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The Curator's File: A Strange and Wonderful Journal of the Mysterious Package Company

Terror Tuesday: The Carnival Cadaver

Terror Tuesday: The Carnival Cadaver

by casandra miller

September 13, 2022


Content Warning: Death, disturbing images

There is a plethora of things one expects to see as they wander about the fairgrounds of a circus or carnival– big top tents, sugary confections, or far too many clowns jam-packed into a comically small car. You might even get excited about riding rickety rides or testing your luck against some definitely-not-rigged carnival games, all in hopes to impress your date or take home an oversized stuffed animal. 

What you might not expect to find amongst these varied funhouse delights is the corpse of an American outlaw. And yet, that’s exactly what carnival goers and side show attendees stepped up to witness across the country for many, many years. 

His name was Elmer McCurdy, and he was the main attraction. 

McCurdy was gunned down by police in 1911 after a not-exactly-successful train robbery that had seen McCurdy fleeing with a grand total of $46 and two bottles of whiskey. With no kin to claim him, McCurdy’s body was surrendered to a funeral home in Pawhuska. There, the funeral director, Joseph L. Johnson, would have him embalmed with a preserving arsenic-laced concoction that would slow the process of decomposition. 

The purpose of this? So Johnson could put McCurdy up on display (Link Content Warning: disturbing images).

For a nickel, folks could visit the funeral home and look upon the disturbing remains of the would-be train robber. Propped up and left out for everyone to see, Johnson is said to have even encouraged folks to pay their fare by placing their coins into the cadaver’s mouth. It was a lucrative deal, with droves of people venturing out to see the macabre display. Carnival promoters and sideshow managers started offering Johnson all sorts of money to take McCurdy off his hands, no doubt seeing gold in the old bandit’s withered bones. But Johnson refused every offer. 

Then, after five years making nickels off of McCurdy’s corpse, Johnson had to give up his morose money-making endeavour when two grieving family members of McCurdy’s showed up to collect his remains. 

Or at least, that’s what they claimed to be.

In truth, the men were Charles and James Patterson, two carnies who were determined to make their own buck off of the bandit’s body and the public’s general curiosity when it came to all things revolving around death and decay. Over the next six decades the brothers would drag McCurdy across state lines, showcasing him in county fairs, strange sideshows and disturbing exhibits around the country. 

Image from: Ripley’s

So what happened to McCurdy?

McCurdy’s carnival tour came to an end in Long Beach, California where he was stuffed away for some time in a fun house on the coast, only to be found by an unexpecting film crew.

In 1976 the crew for The Six Million Dollar Man had set up in the Long Beach funhouse known as “Laff in the Park” to film their latest episode. The house served as a ready film set, a prop-picker’s dream with all sorts of tricks and illusions scattered about. Amongst them was a particularly gruesome looking mannequin hanging in the corner, suspended from the ceiling.  

Except, as they were soon to find out, it wasn’t a mannequin at all. 

Rearranging the fun house for the scene they were about to shoot, the crew began to move various props and items to new locations that would better suit their story. As one of the crew members went to pull down the mannequin they heard a sudden SNAP. The supposed wax mannequin, which had been spray painted and hung by a false noose, was now revealed in its true form as the startled crew member looked upon the severed arm. It was clearly a human bone surrounded by mummified muscular remains. 

Elmer McCurdy had been left on display, after all that time. 

Image from: Atomic Redhead

McCurdy would not be featured in The Six Million Dollar Man or in any future carnivals and sideshows along the coast. After decades of being paraded around the country, coins and tickets stuffed into his mouth, “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” would finally be laid to rest in 1977 in Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. 

We’re curious: if you could go back in time, would you have paid your five cents to see him? 

(It seems there has been yet another body found amongst a carnival’s fairgrounds, but this mystery is yours to unravel if you so dare choose. Get your fill of funhouse delights and side show scares in Post Mortem Los Angeles: Death in La-La Land.) 

Header image by Gabor Barbely on Unsplash

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