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Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw Paperback – October 15, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (October 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046508348X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465083480
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #244,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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I had hard time putting the book down.
NHBunion
When Svenvold is "on topic" though the writing is very good and moves at a brisk clip.
repelli
This is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time.
WCrandall

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Stephanie Spika on March 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
I just sequed into reading Elmer McCurdy's story immediately after reading Cornwell's newest on Jack the Ripper; I mention this because both authors like to ramble way off track, but unlike Cornwell, Svenvold never forgets to bring us back to Elmer and tie up all the strings; his forensic notes are written and described well, and backed up with data; all of which Ms C. just stumbles through. I live in the town where Mr. McCurdy was found, and I am in charge of an archival collection that has just added this book to a permanent collection of Long Beach history materials. I was wishing for more photos and illustrations, but I realize those were often difficult to find. This is a very entertaining and interesting read; but plan to take your time; it's not for people in a ripping hurry. Enjoy it!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Timothy A. Rundquist on October 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
It's not often that one sees a biography written in such a literate, even poetic manner. Mr. Svenvold has taken the tale of the hapless outlaw, Elmer McCurdy, in a new and interesting direction: rather than reporting his life and times (and ignominious post-mortem "career") in a cut-and-dried manner, Mr. Svenvold has woven an incisive, at times deadpan-hilarious commentary on the fading Wild West, the rise of sideshows and exploitation flicks, theme tourism and other illustrations of just how low the entertainment taste of the American public can go. Notwithstanding Mr. Svenvold's concerns that he was just another in the long line of the day-glow corpse's "exploiters," he has written the equivalent of a decent burial for poor dead Elmer. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Hamilton on June 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
Many people have been more famous in death than in life, but Elmer McCurdy would seem to take the prize for post-mortem renown. McCurdy died at the relatively tender age of 31, then had a remarkably fertile career as a celebrity corpse, first in funeral parlors, then in carnivals, a wax museum, film and, finally, an amusement park. The entire stint lasted 65 years.
With insight, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mark Svenvold relates the story of this unusual figure in his new book Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw. In the process, the author also presents an incisive commentary on American entertainment history. While dead bodies have been held sacred since the time of the ancient Greeks, the underbelly of America's low-end entertainment scene thought nothing of exploiting a human corpse along with the average American's fascination with the grotesque.
McCurdy began life inauspiciously as an illegitimate baby in rural Maine. He earned his dubious claim to fame as an outlaw by bungling a couple of train robberies. His death, in a shoot out in 1911, featured all the color and flamboyance that his life lacked.
McCurdy's body, unclaimed by friend or relative, languished at Johnson's Funeral Home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, laced with enough arsenic to preserve it well into the 21st century. Presumably to defray the expense of his storage, the embalmer put McCurdy on display for paying sightseers.
For the next several decades McCurdy traveled the beer-and-pretzels entertainment circuit, changing hands when one get-rich-quick scheme gave way to another. It isn't clear when or where folks lost track of the fact that he was a dead body and not an inanimate prop.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By WCrandall on August 1, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Poor Elmer! This is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. If you are interested in the history of the amusement business; old west; mummies; trains; outlaws;

this book is a must have! This book is easy to read and has quite a lot of photograhs.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. Guild TOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
What a crazy mixed up pile of stuff! I like Westerns,Ripley's Believe it or Not!,truth is stranger than fiction stuff,unusual characters,history,oddities,greatly miss the old freak shows that travelled with the carnivals,real life outlaws,and you name it.History is full of this stuff and to me much more fun to delve into than fiction.While the author didn't seem to come up with too much on old Elmer;probably because his short and non-illustrious produced very little;he sure found enough to spin around what he did have to create a good interresting read.I believe the period after the Civil War until the start of the 2WW produced some of the most interresting characters and times in American history.That was all before the do gooders, politically correct,boring and otherwise anal-retentive got everything under control.But then again, they probably prefer reading about some corporate business scam to the gangster days of Capone and all. Since this was the first thing I've read by the author I'll be looking to find something else from him.From what he did with this story I am sure he'll be giving us some more good stuff in the future.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Craig Harvey on February 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
The case of Elmer McCurdy is right up there with Marilyn Monroe and the Simpson-Goldman murders in terms of fascinating twists and turns to finally arrive at "what happened". I was familiar with the case beforehand, but received this book as a gift from a co-worker. I can honestly say I enjoyed the book, but was a tad miffed that the writer kept taking these side jaunts with the story...but at the end, I feel the side trips helped create a total immersion into the era, the players and basically covering issues that have long since stopped being talked about or have been forgotten. To think it all could have been avoided if a funeral director had done "the right thing" and not tried to make money off the body of Elmer McCurdy. I would have liked to read more of the forensic efforts made, but all in all, a decent read.
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