I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years now, and my travels have taken me all over the country and even a couple foreign countries. Up until this week, I’d never made it to Oklahoma, so I was glad to make the trip to Oklahoma City, even if it was for just a couple days.
The weather in Oklahoma was beautiful… while I was there. Unfortunately, there must have been some pretty bad monsoons right before I touched down, because the cemeteries I visited were fairly swampy. I fortunately managed to avoid losing my shoes, but whenever I get these photos online, you may notice that a couple of the grave markers are slightly underwater. I’ve often thought of putting together a small travel gravestone cleaning kit to help fix up some of the dirtier, more obscured graves. I may have to consider adding a shop-vac to my inventory.
In spite of the puddles, I did locate the graves of 12 ballplayers located in three cemeteries. There was one Hall of Famer (Lloyd Waner) and a couple of other noteworthy players (Allie Reynolds, Cal McLish). One of my favorite finds, though, didn’t have anything to do with baseball. Well, it has a little to do with baseball…
Ernie Burch, who had a brief career as an outfielder in the 1880s, is buried in Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla. After visiting his grave, I was exiting the cemetery when I saw a sign that pointed to the cemetery’s Boot Hill. Obviously, I had to visit that, and I’m glad I did. I found the grave of one Elmer McCurdy. You may have heard of his story, even if you don’t know the name. McCurdy was an outlaw during the 1880s. However, his real fame (or infamy if you prefer) came after he died.
Elmer McCurdy wasn’t a very good outlaw. He robbed banks, but the nitroglycerin he used to blow up safes often blew up the money inside. He and his partners robbed a Kansas train in Oklahoma, but they got away with less than 50 bucks and some whiskey. Elmer got drunk on the whiskey and fell asleep in a barn. When he woke up, he found a posse had surrounded the barn, and he was killed in the ensuing shootout.
Here’s where Elmer’s second career starts. The undertaker embalmed him, but nobody claimed the body, so he put it on display and charged admission. Elmer was claimed by supposed family members, but they actually ran a carnival sideshow. He was put on display again and occasionally rented out as a movie prop. Elmer toured the whole country in the ensuing decades and had been painted over with wax and other preservatives as he slowly mummified. He was used in an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1977, and everyone on the show assumed it was a mannequin until Elmer’s arm fell off, revealing bone and muscle. The body was examined and eventually determined to be Elmer McCurdy. He was sent back to Oklahoma for burial, and a couple feet of concrete was poured over the coffin to ensure that Elmer’s traveling days were indeed over.
And the baseball connection? I found this out from a local baseball historian via Instagram (@the_horsehide_historian if you want to give him a follow, and you should). When Elmer McCurdy was returned to Guthrie and interred in Summit View, the superintendent of the cemetery was Cookie Chambers, who played with a Negro Leagues team called the Guthrie Black Spiders. Just furthers my belief that there’s always a baseball connection if you look hard enough!