In the winter of 1976, the 6 Million Dollar Man tv show was filming in a haunted house in Long Beach, CA. When a crew member went to move a garish-looking dummy to a different spot, the dummy’s arm broke off at the elbow. It was then that the crew member noticed the end of a human bone sticking out of the truncated limb. This wasn’t a mannequin. This was Elmer McCurdy, a career criminal who had died 65 years earlier in Oklahoma.
As a forensic science/true crime/weird history buff since long before it was cool, I almost didn’t include McCurdy in today’s episode of well-traveled corpses, because his story is told a lot, but you know me, I like to be thorough. Elmer McCurdy was born on January 1, 1880 to an unwed mother and adopted to his uncle and aunt. The first twenty of his life were unremarkable, until a string of personal losses apparently led him to say, “screw this, Ima go rob some trains.” A brief stint in the Army had seen him trained to use nitroglycerine for demolition and he decided to blend the two careers. Trouble was, he tended to be heavy-handed with the explosives, once costing his gang 90% of the money in a safe he blew, and the 10% they did get was in coins melted together.
McCurdy’s final robbery took place on October 4, 1911 near Okesa, Oklahoma, when McCurdy and his men mistakenly stopped a passenger train instead of the one carrying $400,000 that they were after. The men were able to steal only $46 from the mail clerk, some whiskey, a pistol, and the train conductor’s watch. A newspaper account of the robbery later called it “one of the smallest in the history of train robbery.” Even still, a $2,000 bounty was put on McCurdy and someone gave him up. In the wee hours of October 7, a posse of sheriffs tracked McCurdy to the hay shed using bloodhounds. Gunfire was exchanged for over an hour and in the end, McCurdy was shot in the chest and killed.
McCurdy’s body was subsequently taken to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where it went unclaimed. Joseph L. Johnson, the owner and undertaker, embalmed the body with an arsenic-based preservative and stored it in the back of the funeral home, refusing to bury or release the body until he was paid for his services. Johnson then decided, if he was going to make any money out of this, he’d have to be proactive. He dressed the corpse in street clothes, placed a rifle in McCurdy’s hands and stood it up in the corner of the funeral home. For a nickel, visitors could see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” McCurdy became a popular attraction at the funeral home and attracted the attention of carnival promoters, though Johnson refused numerous offers to buy the mummified body.
In 1916, a man claiming to be Elmer McCurdy’s long lost brother got permission from the sheriff to take custody of the body and ship it to San Francisco for proper burial. The following day, Johnson released the body to this man, Aver, and an accomplice, who then put it on a train bound not for San Francisco, Arkansas City, Kansas. The men who claimed to be McCurdy’s long lost brothers were in fact James and Charles Patterson, owners of the Great Patterson Carnival Shows, a traveling carnival, where McCurdy’s corpse would be featured until 1922 when Patterson sold his operation to Louis Sonney. Sonney used McCurdy’s corpse in his traveling “Museum of Crime” show which featured wax replicas of famous outlaws such as Bill Doolin and Jesse James. In 1928, the corpse was part of the official sideshow that accompanied the Trans-American Footrace. In 1933, it was acquired for a time by director Dwain Esper to promote his exploitation film Narcotic!. In a very William Castle move, the corpse was placed in the lobby of theaters as a “dead dope fiend.” By this time, some 22 years after death, McCurdy’s body had become mummified; the skin was hard and the body had shriveled to the size of a child. Esper claimed that the skin’s deterioration was proof of the danger of drugs. McCurdy’s corpse would bounce between warehouses and movie sets for the next four decades. Damage from mishandling meant that McCurdy’s corpse was no longer lifelike, which is how it found its was to the “Laff In the Dark” funhouse exhibition at The Pike in Long Beach.
After it was discovered that he wasn’t a mannequin, McCurdy was sent to the LA coroner. By this time, the body was completely petrified, covered in wax and layers of phosphorus paint. It weighed approximately 50 pounds (23 kg) and was 63 inches (160 cm) in height. Some hair was still visible on the sides and back of the head, but his ears, big toes and fingers were missing. Of all the clues that led the coroner and historians to determine the mummy’s identity, the most interesting, was found in his mouth. It was nothing to do with his teeth, but a 1924 penny and ticket stubs to the 140 W. Pike, Side Show and Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime. The discovery made national headlines and a distant relative came forward to claim Elmer McCurdy’s body, which was buried on April 22, 1977, in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, next to another outlaw, Bill Doolin, and under two feet (60 cm) of concrete.
McCurdy was hardly the first outlaw turned famous mummy. Take the case of one Hazel Farris, born in KY in 1880, orphaned as a child, and later married to a man with whom she drank heavily and fought loudly. He history has morphed into folklore, but by all accounts, on August 6, 1905, the couple had an argument over Farris’ desire to purchase of a new hat. If you’ve been in a relationship for any length of time, you know that wasn’t *really what the fight was about. The two came to blows and Farris ended up shooting her husband, who died on the living room floor. Neighbors who heard the gunshots summoned the police. The situation did not improve upon their arrival, because Farris shot and killed them too! A passing deputy sheriff heard the commotion, gained entry to the house and tried to restrain Farrows. During the scuffle, the deputy tripped on Farris’ husband’s body, accidentally firing his gun and shooting off one of Farris’ fingers. She eventually broke free and fatally shot the deputy as well. So she shot the sheriff and she did shoot the deputy.
With five murders under her belt and a $500 reward for her capture, which I couldn’t put into modern figures because inflation calculators don’t go back that far, Hazel fled to Bessemer, AL to try to begin a new life. One version of her story has her posing as a school mar, another has her working as a prostitute, but both agree that she drank excessively. She took up with a new man and when they became engaged, Hazel confided in him who she really was. He immediately gave her up to police. On December 20, 1906, fairly certain she wouldn’t emerge victorious from a second shootout with police, Hazel Farris committed suicide by drinking some combination of whiskey, fuel oil, and arsenic.
Farris’s body was taken to Adams Vermillion Furniture, which also sold caskets and as such functioned as a funeral parlor. No one came forward to claim the body, which was mummifying rather than decomposing. There is speculation it’s because of the chemicals Farris drank, but I don’t put a lot of stock by that. Regardless of the reason, the corpse had longevity and a certain renown. Adams began charging curious visitors 10¢ to see the notorious outlaw. After a time, Farris hit the road when Adam loaned the corpse to various exhibitors, including Adams’ brother in Tuscaloosa, “Palace of Wonders” sideshow operator Captain Harvey Lee Boswell, and O. C. Brooks, who featured the well-preserved remains in his traveling show for 40 years. When he died, Brooks left Hazel to a nephew, on the condition that any money raised from displaying her be donated to charity. As the story goes, Brooks’ nephew displayed Farris’s mummy to raise money to build churches in Tennessee. Let that paradigm sink in. The nephew eventually brought her back to Bessemer, where she became an infamous attraction at the newly formed Hall of History. The Hall of History also had exhibits more typical of a modern history museum, such as the door to Martin Luther King Jr’s jail cell and Adolph Hitler’s telephone (and it’s housed in a restored railroad terminal, just the the Science Museum here in Richmond, VA). After a long run there, Farris became the subject of a National Geographic Channel documentary, which is where reality reasserts itself over folklore. An autopsy performed for the documentary indicated that the mummified woman had died of pneumonia, not poisoning, and that one of its fingers had indeed been shot off some time well before death. The state of the body tissue was consistent with having been immersed in arsenic, though we’ll never know by who. It’s entirely possible that the manner of Farris’s death was retconned to fit the remains. After the documentary was finished, Hazel’s owners decided to lay her to rest and had the body cremated.
Hazel Farris wasn’t the only mummy shown by sideshow operator Harvey Lee Boswell. After the common law husband of nightclub performer Marie O’Day murdered her, he threw her body in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, where her body remained for twelve years. It had washed ashore but remained covered with salt, silt, and sand. When discovered in 1937, her body was said to be “mummified, but not petrified” due to the more than 20 percent salt chemical content present in the water of the lake. At least, that’s the way she was billed. Though O’Day’s case is more recent and should be easier to verify, any backstory being offered by someone trying to sell tickets has to be taken with a grain of salt, no pun intended. She passed through the hands of at least four showmen, with names like Hoot Black and Gold-tooth Jimmy, and was viewed in 38 states plus Canada before being sold to Boswell in 1975. He removed her from the traditional coffin in which she had been displayed because it “offended the public,” which is a funny place to draw the line, and put her in the Palace of Wonders alongside shrunken heads and animals with too many body parts.
O’Day’s tale may be less like the natural mummies we featured way back in episode #16, Mummy’s Day, but more like McCurdy and Farris, that of a body with no one to claim it. According to an account by W.F. Dubb, one of the first people to exhibit O’Day, “First, the body was an embalmed body of some woman, and the red hair was for real. … I really don’t know how she died. I don’t think Marie ever saw the Great Salt Lake, and I doubt that she was ever in the state of Utah. I heard a lot of stories of where she came from, and I don’t know when one is the truth. The one that sounds the best is that she was found dead, sitting in the waiting room of a bus station in Mississippi. There was no I.D. on her body, or in her handbag, but she was well dressed and looked like class. The undertaker assumed that someone would show up to claim her body, and it would be only a matter of days until he would be rid of her. Well, the days turned into weeks, then months, then years, and still no one showed up. After so much time had passed, a traveling showman came by and offered him something for her. It seemed like a good idea to sell and recover something, but better still, to get rid of her … So, he sold.”
Two owners later, Hoot Black, faced a problem, not with the law, but with rats. During the “off-season,” when he wasn’t on the road with O’Day, Black had to find a safe place to keep her. He didn’t want to risk the rats that habituated his storage shed getting to her, so he would wrap O’Day up and store her for the winter… under the bed he shared with his wife. I’m going to assume the wife knew about it, because a human body is somewhat more conspicuous than, say the Xbox your wife told you you couldn’t afford. When on the road, O’Day traveled in relative style in a specially-converted semi truck boasting “Marie O’Day’s Palace Car.” I’ll link to it in the show notes. If you don’t see it, “at me,” as the kids say on Twitter or FB/Ig.
Black sold to Boswell, who had O’Day until his death in 2002. It was about that time that O’Day was examined by college professors Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue for the NatGeo show “The Mummy Road Show.” They took O’Day to radiology department at Wilson Medical Center in NC where a CT scan and tissue biopsies were taken in hopes of confirming or refuting the legends surrounding Marie O’Day. “With a side-show mummy there had to be a story to bring the people in,” says Conlogue. “For the carnivals the story was more important than the mummy itself.” Following a full day of studying and analyzing test results the men had formed an opinion about the legend of Marie O’Day. They surmised that the original story was probably untrue, and O’Day had likely died as a result of tuberculosis, not stab wounds. Also, they concluded that the mummification resulted from using arsenic to embalm the body since the amount of the chemical found in the body was several hundred times the normal concentration. it seems that O’Day passed to Boswell’s son and has been in storage ever since. She very nearly had a shot either returning to fame or being laid to rest when she was among the “goods” being appraised by Mike and Frank on the tv show American Pickers. They passed on O’Day, but did spend $600 on a wax replica of Elvis.
Most of the bodies on this list brought in money, for someone anyway, after they died, but one entrant was also a source of profit during her life. Julia Pastrana was born in the mountains of Western Mexico in 1834. Her life was defined by her appearance. She was entirely covered with thick, dark hair except the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet due to a condition called generalized hypertrichosis and the shape of her face was distorted by gingival hyperplasia, a thickening of the gums and lips. Pastrana also had a very prominent brow with thick, arched eyebrows, an unusually broad nose, and irregular teeth. Her mother was convinced that some sort of supernatural force was to blame for her daughter’s looks, such as nauallis, shape-shifting werewolves, that were said to cause stillbirths and deformities.
Young Julia spent the first few years of her life sequestered with her mother in a cave, then in an an orphanage, though some accounts have Pastrana being sold to a circus by her uncle. After hearing about her, the state governor adopted Julia to serve him as a live-in entertainer and maid. There at least she was given an education, learned multiple language and the arts, as well as the manners of high society. She stayed in his home until she was 20, when she decided to return to her village.
However, she never completed her journey. On her way home, she encountered an American showman, who *persuaded her to perform onstage. Soon after, she began her career in the United States and Europe, taking part in traveling freak shows and circuses. Though her singing and dancing were quite capable, that wasn’t why people paid to see her. Pastrana was billed under names like “the Ape Woman,” “Baboon Lady,” “The Non-Descrip,” or the “Bear Woman from the wilds of Mexico!” One newspaper account of the time described her as: “The eyes of this unusual natura beam with intelligence, while its jaws, jagged fangs and ears are terrifically hideous…nearly its whole frame is coated with long glossy hair. Its voice is harmonious, for this semi-human being is perfectly docile, and speaks the Spanish language.
The idea of Julia as a semi-human being was established by Dr. Alexander B. Mott, who examined her and declared her to be a hybrid of human and orangutan. At the time, orangutans were considered as the wildest, most primitive primates with a dangerous sexuality. Other doctors refuted this ridiculous claim, but Julia’s PR ran with this claim, sharing promotional material that underlined her animalistic otherness. In it, she was described as originating from a tribe of “Root-Digger Indians” who were “spiteful and hard to govern,” living with animals and indulging in intimate relations with them. Basically racist as your main, or only, selling point. Despite all this, Pastrana was a kind-hearted, gentle, intelligent woman. She loved to travel, cook, and sew and was willing to submit herself to medical research that included an examination of her condition which puzzled so many doctors back then.
Before she was brought to Europe, Pastrana secretly married her next manager, Mr. Theodor Lent. Many believed that Julia was genuinely in love, while Theodor married her to ensure his golden goose never got away. In 1857, in Leipzig, Germany, Julia appeared on stage in a play that was written especially for her. The promotional posters for the show gave her a quite grotesque look, with exaggerated red lip, similar to depictions of African-Americans at the time. When the German audience saw Pastrana, they considered her show in bad taste and rejected it to the point that police had to be called in and stopped the show. After that, Pastrana was exhibited more discreetly.
In January 1860, while touring Russia, Pastrana gave birth to a baby boy, also covered in hair, by her manager husband. The delivery did not go well. Full-grown, she was only 4’5”/135cm tall and 112lbs/50kg, with narrow hips. The baby only survived 35 hours and three days later, Pastrana herself passed away from infection. Her last words, “I die happy. I know I have been loved for myself.” At least she’s free now, right? To quote Ramsay Bolton, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Lent got one last payday off Pastrana by selling both her and the baby to an anatomy professor in Moscow, Dr. Sukolov. Sukolov spent six months preserving their bodies with a technique that was part mummification… part taxidermy. Their bodies were posed in a glass case and put on display at Moscow University’s Anatomical Institute. When Lent realized there was still money to be made, he regained control over Pastrana and their son’s bodies and spent the next six years Lent hauling their glass display case around the world.
While on tour with his family’s corpses, he met the woman Marie Bartel, who had the same rare conditions as Pastrana, so Lent wooed and married her too, renaming her Zenora Pastrana, Julia’s fictitious sister. She would perform on stage with the bodies in the background. Later, he hid the embalmed bodies and started telling people that Zenora and Julia were the same person. Maybe Zenora wasn’t as big of a draw. Marie-turned-Zenora fared better than Julia in the long-run. After she and Lent retired in St. Petersburg, Lent when insane and she had him committed to an asylum, where he died. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Bartel went on to marry a man twenty years younger than her. At some point, she sold the Pastrana bodies to a man from Oslo who put them on display, and whose son took them on tour as part of a house of horrors. His exhibit was shut down by, of all people, the Nazis.
Pastrana and the baby would be moved from storage space to storage space through Sweden and Norway for thirty years, occasionally still making public appearances. In 1973, the display of human corpses for profit was outlawed in both countries. This didn’t mean it was proper burial time, just back into storage. At some point, miscreants broke in, opened the glass case, broke off Pastrana’s arm, took the mummy of the baby and left it in a field, where vermin destroyed it. In 1979, the warehouse was broken into again and Pastrana disappeared, reappearing in 1990 at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo… in a janitor’s closet.
While scientists and well-meaning people debated the merits of burial vs study, and Mexican artist living in Oslo, Lauren Anderson Barbata, began the fight to repatriate Pastrana’s remains.
Barbata persisted through bureaucratic pushback for three years until the Norwegian national committee for the evaluation of research on human remains agreed with her that Julia Pastrana would have wanted her corpse to be in a glass case in Scandinavia. Pressure from the Mexican ambassador didn’t hurt either. Barbata told the New York Times “I felt she deserved the right to regain her dignity and her place in history and in the world’s memory.” In 2013, Pastrana’s body was returned to Sinaloa de Leyva, Mexico, 179 years after she was born there. Her grave was covered with flowers sent by people from all over the world.
Normally I put concerted effort into researching and writing the show to ensure representation for women and people of color. This often isn’t easy. The history of almost any topic is white men all the way down. For well-traveled corpses, not so much. Female bodies preserved and bandied about are thick on the ground. It’s a bizarrely equal-opportunity outcome in terms of social class, as well. While many famous political leaders and even people adjacent to them have been preserved and put on display — think Vladimir Lenin, Hugo Chaves, Ferdinand Marcos — they tend to stay put. Not so for Eva Peron.
When Argentinian first-lady Eva Peron died in July 1952, it was a blow to her husband Juan not only personally but also professionally. Eva had been Juan’s secret weapon, the only thing keeping the population from turning on him completely. Millions went into mourning when she died. Movies were stopped and patrons were asked to leave restaurants. Within a day, every flower show in Buenos Aires was completely sold out as people constructed memorials. Eva’s slide into eternity was a slow and unenviable. She had breast cancer, though Juan ensured that the doctors keep her diagnosis and the severity of her prognosis from her. There’s even contention that she was lobotomized without her consent toward the end of her life.
When Eva died, Juan planned for Eva to continue being his figurehead, having already been in talks with a master embalmer. Dr. Pedro Ara began the first stage of his proprietary embalming process within an hour of her death. It involved replacing the body fluids with alcohol and glycerin, which is not too unusual, though he did leave her organs in situ. Then Dr. Ara injected the corpse with wax and covered it with a thin milk of plastic. The whole process took a year, and cost the equivalent of $100K, after which Dr. Ara declared said that she was now completely incorrupt, you know, like a saint.
Eva lay in state at the Ministry of Labor, with Dr. Ara always near her, to wait until her monument and tomb were completed. But they never were. In 1955, president Juan Peron was deposed and forced to flee to Spain. Eva was left behind and hidden with Dr. Ara, who continued to work on her as if she were his magnum opus. The new president Pedro Aramburu found out that Eva’s body was still in the country and wanted her to be buried, as quickly and quietly as possible. To which end the head of military intelligence Walter Keonig, was ordered to get Eva’s body from Dr. Ara and take it to Chacarita Cemetery for burial. There’s no indication as to *how her got Ara to let him take the body, but en route to the cemetery, for whatever reason, he stopped for a while to nap. He awoke to find the truck surrounded by candles and flowers. Pretty sure that people know what was in the truck, he switched trucks and drove *away from the cemetery. Again, he stopped to rest and again his parking spot became an impromptu memorial. Koenig then thought the best thing to do would be to take Eva’s corpse to military intelligence headquarters….and stick her in the attic above his office… for a year.
President Aramburu eventually found out and fired Koenig, ordering that Eva’s corpse had to be taken out of the country. Did they ferret her to neighboring Chile or Uraguay? No, Eva’s corpse was moved to Italy. She was buried in Milan under the name Maria Magi Magistris. But burial wasn’t the end. In 1971, Aramburu was killed by guerilla fighters still loyal to Juan Peron. The location of Eva’s grave was uncovered and a priest and a colonel were sent to retrieve her. Almost sounds like the set-up for a joke there. They exhumed the body, loaded it into a bakery truck, and took Eva to Juan, who was in exile in Madrid, Spain. Dr. Ara was called in to restore Eva and she was given a place of honor… in the Peron’s dining room. To the credit of the new Senora Peron, Isabel, she seemed to have been supportive of the idea, even combing and styling Eva’s hair. Two years later, Juan Peron was elected president of Argentina again and flew back with his wife, singular. He left Eva behind *again. Peron died a year later, but that still wasn’t the end of it. Peronist guerillas then dug up President Aramburu’s body and held it for ransom on the demand that Isabel Peron, who is now president, repatriate Eva’s body.
Back in Argentina, the care of Eva’s body was given to a man named Domingo Tellechea. He had to content with not insubstantial damage to Eva’s fit, possibly from being put in a coffin or container that was too small, but otherwise, she was in surprisingly good shape for those 20+ years. Say what you want about Dr. Ara, he knew his stuff. Eva was briefly laid in state, with plans to have a monument built, again, but Isabel Peron was deposed and Eva’s body was finally given to her family. She is buried in la Recoleta the cemetery in Buenos Aires, 20 feet underground, in what is essentially a steel bunker, to ensure she can finally rest in peace.
And that’s where…. Revered actor John Barrymore partied and drank himself to death in 1942.
Shortly after his death, Barrymore’s fellow actor pals Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh were drinking their sorrows away when Walsh insisted that he was too overcome with grief to continue drinking. Walsh gathered a few helpers to smuggle Barrymore’s body out of the funeral home where it was waiting to be embalmed. Walsh told the funeral director that Barrymore’s housebound old auntie wished to pay her respects to the fallen actor, so they were going to take Barrymore’s body to her. It took $100, $1500 today, but the funeral director went with it. Walsh and his accomplices carried Barrymore’s body back to Errol Flynn’s house, where they propped him up in a chair to startle Flynn when he drunkenly stumbled home. At least that’s how Flynn told it.