Monday, March 6, 2017

A successful career postmortem — in the flesh: The fun house mannequin that wasn’t

By A.J. Chapman

In the 1970s, “The Six‐Million‐Dollar Man” was a popular television show. It concerned a man who had met with a disaster that extensively destroyed much of his body that was then replaced with bionic parts that gave him incredible strength, x‐ray vision, and the like. In preparing to shoot one episode of the series, the crew was preparing the set, which was at the “Laff in the Dark” fun house in the Nu‐Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. One member of the crew moved what he thought was a garishly painted mannequin that was designed to glow very bright orange in the dark when illuminated with a black light. The right forearm of the supposed mannequin fell off, having disjointed at the elbow. The crew member picked it up and was astounded to see that this particular mannequin had an actual bone in its arm. Since mannequins do not contain bones, the police were notified. They confirmed that the body was human, and the remains were transported to the office of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner‐Coroner.

An autopsy was performed. The cause of death was a bullet wound, and the body was found to have been preserved with arsenical compounds that were used for embalming only in the period between 1905 and 1930. As an aside, arsenical compounds preserve remains wonderfully. Their use was eventually prohibited because in any case in which arsenic poisoning was the cause of death, that fact could not be proven once the body had been so embalmed.

A news release was issued, and a member of a family who had once owned the remains contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. The information provided ultimately led to the identification of the body.

Eventually, the facts of the case were established. The “mannequin” was the body of Elmer McCurdy, a less‐than‐successful outlaw, who was killed on 7 October 1911 in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. He and two others held up a “Katie” (MKT—Missouri, Kansas, Texas) train, believing it was carrying a great deal of money for a payroll.

The bungling, less‐than‐savvy robbers, however, picked the wrong train and escaped with very little booty. A local newspaper described the fruits of the robbery as “one of the smallest in the history of train robbing . . . . They failed to find as much as a copper cent in the safe in the express car. . . . They also made away with two gallons of whiskey, and during the holdup, they knocked in the head of two kegs of beer and drank part of the contents.”

What role the whiskey and beer may have played in Elmer’s killing by lawmen can only be speculated. The robbers were trailed to a ranch where Elmer—after drinking with ranch employees—had gone to sleep in the haymow of the barn. He exchanged gunfire with the posse that had found him for about an hour before being shot dead in the barn. The fatal shot was in the chest.

Elmer’s body was taken to Pawhuska, Oklahoma to the Johnson Funeral Home where it was embalmed with arsenical preservatives. No one claimed the body, and after about six months, it was perfectly preserved and could be placed in an upright position. Thus, the “Embalmed Bandit”, as he became known, was dressed in the clothing he wore during his last gunfight, was placed in the corner of a room, and a rifle was placed in his hand. There he stood for five years with curiosity seekers paying a nickel to see him.

In 1916, two men appeared, and one of them claimed to be Elmer’s brother. He managed to get the body turned over to him. In reality, however, these con artists were the owner and the manager of Patterson Carnival Shows. Elmer’s body was shipped to Arkansas City, Kansas, and the following morning, the carnival left for Woodward, Oklahoma. Thus, Elmer’s show biz career was launched.

Elmer traveled with the show until 1922 when he was sold to Louis Sonney, the owner of a wax figure museum sideshow that was called the “Museum of Crime”. He became an instant “hit” among the other outlaws collected in the show since he was one of the figures who was a very real, even if dead, outlaw.

The sideshow did not do well, and in 1971, Elmer went to work for Ed Liersch and D. R. Crydale, partners who set up a wax museum of their own on the Long Beach Pike and purchased Elmer from the show. They displayed him as “The 1,000 Year Old Man”. Five years later, he was “hanging around” in the fun house in the amusement park where the body was subsequently found when the place was leased to Universal Television Studios for filming of the episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man”.

All things considered, Elmer’s postmortem career was far better and more successful than his antemortem one.

The information concerning the travels and identity of Elmer McCurdy consisted mainly of hearsay, and a more substantial identification was required by Los Angeles County Medical Examiner Coroner, Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi aka “coroner to the stars”, before release of the body. The late Dr. Clyde Snow, the celebrated forensic anthropologist and personal friend of mine from Oklahoma, accomplished this primarily by superimposition of a postmortem x‐ray of the skull onto an existing photograph of Elmer from archives in Oklahoma.

Additionally, the positioning of the hands was compared to the postmortem positioning of the hands in a photograph that had been taken when Elmer’s body was in the funeral home in Pawhuska sometime between 1911 and 1916. Elmer McCurdy’s stature, age, gender, and race were known, and a scar had been described on his right wrist—a deep one that had resulted from a drunken knife fight in a bar. The bullet wound was also confirmed. These comparisons provided perfect matches. DNA verification was, of course, not possible since the DNA technology and procedures were relatively far in the future at the time.

Dr. Noguchi would release the body only to the Chief Medical Examiner of Oklahoma, who happened to be me, so I met Elmer on the tarmac of Will Rogers World Airport when he returned to Oklahoma on a Boeing 727.

For a little perspective: When Elmer was killed, the very first flight of an aircraft by the Wright brothers had taken place only eight years earlier at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and Oklahoma had only been a state for four years. Arizona and New Mexico had not yet achieved statehood.

Hence, his “glorious” return to Oklahoma could never even been in the wildest, drunken imaginings of Elmer.

The body was taken to the morgue where it was photographed and placed into a casket that had been handcrafted for the occasion. Steve Lower, my assistant, and I fastened the lid of the casket with corrugated nails to insure it would not be opened prior to burial.

Each year in April the ‘89er Celebration is held in Guthrie, Oklahoma, which is located approximately 30 miles north of Oklahoma City and which was the original capitol of Oklahoma until 1910. The celebration commemorates the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to settlement—”The Run of ’89”—22 April 1889. It was during this celebration in 1977 that Elmer was laid to rest in Summit View Cemetery—“Boot Hill”—in Guthrie.

Many people dress in period costumes and grow beards for these celebrations, and horses and horse‐drawn vehicles are the preferred modes of transportation. Elmer’s casket was placed into an immaculately preserved horse‐drawn hearse with glass sides that made the casket visible to those along the route of the funeral cortege. The driver of the hearse was formally attired. After the casket was lowered into the ground, a lay preacher intoned a few words for the burial. A romantic girl tossed a single yellow rose onto the casket, which was otherwise bedecked with a spray of white lilies.

In order to be certain that Elmer’s postmortem career and traveling about the country was put to an end once and for all, approximately two cubic yards of concrete were poured over the casket before it was covered with the red Oklahoma earth.