some terrible luck and a career was born.
He blew up more than he ever took, that is, when he was even in the right place. Last job he did he was on the wrong damn train altogether. October 4, 1911 he wasn’t on a Katy holding 400 grand, he was on a passenger deal with about 46 bucks. Elmer snatched it up though, along with 2 jugs of hooch and off he went, the law on his tail.
Most folks, that’d be the end of it. Hands up and come quietly.
Not for Elmer. Like I said, he liked to make trouble.
Two days later he got himself killed in a shootout and even then, wouldn’t let up. The man who embalmed him used a concoction full of arsenic that turned him into a mummy. Such a fine job it was, the man charged folks a nickel a gander, as they say. His own kids put Elmer on roller skates and chased each other around. Why not? No one ever came to claim ol’ Elmer, he might as well serve a purpose.
That is, until 1916, when two gents showed up with a wad of cash and stuck Elmer in their carnival. Elmer ended up in a tent as “The Outlaw Who Would Not Be Captured Alive.” From there, it was carnival to carnival, sideshow to sideshow. He sat in someone’s “Museum of Crime” alongside wax mannequins of Jesse James and Bill Doolin. He was the “Thousand Year Old Man” in a spookhouse, hanging there to give you a jolt as your little cart went by. “Dead Dope Fiend” was another honorific, sitting out in movie theater lobbies to accompany the run of an exploitation film.
Elmer saw one of the first cross-country marathons in the U.S., the set of the movie She Freaks, Mount Rushmore and ever more sideshows and carnivals as a zombie, ghoul or “Real Egyptian Mummy” until he wound up covered in a gloss of bright orange paint, hanging in another spookhouse in The Pikes, a Long Beach, CA amusement park.
It was 1976 by then and Elmer had so many titles on his roster, they’d forgotten who he was. Or even that he was. Far as anyone knew - he’d been so traveled and traded - he was just another wax mannequin. But he had two more titles to rack up. One was "Guest Star on an Episode of the Six Million Dollar Man" that was shooting at the park, and the other was "The Body of Former Outlaw and Nitroglycerine Enthusiast Elmer McCurdy".
The first would've gone off fine if a crewman on the shoot hadn't knocked poor Elmer's arm off between scenes. This led to the second. Because the crew saw bone there in that broken dummy and this led to cops, forensics and a whole big shebang about who he'd been and how in holy hell he'd wound up hanging in some fun park.
They worked it out, finding carnival ticket stubs and old coins in Elmer's mouth, then got on with the science and gave the ol' boy a ride back to Oklahoma. There, they held a nice procession with a few hundred folks in attendance and, just to be sure Elmer didn't get up to his old ways, dropped two feet of concrete on his grave. He's there still.
Or should be.

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