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Elmer Mccurdy: The Life And Afterlife Of An American Outlaw
     

Elmer Mccurdy: The Life And Afterlife Of An American Outlaw

by Mark Svenvold
 

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The short-lived misadventures of an American outlaw—and the seventy-year adventure of his corpse—trace a journey through America's long fascination with the exotic, the freakish, the sensational, and the illicit.
This is the story of Elmer McCurdy, a failed plumber from Bangor, Maine, who went west to become an even less successful bad guy. He arrived in

Overview

The short-lived misadventures of an American outlaw—and the seventy-year adventure of his corpse—trace a journey through America's long fascination with the exotic, the freakish, the sensational, and the illicit.
This is the story of Elmer McCurdy, a failed plumber from Bangor, Maine, who went west to become an even less successful bad guy. He arrived in Oklahoma a few decades after the golden age of the outlaw and attempted to resurrect the lost art of train robbing, but his criminal skills were so deficient that he bungled every robbery he attempted. His contemporaries were amused by the incompetent throwback, but when McCurdy was shot dead in 1911 by a posse of deputy marshals, popular sentiment suddenly drafted him into the glorified criminal league. Able to recognize a fetish in the making, two men from a passing carnival hoodwinked a sheriff and claimed McCurdy's corpse. Thus began a post-mortem career in show business that lasted until 1976, when McCurdy's body was discovered in a California amusement ride. Mark Svenvold has reconstructed the bizarre itinerary of the corpse, its many years on the sideshow circuit and its second career as a cautionary prop in morality movies like I Changed My Sex. By exploring the underside of American entertainment and by following how McCurdy was presented to the public after his death, Svenvold also shows how our culture's deepest obsessions have changed over the course of a century. A lively and engaging chronicle of a man who was as hapless in death as he was in life, Elmer McCurdy is a narrative of our collective affinity for nostalgia, celebrity, the wonderful, the abnormal and the outrageous.
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

Author Biography: Mark Svenvold has published two poetry collections, the more recent of which, Soul Data, won a Discovery/The Nation award in poetry. His nonfiction has appeared in Harper's Bazaar and elsewhere. He currently lives in New York City.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Elmer McCurdy was a failed plumber turned failed criminal who was shot dead by a posse in 1911, after bungling a train robbery. In life, McCurdy was a classic two-bit loser, but after his death he was suddenly glorified as a hard-riding outlaw, and his embalmed body was turned into a sideshow attraction. The tale of McCurdy's corpse becomes a lively, digressive history of the underside of American popular entertainment in the twentieth century, from carnivals to exploitation films. Avoiding a ponderous cultural-studies tone, Svenvold offers sharp reflections on the cult of the outlaw and the charms of hucksterism, while staying keenly attuned to the wonderful strangeness of a culture that could transform a corpse into a celebrity.
Publishers Weekly
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) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Like Elvis, Elmer McCurdy pursued a lively theatrical career long after he died. A feckless western outlaw who was killed in 1911, he was finally interred in a Boot Hill grave 66 years later. His story, still a cult cowboy saga, is told anew by Svenvold (Soul Data, 1998), a poet turned earnest reporter. The fabled highwayman-his name, without reason, is sometimes linked with Butch, Sundance, the Daltons and the James boys-was an inept train robber, spectacularly unsuccessful in his few bumbling forays against decent folk. From his native Maine, the young man went west in search of somebody's fortune. In the Army there, he almost learned the rudiments of demolition. After discharge from Ft. Leavenworth, discovered in St. Joe lugging burglar's tools, he was jailed briefly. He held up a train thought to be carrying abundant cash, though it yielded little more than a few bottles of rot-gut. McCurdy, 31, was soon killed by a posse. That's just the start of his story. Dead, he entered showbiz. The undertaker kept his body for display, and the mummified remains eventually toured the country in sideshows. In time, employed by entertainment's bottom-feeders, the mummy went to Hollywood to appear in exploitation flicks. Finally, he-or it-was discovered in a defunct amusement park, painted in Day-Glo and falling apart. Even now, his grave is visited by ballyhoo. The story has been told before, but Svenvold brings a poet's touch to the western mythopoeia. Some of his topics are barely relevant, like a sketch of Douglas MacArthur; others are more germane, like a medical examiner's work or the carney world. With frequent imaginings and surmises, Svenvold conducts a literary séance, using hints andclues to conjure the spirit of McCurdy. Doing so, he presents a decidedly entertaining chunk of American pop culture. R.I.P., Elmer McCurdy. Author tour

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465083480
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
09/26/2002
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
5.95(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.19(d)

Meet the Author

Mark Svenvold has published two poetry collections. Soul Data, his second collection, won a Discovery/The Nation award in poetry. His nonfiction has appeared in Harper's Bazaar and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.

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