Last week I talked about the history of Long Beach’s infamous Pike, including the location being used in an episode of Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man. What I didn’t mention was that in the Charlie’s Angels episode, “To Kill an Angel,” a man’s body is found within the Pike’s Laff in the Dark ride, which is exactly what happened roughly one year later.
Inside Laff in the Dark, amid a giant ape and a myriad of other garishly painted hokey gimmicks, Chris Haynes and fellow crew for The Six Million Dollar Man (whose leading man, Lee Majors, was husband to Charlie’s Angels star, Farrah Fawcett) were getting ready to shoot for the episode “Carnival of Spies” in which German spies hide a missile system within a carnival.
Haynes and fellow crew members got to talking about a bizarre sight, a neon reddish-orange dummy hanging from a noose. Some thought it to be made of paper-mache, as it moved at the slightest breeze. Haynes looked at it closer, and tugged at the arm to have it not only fall off in his hands, but reveal human bone within! Haynes located the off-duty police officer who was doing security for the show and showed him the corpse. Homicide was called in, and the body was hauled out on a stretcher, covered in a white sheet, exactly what happened in Charlie’s Angels, and taken to the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner.
Senior deputy medical examiner, Joseph Choi and chief medical examiner, Thomas Noguchi took to performing what they quickly realized was a second autopsy, as indicated by an old fashioned, “modified Y-shaped incision” on the chest.
The body was mummified, the brain and internal organs were hard as stone, and it was discovered the entire body had been full of arsenic. Arsenic had gained popularity in the Civil War era for prolonged preservation of bodies, but had gone out of vogue in the 1930s. A small dimple in the chest suggested a bullet wound, and soon evidence of a 32-30 caliber gas check bullet was found. Such bullets were first used in 1905, and discontinued on the eve of World War II, further narrowing down the age of the body.
In removing the jaw, Choi found bizarre artifacts including a 1924 penny, a Pike ticket stub, and another stub for Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime in LA. However there was no further identifier as to who this long deceased man was. Soon there was a press release, asking the public to help identify the body.
News of the mysterious fun house mummy reached the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma some 1,300 miles away from star studded Hollywood. Here, Bill Lehman, an amateur historian, hosted gatherings with other men who had a passion for history, including Fred Olds, the curator and chief administrator of the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, Glenn Shirley, a scholar of western lore, and Ralph McCalmont, the town banker. Well versed in the tales of Oklahoma, they had a notion they knew who the fun house mummy was, an outlaw by the name of Elmer McCurdy, shot down in Osage Hills, Oklahoma, in 1911. And if it was McCurdy, they wanted to bring him home to Oklahoma.
Olds rang up the LA County Coroner’s Office, left a message, and received a letter in response a few days later. The letter contained three requirements for the group to secure the body. First, they would need to round up a group of experts to team up with Noguchi to identify the body. Second, release would need to be approved by the Oklahoma state medical examiner. Third, the men of Guthrie would have to pay for a proper burial.
The group agreed, and armed with photographs of McCurdy, and knowledge of scars and even bunions, they arrived in LA. The team employed superimposition, overlaying the handful of photos of McCurdy with an x-rays, ending the mystery of who the Laff in the Dark mummy was, but just now on earth did an Oklahoma outlaw who died in 1911 end up hanging from a noose inside a fun house in Long Beach, California in 1976?
Elmer McCurdy was born in 1880 in Washington, Maine, about as far from the “wild west” as one could get in America. His mother was an unmarried 17 year old named Sadie McCurdy. To spare her the embarrassment of being an unwed mother, Sadie’s brother, George and his wife adopted McCurdy. However ten years later, George died of tuberculous, and Sadie reassumed raising her son, and chose to inform McCurdy she was actually his mother. At such a tender age, it is considered that this news sparked his rebellious behavior that led to a life of crime and alcohol, starting bar fights as young as 15. When a recession dampened McCurdy’s prospects he looked westward. He spent time as a plumber and a miner, before joining the military, where he developed a liking for explosives, something he took with him when he chose the outlaw life. The thing is though, McCurdy but never quite mastered explosives. He used too little, or too much. One time an explosion of his doing proved so intense that the silver in the safe fused to the floor of it, and he was forced to leave the loot behind.
McCurdy’s last robbery was a train that was suppose to contain $400,000, but McCurdy and his cohorts robbed the wrong train, and they turned to what they could get from those aboard the train, which included a watch, gun, a mere $46, and some whiskey. The bandits split up, and the conductor reported the robbery the same day.
With the whiskey for company, McCurdy arrived at the Revard ranch, falling into a drunken slumber in the hay loft, only to be awakened by a sheriff’s posse outside, ordering him to surrender. McCurdy took a shot at the posse outside and an hour long gun battle ensued, ending in McCurdy’s death.
McCurdy’s lifeless body was given to the US Marshal’s office, then delivered to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where Joseph Johnson was the director. Johnson was to turn over McCurdy’s body to the next of kin, however, there was no next of kin. In that case, McCurdy should have been buried at public expense. But Johnson saw a unique opportunity.
Johnson pumped McCurdy’s body full of arsenic and put him on display within his funeral home, calling him “The Embalmed Bandit” or “The Bandit that Wouldn’t Give Up.” Tales claim Johnson charged five cents for a viewing, the nickel being placed within McCurdy’s mouth. Supposedly within six months of being embalmed, the body was capable of standing on its own, and at one point the Johnson children placed roller skates on McCurdy’s feet and pushed the body around to scare other children. For five years McCurdy was on display at the Johnson Funeral Home, where supposedly thousands came to see him, while Johnson apparently refused many an offer from those wishing to purchase the dead outlaw.
In October of 1916 Charles Patterson welcomed his brother, James Patterson, and his Great Patterson Carnival Show to Arkansas City, Kansas, just 45 miles away from Pawhuska. Charles, was a traveling salesman, and knew of his brother’s interest in human oddities, so it is likely he was aware of “the Embalmed Bandit.” During the carnival’s stay, Johnson received a call from a Mr. Aver, who claimed to be McCurdy’s brother, and that he, along with a friend, Mr. Wayne, would be coming by to claim the body. It is unclear whether these two were the Patterson brothers, or cronies of the carnival, but with full approval of the sheriff and county attorney, the pair secured the body, and not two weeks later McCurdy was on display in within The Great Patterson Carnival Show, billed as the “Oklahoma Outlaw.”
McCurdy traveled more miles dead than he had alive, and by 1922 was part of Louis Sonney’s touring Wax Museum of Crime. Sonney had come by McCurdy from another carnival man who apparently left the body as collateral on a loan! Sonney’s main exhibits were wax dummies of famous western outlaws, but here, McCurdy, the real deal, received a room for himself, where Sonney would regale patrons with the crimes of the dead outlaw.
In 1927 Sonney decided to give his traveling museum a permanent location, and chose sunny Los Angeles. But on occasion he would allow McCurdy’s body to tour, which he did with Charles C. Pyle and his Transcontinental Footrace, which also featured a sideshow under the eye of Sonney’s son, Edward. When McCurdy’s body arrived in Oklahoma, Edward stepped in, choosing not to display the body in fear of other McCurdy “relatives” popping up. Ironically it wasn’t a relative, but Bob Fenton, the man who was responsible for McCurdy’s death, who wanted to view the body. Edward acquiesced to Fenton’s request, and gave him a private viewing. Supposedly Fenton just stared at the body for a moment and walked away.
Two years after Fenton’s viewing another figure from McCurdy’s past, Joseph Johnson’s son, Luke, was at a carnival in Ocean Park and heard a barker telling the tale of an Oklahoma outlaw who in a shoot out with deputies chose to drink poison rather than be taken alive, and it was this poison that mummified the body that lay in the tent. As the tale reminded Luke of McCurdy, he paid the admission only to gaze upon the familiar body of Elmer McCurdy. Luke set the record straight to the barker, and then went on his way.
With the arrival of the motion picture, especially talkies, sideshow type attractions, including Sonney’s Museum of Crime were falling out of favor. In response to that Sonney made the transition to exploitation films, still pandering to people’s macabre senses. Sonney partnered with Dwain Esper, who made many films about drugs, and Sonney allowed Esper to display McCurdy’s body in theater lobbies during screenings, where McCurdy now became a victim of drug addiction rather than a fabled outlaw.
By the 1960s Don Sonney, son of Louis Sonney, had inherited the family business, Sonney Amusement Enterprises, but now the aging corpse gathered dust in storage. In 1968 Sonney unloaded the contents to Don Crysdale and E.D. Liersch, who in 1971 signed a one year lease at the Pike and pieced together a wax figure haunted house. Here McCurdy was mounted to a coffin with a rig to make him twitch. “When I drilled a hole in his foot some yellow almost gooey stuff came out on the drill,” Crysdale later recalled.
The following year the pair had defaulted on their lease, and the contents were confiscated by the Long Beach Amusement Company. McCurdy was kept, for one reason or another, in the closet of Ray Scott, an electrician for the Pike, where he stayed for about a year, until the Pike decided to revamp Laff in the Dark.
Scott painted McCurdy’s body the gaudy DayGlo orangish-red , and placed it in Laff in the Dark with a noose around the neck. The real human corpse hung, scaring couples who thought it nothing more than a dummy, for four years, until Chris Haynes of The Six Million Dollar Man pulled off his arm.
After the news of the fun house mummy began to circulate, others, aside from the men of Guthrie who aided in identifying the body, expressed interest in McCurdy’s body. A museum in Missouri wanted him for a permanent exhibit, various LA mortuaries offered free burial, and the Long Beach Amusement Company had even asked for it back! The gruesome story had apparently tripled the business of Laff in the Dark. But the men from Guthrie were the ones who were entrusted with McCurdy’s body.
At the airport, the Oklahoma state medical examiner, A.J. Chapman and Fred Olds checked the container holding McCurdy’s body, only to spy that the jaw was missing! A note the chose to keep to themselves, in fear of it overshadowing the larger picture that McCurdy was finally receiving a proper burial.
On a rainy April morning, McCurdy was taken, via a horse drawn, glass sided hearse that had last been used in 1918, to the Boot Hill portion of Summit View Cemetery where he was finally, 66 years after his death, laid to rest, of course, sans jaw.
Bishop, Greg, et al. Weird California. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2006. Print
Svenvold, Mark. Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Print
Images 1 & 4: Screencaps from Charlie’s Angels DVD
Images 2, 3, 5, & 6: Screencaps from The Six Million Dollar Man DVD
Image 7: Atlas Obscura