The cast and crew of the television show The Six Million Dollar Man were used to seeing unusual props. Any program that involves a man whose bionic legs, arm, and eye give him superhuman speed, strength, and vision will understandably make use of all sorts of special effects to make the show as sensational as possible. Despite this, no one anticipated the highly unusual — and grisly — prop that made its way into the show.
The production crew was well into the filming of the episode “Carnival of Spies” on December 8, 1976. An amusement zone in Long Beach, California, known as The Pike had been chosen as the location for one of the episode’s scenes. The site contained a number of abandoned props that had been featured in a wax museum. One of those props was a gallows with a somewhat-unrealistic-looking mannequin hanging by its neck. One of the crew members attempted to move the dummy, only to accidentally break off one of its arms. That’s when the crew realized the set for their science fiction production had just become even weirder than the story in the script.
A closer look at the broken body revealed human bone and muscle tissue. What they thought was a wax mannequin was actually the mummified corpse of an actual human. Police were called in, and the body was relocated to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office for further investigation.
The coroner conducted an autopsy and concluded that the body belonged to an adult male who died from a gunshot wound to the chest. The body was completely desiccated. The body had been misidentified as a mannequin because it had been painted over with multiple layers of wax and paint. Some hair remained on the back and sides of his head. Notably absent were the ears, big toes, and fingers.
Despite the missing body parts, the coroner was able to determine that this unfortunate man suffered from tuberculosis and bunions. He also had large amounts of arsenic in his body, but this was concluded to be from the embalming fluid that was administered after his death from the aforementioned gunshot wound. The bullet, itself, was nowhere to be found, but the bullet jacket was still there. It was a gas check — a gasket component of ammunition. Gas checks were first used in 1905 and remained in use until 1940. Other items that helped pinpoint when the man died were found inside his mouth: a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to the “Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime” and the “140 W. Pike Side Show.”
The investigation into Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime was its own journey into the realm of the weird. Louis Sonney was very interested in crime, ever since spotting and apprehending a fugitive bank robber named Roy Gardner. With a portion of the $5,000 reward from Gardner’s capture, Sonney made a silent film entitled I Captured Roy Gardner and went on tour around the country. Along the way, Sonney acquired a number of curiosities such as wax replicas of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and other famous outlaws. Using these exhibits, Sonney created a “Museum of Crime” to draw in the curious.
One of the items Sonney acquired was the corpse that showed up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Investigators learned that he accepted the body in 1922 as collateral for a $500 loan. The borrower defaulted on the loan, so Sonney was stuck with the corpse. Turning this misfortune to his benefit, Sonney incorporated the body as an exhibit in his crime museum.
Louis Sonney passed away in 1949, but his son, Dan, was able to fill in the missing pieces. He told investigators that the body was that of Elmer McCurdy, an outlaw from Oklahoma. Tracing McCurdy’s journey into this story is another descent into the weird and wonderful world of the criminal mind.
Elmer McCurdy was born in Maine in 1880. At the age of 23, he moved to Kansas where he tried his hand as a plumber and a miner before enlisting in the U.S. Army. Upon his release from the Army, he returned to Kansas and began a career in crime. He was charged but acquitted of burglary in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1910. While awaiting trial, McCurdy met Walter Jarrett. The two of them got together with a couple of other ne’er-do-wells and conspired to rob the “Iron Mountain” train near Lenapah, Oklahoma. They were less than successful in this endeavor, nabbing only $450 out of the $20,000 in the train’s safe. In the process of trying to blow the door off the safe, they managed to melt $4,000 into the corner of the safe, making it inaccessible to them.
Finding each other too difficult to work with, the gang went their separate ways, but not before getting into a knife fight in which all of the gang members emerged with scars that would later prove valuable for identification purposes.
McCurdy made his way to Pawhuska, Oklahoma and formed a new gang. Along with suspected murderer Amos Hayes and cousin Lige Higgins, the three men robbed the Citizens State Bank of Chautauqua, Kansas on September 21, 1911. They got away with $150, which they split three ways.
Finding their ill-gotten gains insufficient, they hatched another train-robbing scheme. On October 4, 1911, McCurdy, Hayes, and a co-conspirator flagged down a train just outside Okesa, Oklahoma. They intended to steal a $400,000 Osage Indian royalty payment. The actual amount was a wee bit less impressive. They escaped with $46, the mail clerk’s watch, a waterproof coat, and two bottles of whiskey. One newspaper described the caper as “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery.”
Within hours a posse was hot on the gang’s trail. At 7:00 the next morning, the posse caught up with the train robbers. After an hour-long gunfight, McCurdy was found dead with a bullet in his chest.
Pawhuska, Oklahoma undertaker Joseph L. Johnson took custody of McCurdy’s body and embalmed it, placing the preserved corpse in the back of his funeral home until someone could come along and claim it. Weeks went by with no next of kin showing any interest in giving McCurdy a proper burial. Johnson refused to let go of McCurdy until he was properly paid for his services. As hope of getting paid dwindled away, Johnson decided to try to regain his costs in another way. He dressed McCurdy up, shaved his face, and put him on display in the corner of the funeral home with a rifle in his hands. He charged visitors 5¢ to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” Occasionally, Johnson changed the billing to other intriguing titles, such as “The Mystery Man of Many Aliases,” “The Oklahoma Outlaw,” and “The Embalmed Bandit.”
For nearly five years McCurdy drew curious onlookers to Johnson’s business. On October 6, 1916, a man claiming to be McCurdy’s brother contacted Johnson and made arrangements to take possession of the body. Johnson released the body to him and helped transport the corpse to the train station where it was to be shipped to California for a proper burial. It seemed that McCurdy’s days as a freak show curiosity were over. Alas, they were only just beginning.
McCurdy’s “brother” was James Patterson, the owner of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows. He brought McCurdy with him to Arkansas City, Kansas and made the embalmed corpse a featured attraction in Patterson’s traveling carnival. “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive” traveled with the carnival until 1922 when Patterson sold his operation to Louis Sonney.
In 1928, the corpse was part of the official sideshow that accompanied the Trans-American Footrace. McCurdy’s resume grew further in 1933 when director Dwain Esper leased the body to promote his film Narcotic! Esper placed McCurdy’s corpse in theater lobbies, identifying him as a “dead dope fiend” who allegedly committed suicide to avoid capture by police.
By the time McCurdy started appearing in theater lobbies, his body had become mummified. The body was completely dehydrated, causing the body to shrink and take on an increasingly-haunting appearance. Esper claimed the body’s condition was proof that drugs are bad for you.
Following Louis Sonney’s death in 1949, McCurdy retired to a Los Angeles warehouse. He briefly came out of retirement in 1964, when he was lent to filmmaker David F. Friedman. McCurdy made a cameo appearance in Friedman’s 1967 film She Freak. In 1968, McCurdy was sold as part of the Museum of Crime’s inventory to Spoony Singh for $10,000. It should be noted that this price exceeded all of his ill-gotten earnings from his misbegotten life of crime.
McCurdy then briefly appeared at Mount Rushmore as part of a show. While there, his body sustained some damage in a windstorm. It was there that he lost part of his ears, as well as his fingers and toes. At this point, nearly 70 years after his death, he was deemed to be too gruesome and not lifelike enough for further display, so his owners sold him off to Ed Liersch, part owner of The Pike, an amusement zone in Long Beach, California. Liersch tied a noose around the desiccated corpse and left him hanging on a gallows in his “Laff In the Dark” funhouse exhibition. That’s where he remained until he was discovered during the shooting of The Six Million Dollar Man.
Following the investigation, authorities put out the word that McCurdy’s body would be released to any interested family members. When no one stepped forward, Fred Olds, a representative of the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerns, volunteered to give McCurdy his long-overdue burial.
On April 22, 1977, McCurdy’s body was moved one last time. In a well-attended funeral procession, he was transported to the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. With nearly 300 people in attendance, McCurdy was buried next to another outlaw, Bill Doolin. To ensure that McCurdy’s body would not be stolen, two feet (60 cm) of concrete was poured over the casket, much the same way Abraham Lincoln’s body was re-buried.
Today, McCurdy is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Guthrie. At last, he is at rest and properly identified as one of the most famous — if not very successful — criminals of the 20th century.
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