In 1976 it was discovered that a dummy within The Pike’s Laff in the Dark funhouse in Long Beach, CA was actually a real corpse. The body belonged to a man named Elmer McCurdy, this is his story.
McCurdy was born in 1880 near Bangor, Maine, to the well-to-do McCurdy family. His mother, Sadie, was 17 and unwed. Elmer’s father is unknown. At that time, being an illegitimate child came with a rack of ostracization and stigma. So, seeing no future in Maine, he headed west as soon as he could.
By 1910, Elmer found himself in Oklahoma with no cash and a drinking problem. This is where he hatched a plan to start robbing trains and banks. But, unlike his peers, he wasn’t going to stick with one gang to pull off these daring heists. McCurdy’s plan was to go from town to town, get legitimate work as a plumber, and during that time he would befriend the local crooks. Eventually, these groups would pull a bank or train job, but instead of sticking around McCurdy would simply run off. Leaving his cohorts to deal with local law enforcement.
He pulled this off until October of 1911 when the law caught up to him in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. After being chased by scent dogs, McCurdy found himself pinned down in a barn with sheriff’s deputies firing outside. After about an hour they realized McCurdy was no longer returning fire, that is when they investigated, and found Elmer McCurdy dead via a gunshot wound to the chest. The Pawhuska undertaker declared him deceased on October 7th, 1911.
Unfortunately, his own death is just the beginning of many misfortunes still to come for McCurdy. After he was embalmed the Pawhuska morgue kept him propped up in the parlor, waiting for relatives to claim him. This is when locals began to flock to see the body of the, now notorious, criminal. Over the years, thanks to a particularly effective arsenic-based fluid, the body’s skin tuned to the color and consistency of leather. But his features remained really well preserved. This, and his notoriety, lead to a small tourist attraction and postcards of his body being sold, grimly captioned “The Only Dead One in Pawhuska.”
All this attention caused several carnival workers to try to buy his corpse. Each time the undertaker refused, holding on to the hope his family would come for him. So he was elated in 1916 when two men from California showed up claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers. All was well until the town got word that McCurdy’s body was touring the country via the carnival circuit. The two men that came to claim him were nothing but frauds. By March 1921 there is a story published in the Pomona Progress about Elmer’s body being in town as part of the Al G. Barnes Circus. “He lived a hard life and died a hard death,” the paper wrote. “Now he is tougher than ever.” Ten years later, his body was mentioned in a Los Angeles Times roundup of ‘fun things to see and do in the downtown area. By that point, onlookers could pay 10 cents to see his body in an ornate coffin.
According to the son of a traveling entertainer Dan Sonney, his father bought Elmer’s body around that time from another carnival worker. He claims they covered the body in wax, put him in a coffin, and added him to their “villains” display of wax dummies. But by WWII the bottom fell out of sideshow attractions and McCurdy’s body was put into storage. Sans a brief appearance in the 1967 shlock-fest “She Freak.” A film made by his company, Sonney-Friedman Pictures. A shot of McCurdy can be seen in a psychedelic montage of faces.
Around 1968, Sonney sold McCurdy’s corpse to Spoony Singh, founder of the Hollywood Wax Museum. The corpse was eventually sent to another, cheaper, wax museum until it went under in the 1970s. That is when the museum sold off its collection and Elmer’s body ended up at The Pike in Long Beach, CA. This is when his body was covered in red fluorescent paint that glowed in the dark. He was then hung up by a rope inside the Laff in the Dark funhouse. There McCurdy’s body disrespectfully stayed until December 1976.
The show “Six Million Dollar Man” was setting up a shot inside the funhouse. There a crew member bumped into McCurdy’s body a bit too hard and an arm fell off. He went to retrieve some glue to fix what he thought was a dummy. When he came back he realized the arm had a realistic-looking bone sticking out of it. He called the police and that is when the horrifying truth was discovered.
The body was sent to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office where they began to unravel the mystery of who this man was. Due to the embalming’s effects on his skin, they originally guess the body was significantly older than it was. But an autopsy found the copper jacket of the bullet that killed him. Once they identified that and the embalming technique they placed him at around the early 20th century. Within a week, thanks to some images from the University of Oklahoma archive, the body was identified as Elmer McCurdy.
Once again museum and sideshow owners asked the coroner if they could buy his corpse. “You can’t just paint it red and use it for laughs,” an unamused spokesman said. The coroner’s office held onto him until April 1977. When they were satisfied no relatives were coming to claim him, they released his body to the Oklahoma chief medical examiner. McCurdy was then put in the cargo hold on a flight at LAX and sent to Guthrie. The city council had already voted to donate a final resting place to Elmer McCurdy. “We just feel he should be laid to rest in a Christian manner after 66 years of being bandied about from pillar to post,” said city spokesman Bill Lehmann.
Once again crowds gathered around to see McCurdy. At least this time it was to be put into a proper grave in Boot Hill Cemetery, with a minister even giving a brief graveside service. But as fate would have it McCurdy was immortalized in another, unexpected way.
In 2017 designer Mark Taylor did an interview for Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us.” Since he had worked on the early prototypes for the wildly popular “He-Man” line. “Way back when I was nine, my dad decided to take us to The Pike funhouse,” Taylor explained. “And here’s this real seedy house of fear, and I didn’t feel good about it.” When he suddenly began to smell something horrible. “It smells like somebody’s dead,” he said. And then, he saw McCurdy’s hanging body. “All of a sudden I knew this was a real person, no question,” he recalled. “This absolutely was a real person.”
That image stuck with him into adulthood since it “was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen,” he said, “and that’s where Skeletor came from.”