Louis Sonney and His Outlaws

Corpse Belonging to Cult Filmmaker in Carnival Conundrum!

In late 1976, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN was in production of its penultimate season. THE BIONIC WOMAN had already launched, and Bigfoot had come and gone—but there was at least one more memorable character that this series would introduce to the world. You might not remember him, but his name was Elmer, and he was a dead man.

The cast and crew were filming the episode “Carnival of Spies” on location at the Laff-in-the-Dark haunted house ride at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. They were surrounded by old and weathered props, plastic spooks, and rubber monsters. A strange looking corpse made of orange wax hung from a noose and needed to be repositioned. When a crew member moved it, the prop’s arm broke off. Whatever light laughter this might have inspired soon vanished, however, when closer examination showed that beneath the orange wax was withered meat, and a glistening white bone.

Six Million Dollar Man

The hanging man was no mere dummy. It was an actual human corpse, hidden amongst the playthings.

The Sheriff’s Department was called in, and the body was hauled away for examination. The L.A. County Coroner’s Office examined the corpse, determining that it had been an adult male who suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. It had shrunken down to 50 pounds and just over five feet long, and portions of its ears and some of its fingers and toes were missing. He had obviously been dead for quite some time.

Chemical analysis of the body tissue proved that the embalming fluid used was manufactured between 1905 and 1940, giving investigators a rough idea of the era in which he died. After the jaw was removed, a few curious items were found inside the dead man’s mouth: a penny that was minted in 1924, and a ticket stub granting admittance to an attraction called Louis Sonney’s Museum of Crime.

Crime, it would seem, is a recurring theme in this story.

***

Roy G. Gardner was born in Trenton, NJ but raised in Colorado Springs, CO. He was charming and physically attractive, but still found himself growing into an itinerant lifestyle of random wanderings, sporadic work-for-hire, and petty crimes. When he was old enough, he joined the U.S. Army, but deserted in 1906 and fled to Mexico. When the Mexican Revolution was in its earliest stages, Gardner cashed in by becoming a gunrunner, but was captured by  Victoriano Huerta’s forces and sentenced to death. Not willing to go quietly, Gardner and a few other American prisoners attacked the guards and escaped.

He returned to the United States and took up boxing, becoming a semi-successful prizefighter in the American Southwest. He eventually made his way to San Francisco, lost all of his winnings to gambling, and robbed a Market Street jewelry store to make ends meet. This resulted in his arrest and a stint in San Quentin, but he earned an early parole after saving a prison guard’s life during a riot amongst the inmates. He appeared to have gone straight for a while—he landed a good job as a welder and then opened his own welding company; he met a woman and they were married; and together they had a daughter. But eventually his old vices came calling once again.

During a supposed business trip to Tijuana, Gardner gambled away every dime he had at the race tracks. Desperate to refill his coffer, he robbed a U.S. Mail Truck in 1920 near San Diego, CA, absconding with $80,000. He was arrested days later while burying the cash. Sentenced to 25 years on McNeil Island, he escaped during transport by distracting the marshals that accompanied him, stealing one of their weapons, and handcuffing them together before emptying their wallets. This was followed by a quiet fugitive year in Canada.

When he returned to the States, it was as a full-fledged bandit, robbing banks and mail trains all over the country. He was captured again in 1921, but once more managed to escape during transport, this time with the assistance of an unknown associate who had hidden a pistol on the train beforehand. A $5,000 bounty was placed on Gardner’s head, kicking off one of the largest manhunts in the nation’s history.

Roy G. Gardner's Mugshot

On the run, Gardner tried to slip into Centralia, WA without being recognized. He wrapped his head in pilfered medical bandages, leaving only a single slit across one eye for him to see out of, and told people a story about being badly burned in an industrial accident. He rented a room at the Oxford Hotel and attempted to lay low. His suspicious demeanor attracted the attention of hotel owner Gertrude Howell and local lawman Louis Sonney, and a cursory investigation turned up a firearm in the man’s rented room. Sonney confronted Gardner and a brief scuffle ensued, but ultimately Gardner was captured and sentenced once again to 25 years at McNeil Island. This time, he was polite enough to wait until arriving at the prison to escape.

He convinced two other prisoners to join him in his escape, and used them as decoys while he made his way off the island. During the escape, one of these fellow prisoners was badly wounded, and the other was killed. Gardner himself was shot in the leg, but he did not let this prevent him from getting away. He next appeared in Arizona, where he committed more train robberies before being captured one final time, transferring from Leavenworth to a Washington mental institution to Atlanta Federal Prison and eventually Alcatraz. He was paroled in 1938, and sought out a way to go straight, while still capitalizing on his former criminal behavior. For that, he would need the help of one of the men who had previously captured him.

***

Centralia police officer Louis Sonney was born in Bellingham, WA in 1888, and although not much is known of his early life, he worked for a time as a coal miner before joining the police force. His capture of Roy Gardner at the Oxford Hotel in Centralia had landed Sonney in the public spotlight for his fifteen minutes of fame. He rather liked it, and discovered that although law enforcement was his trade, he was a hustler and a huckster in his heart. He traded his career in for a new one in the entertainment industry, and founded Sonney Amusements later that same year. The company would go on to produce and distribute burlesque movies and exploitation films, but Sonney’s first foray into showbiz was a carnival show that demonstrated the dangers of crime, and it may have been for this show (or a variation of it) for which Sonney initially procured his very own corpse for display. That corpse was once the bumbling outlaw Elmer McCurdy.

***

Elmer was born to an unwed mother, possibly the result of incest, and took to heavy drinking early in life. After some time as an apprentice plumber, he joined the Army and received some minor explosives training with nitroglycerin. After an honorable discharge, he entered into a life of crime, taking to robbing banks and trains. He often put his Army training to use in his schemes, and utilized nitroglycerin in his robberies. More often than not, though, he bungled the attempts. In one instance, he used too much explosives when attempting to blow the safe and destroyed the bulk of the money locked inside. Another time, he is said to have leveled the bank around him while the safe remained unscathed.

His final robbery attempt was intended to target a train near Okesa, OK on October 4th, 1911 that was rumored to be carrying $400,000 in cash. McCurdy and his cohorts boarded the wrong train, however, and were only able to round up a small handful of valuables from the passengers and a couple bottles of booze. He escaped with his share of the goods, but days later a group of three sheriffs tracked him down at his friend Charlie Revard’s ranch outside the town of Bartlesville. There was a shootout which lasted for an hour, and McCurdy was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest. McCurdy had warned the lawmen that he would never be taken alive, and like a gentleman, he was true to his word.

Living Elmer McCurdy

His body was taken to the Johnson Funeral Home in Pawhuska, where it remained unclaimed. Owner and operator Joseph L. Johnson embalmed McCurdy’s body and prepared him for burial, but refused to inter him as he had not been paid for his services. Instead, Johnson posed the corpse with a rifle and put him on display, available to be viewed by anybody with a nickel. A number of carnival promoters offered to purchase McCurdy’s remains, but Johnson refused to sell. He was making a mint on Elmer’s back.

After five years, two of Elmer McCurdy’s long-lost brothers finally arrived to claim the body. Aver and Wayne McCurdy went through the proper channels, contacting both the local sheriff’s department and an attorney, before approaching Johnson, and they took Elmer with them to be given a proper burial.

Except Elmer did not have any long lost brothers, and Aver and Wayne McCurdy were actually James and Charles Patterson, proprietors of the traveling Great Patterson Carnival Show. They had bilked Joseph L. Johnson out of his moneymaker, and they put Elmer in their show as “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Taken Alive”. It was from the Patterson brothers that Louis Sonney eventually gained possession of the corpse.

Elmer was on display in Sonney’s Museum of Crime for years, and he often went out on tour. Strangely enough, he was part of a sideshow that accompanied the 1928 Trans-American Footrace which began in Los Angeles and finished in New York. He was also lent out to exploitation film kingpin Dwain Esper to be displayed in theater lobbies where Esper’s 1933 film NARCOTIC was being shown, posing as a deceased drug addict. Sonney, incidentally, went on to produce Esper’s trash classic MANIAC in 1934, so their Elmer transaction apparently went over very well.

***

While Elmer was making his way across the country, Roy Gardner was stuck in place. Shortly after his release from prison in 1936, Gardner published an account of his time in Alcatraz entitled Hellcatraz: The Rock of Despair. He also formed an unlikely partnership with the man who sent him to jail, Louis Sonney, who offered him a chance to reform. They toured together on the lecture circuit, and they worked together on the short film YOU CAN’T BEAT THE RAP in 1936, in which they reenacted Gardner’s capture.

Cover image to Hellcatraz: Rock of Despair

The straight and narrow must not have agreed with Gardner, though. On January 10, 1940, he attached a note to the door of his San Francisco hotel room which warned the staff “Do not open door. Poison gas. Call police.” Gardner had committed suicide by dropping cyanide tablets into a glass of acid and succumbing to the poison fumes.

***

Louis Sonney died of a brain hemorrhage in 1949, nine years after one of his outlaws and 39 years after the other. After his passing, his son Dan Sonney took over as president of Sonney Amusements, giving us such celluloid delights as THE FLESH MERCHANT (1956) [reviewed HERE] and TRADER HORNEE (1970). Elmer McCurdy was relegated mostly to storage, but Dan Sonney’s business partner David F. Friedman (perhaps best known for the gore films he made with Herschell Gordon Lewis) used him as background decor in his 1967 film SHE-FREAK.

Dead Elmer McCurdy

A year later, Elmer was sold to Spoony Singh of the Hollywood Wax Museum, who in turn passed him on to a sideshow at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach. After the sideshow went out of business, Elmer was sold once more to the spookhouse operator, who, not realizing that he was in possession of a genuine corpse, embellished him with wax and paint, and strung him up from a noose.

And there he stayed until being rediscovered by the cast and crew of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

Once identified, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest. His coffin was encased in concrete, to ensure that he would be bothered no more.

***

Louis Sonney may be known only to a select breed of movie fans these days, but he was a central figure in the mythical world where the carnival life and the exploitation film overlapped. What is an exploitation film if not a sideshow projected on the big screen? Look no further than Tod Browning’s seminal FREAKS for evidence, which was this almost literally.

Sonney’s life was inexorably linked to two outlaws who were quite different from each other: one could hardly be caught, while the other couldn’t get away with anything; one laid himself to rest, while the other was steadfastly refused any such luxury. And finally, one achieved fame in life, while the other achieved it only in death.

They both, however, managed to make it in pictures.

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