Cover image for Elmer McCurdy : the misadventures in life and afterlife of an American outlaw
Elmer McCurdy : the misadventures in life and afterlife of an American outlaw
Svenvold, Mark, 1958-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
312 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV6448 .S87 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From Elmer McCurdy:The body was listed as "the Decedent," in official coroner's parlance Dead Body Case #7614812. Word soon got out about the fun-house mummy, about whom so little was known that the autopsy took on the character of an archaeological dig. The body looked like something pulled out of a peat bog, or an ice cave high in the Andes. The brain was mummified and like a rock, as were all the other organs....Late in the autopsy came the biggest surprise of all. Removing the jaw, the coroner pulled from the back of the mouth a single green corroded copper penny, dated 1924, and several ticket stubs, one that read "Louis Sonney's Museum of Crime, 524 South Main Street, Los Angeles." After all the careful speculation and surmise, after the body had been completely dismantled, the biggest clue to its identity came straight from the corpse's mouth.Praise for Mark Svenvold:"Mark Svenvold writes with the top down, and his sleek late-model imagination in fifth gear. Honk if you love first books that can cruise or race with full-throated elegance. Here's one!" --J. D. McClatchy

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In December 1976, a Long Beach, California, detective arrived at the county medical examiner^-coroner's office holding a severed arm that had been found, along with the rest of a mummified body, in a Long Beach amusement park fun-house ride during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. The corpse was that of Elmer McCurdy, who had been shot to death by a sheriff's posse in 1911. Svenvold chronicles the engaging and weird story of McCurdy's life and afterlife: in life, he was a most ineffectual train robber; in death, after being embalmed with arsenic, he traveled across the country in carnivals, and his corpse was later used in a couple of movies and displayed in a wax museum. Although it sounds like a bizarre work of fiction, Svenvold has done a first-rate job in documenting the story of a second-rate felon. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Carnival sideshows, train robbers and mummies all have an inevitable draw. But in this thoughtful account of one iconic American outlaw, journalist and poet Svenvold uses these topics to examine a deeper issue: the origin of American entertainment obsessions. With a languorous storyteller's flair, Svenvold thoroughly teases out the story of Elmer McCurdy, a "screw-up and ne'er-do-well bandit bungler who had accidentally achieved fame long after death." McCurdy's "pathetic, nine-month crime spree" of attempted train robberies-long after the end of the great era of train robbers-opens this well-drawn story, which focuses more on McCurdy's afterlife, when his mummified body was passed from traveling circus to wax museum to its final resting place, a graveyard in Oklahoma, where the body of the outlaw, who had become larger than life, was ultimately transformed into a "site, a locus, a mirror of the fantasy life of an American public." The account becomes a meditation on fame and death and our nostalgia for the romantic myth of the American West. Svenvold pays homage to and expands on his predecessors' work-Richard Basgall's The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased and a BBC documentary-offering rich treatments on everything from circus life to care of cadavers. While he may not be the first to offer the facts of this wonderfully bizarre story, Svenvold's evocative treatment will lure in anyone looking for a well-spun tale. (Nov. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Poor Elmer McCurdy. After this comically inept, would-be train robber met a violent end in a shootout in 1911 Oklahoma, his corpse was embalmed with arsenic and began a decades-long second career as a sideshow attraction and Z-movie film prop. McCurdy's unique course through the American entertainment industry has attracted some interest in the past (Richard J. Basgall's The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased). This grim but quirky tale of a man denied any dignity in life or death is considerably enlivened by poet Svenvold's picturesque and often humorous prose describing the history of the "Oklahoma Outlaw's" place in campy nostalgia. However, the thread of McCurdy's interesting journey is regularly lost among forays into such diverse topics as Douglas MacArthur's early army career and Osage Indian land rights. As a result, the reader soon feels as if the ticket were paid for but that there was nothing under the big top. For a similarly themed choice, consider Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. Recommended for libraries with large American studies collections. Elizabeth Morris, Otsego District P.L., MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.