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  Texas : Features : Books Reviews
Book Review

Elmer McCurdy:
The Misadventure in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw

By Mark Svenvold

Publisher: Basic Books;
October, 2002


Reviewed by John Troesser
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Top Ten Suggested Subtitles by Luke Warm:

CSI Meets Oklahoma
The Elmer McCurdy Diet
My 70 Years as an Effigy
Little Corpse on the Prairie
Oklahoma's OK - I'm Not OK
Can I Please Go to Hell Now?
New Wrinkles in Historic Preservation
Unarmed and Toxic: The Elmer McCurdy Story
The Hardest Working (Dead) Man in Show Business
At Least I Wasn't Killed in Texas - Who knows what would've happened to me then?

Ray Bradbury once wrote a short story in which a Mexican peasant who couldn't support his family in life promised to do so after death - by having his son display his body as one of the (in)famous mummys of Guanajuato. Elmer McCurdy was a true-life version of that story - just a hundred times more bizarre.

If losers ever have a monument erected to them - Elmer McCurdy might pose for it. He certainly had enough practice standing still. Shot dead at the age of 34 in a failed robbery near Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1911, McCurdy's body was not planted in a Potter's Field or Boot Hill, but was kept above ground -and not always in a cool, dry place.


For seventy years Elmer was displayed at circuses, sideshows, fairs, crime-doesn't-pay-exhibitions (there's an understatement for you) and fun houses.

Facing millions of thrill-seeking Americans - and maybe a few Canadians, Elmer found that despite changing tastes, death always seems to draw a crowd. He stood silent from the 20s (even when some yahoo inserted a penny in his mouth) through the 1960s when he was painted a psychedelic Day-Glo orange.

His mummy impersonation was finally discovered in the 70s when an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (yet another layer of irony) was being filmed at a California funhouse and a worker playfully tugged at Elmer's arm - pulling it off and exposing real bone.

The story in lesser hands might barely meet the word count of Bradbury's story, but under the care of Mark Svenvold the reader gets much more. It's a finely detailed look at McCurdy's life and times, a study in morbid curiosity and the American fascination with celebrity and death. It's a tragedy/comedy of crime-gone-wrong, exploitation, greed, the durability of human remains and yet another entry into the already bulging file of "Only in America."

Elmer ends up on the autopsy table of Dr. Noguchi - California's famed "Coroner to the Stars" and it's somehow an appropriate ending for a man who waited 70 years for his 15 minutes of fame.

Rest In Peace, Elmer.

John Troesser
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