Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife Of An American Outlaw

Mark Svenvold

(Basic Books)

Calling Elmer McCurdy an outlaw is generous. After the Wild West era began its remission, he made bungled attempts to rob banks and trains, trying to emulate such icons as Bill Doolin and Butch Cassidy, who embodied the raucous sentiment of possibility encapsulated in the famous line, "Go West, young man." Alas, McCurdy was no such hero. But his biographer, Mark Svenvold, revisits his heyday anyway.

It's slightly imprecise to refer to this book as a biography, since it's prompted by McCurdy's afterlife. Thing about McCurdy is, he spent most of his metabolically active time drinking and embarrassing himself. A purported demolitions expert, he once kept a trainload of hostages waiting for hours while making multiple attempts to open a safe, eventually melting the coins into a clump that stuck to its sides. Such were his accomplishments in life, and he would have disappeared into obscurity were it not for the adventures he encountered in death.

After having been shot down by a posse (following yet another humbling criminal attempt, wherein he robbed the wrong train), McCurdy's dead body went unclaimed. It was eventually mummified and displayed by various parties, making its way into the circuit of carnivals, funhouses, and a museum of criminal history. Svenvold follows the adventures of the dead body and uses its travels to explore the interesting history of the carnival and its transition into the genre of exploitation films. (McCurdy's body at one point resided in the prop storage department of a Hollywood studio, though it never made its way into a film.)

Throughout the book, Svenvold uses McCurdy's body as a vehicle to discuss intriguing and obscure episodes of American culture from Douglas MacArthur's lieutenancy at Fort Leavenworth to L.A.'s Dr. Noguchi, a coroner who performed autopsies on the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate and John Belushi, among many others.

In the end, McCurdy is really only significant because of the anomalous circumstances of his posthumous adventures. He never made history while alive, but at least provides a gateway into history while dead. Svenvold uses his mummified corpse to give a fascinating glimpse into cult America. MARJORIE SKINNER