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 and clues to conjure the spirit of McCurdy. Doing so, he presents a decidedly entertaining chunk of American pop culture. R.I.P., Elmer McCurdy.