Tim's Turn - October 2018

The Long, Haunting Tale of Elmer McCurdy

1810_tims_turnI visit New York’s Coney Island at least one time each summer. I walk the boardwalk, take the same photos I took the year before, and ride three classics—the “Wonder Wheel,” the mighty “Cyclone” roller coaster, and the classic dark ride, “Spook-a-Rama.”

On my second go-round on “Spook-a-Rama,” as one of the spooks jumped out at me, I thought of Elmer McCurdy, the ultimate dark ride prop. 

The story of McCurdy has everything a good tale needs: mystery, murder, a train robber, a traveling sideshow, a bionic man, a corpse painted in fluorescent orange, and of course, an amusement park dark ride. Plus, it’s a true story. 

Elmer was born in 1880 and was not a nice guy. He liked to rob trains. I should say, he tried robbing trains. He was quite inept, and one day, met his maker during a botched robbery. After his death in 1911, Elmer lay unclaimed for four years in the funeral parlor of Joseph L. Johnson in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, until a man saying he was Elmer’s brother finally showed up and claimed him to take him home to be buried alongside their poor deceased mother. 

Two weeks later, Elmer’s body showed up on the Great Patterson Carnival Shows and spent years on the road as a carnival sideshow exhibit. He later “hung around” at an amusement park in Long Beach, California. Queen’s Park, which was Nu-Pike before that, and just plain old Pike before that dates back to 1902. The amusement park’s dark ride, the “Laff in the Dark,” was home to a prop painted bright orange, that was actually Elmer McCurdy—the genuine once-living person. Most thought the skinny little dude, once billed as the Thousand-Year-Old Man during his traveling sideshow days, was made of papier-mache. That was until 1976, when “Laff in the Dark” was set to be used to shoot a scene in the TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man.” A stagehand was told to move the skinny man painted orange. In doing so, he pulled off Elmer’s arm, and in an attempt to replace it, found a bone!

At that point, Elmer became known as John Doe #255 and took up a short residency in the Los Angeles County morgue. During the autopsy, a 1924 copper penny and a ticket stub from the Louis Sonney’s Wax Museum were found on Elmer’s person.

With those clues, along with the bullets still left in his body from the fateful day in 1911 when Elmer died, officials were able to track down his real identity and piece together quite a history of the guy. Variety published his story, under the headline, “Bionic Man Meets Dummy Mummy.” Soon after, Elmer was returned to Guthrie, Oklahoma, for a proper funeral. He was laid to rest and covered with two yards of concrete, just to make sure his show business days were over! Two years later, Queen’s Park met the same fate when the park closed down and was demolished.

So, as you partake in all the Halloween haunted houses and a spook jumps out at you, think of Elmer. I’m sure he would appreciate it.

Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.