Many people have been more famous in death than in life, but Elmer McCurdy would seem to take the prize for post-mortem renown. McCurdy died at the relatively tender age of 31, then had a remarkably fertile career as a celebrity corpse, first in funeral parlors, then in carnivals, a wax museum, film and, finally, an amusement park. The entire stint lasted 65 years.
With insight, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mark Svenvold relates the story of this unusual figure in his new book Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw. In the process, the author also presents an incisive commentary on American entertainment history. While dead bodies have been held sacred since the time of the ancient Greeks, the underbelly of America's low-end entertainment scene thought nothing of exploiting a human corpse along with the average American's fascination with the grotesque.
McCurdy began life inauspiciously as an illegitimate baby in rural Maine. He earned his dubious claim to fame as an outlaw by bungling a couple of train robberies. His death, in a shoot out in 1911, featured all the color and flamboyance that his life lacked.
McCurdy's body, unclaimed by friend or relative, languished at Johnson's Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, laced with enough arsenic to preserve it well into the 21st century. Presumably to defray the expense of his storage, the embalmer put McCurdy on display for paying sightseers.
For the next several decades McCurdy traveled the beer-and-pretzels entertainment circuit, changing hands when one get-rich-quick scheme gave way to another. It isn't clear when or where folks lost track of the fact that he was a dead body and not an inanimate prop. Svenvold hints that truth didn't much matter to the carnies and B-movie makers who passed McCurdy's body from one enterprise to another.
Part of McCurdy's appeal in death was his ability to tap into America's secret fascination with outlaws and self-destructive behavior. In reconstructing his eventful life and afterlife, Mark Svenvold holds up a mirror to this interesting contradiction in our nation's collective psychological profile. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.