Svenvold, Mark 1958-

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SVENVOLD, Mark 1958-


Born 1958, in Seattle, WA. Education: University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, M.F.A.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins, 10 E. 53rd St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10022.


Writer, poet. Fordham University, New York, NY, poet in residence.


Vassar Miller prize and Discovery/ Nation award, both for Soul Data.


Soul Data: Poems, University of North Texas Press (Denton, TX), 1998.

Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's Bazaar, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, and Nation.


Mark Svenvold's poetry is collected in his prize-winning Soul Data, featuring the long poem, "Death of the Cabaret Hegel," about a Seattle performance space that is sacrificed for a freeway. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "the scene … boasts the glories of mixed zoning and thrift-shop hunting." The writer commented that three poems have as their subject Thelonious Monk, but added that Svenvold "seems more at home with the 1960s nihilism of the Doors." In other poems, Svenvold focuses on his job working in a garage and the deaths of his parents.

Svenvold's Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw is a biography of the man, and later the mummy, who was, and is, Elmer McCurdy. T. W. H. Miller began his review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Online with an old-timey spiel, saying, "Step right up folks, and we will amaze you, yes, even astonish you, with the life and times of one of the West's last outlaws.…The true saga of this inept train robber has been faithfully recorded by the talented Mark Svenvold, who has let no obstacle stand in his way in his resolve to bring you the truth. Not only does Svenvold offer you the lurid details of Elmer's misspent life, but we positively guarantee that you will be appalled and fascinated when our author cleverly plays out the cards of this drama."

"Svenvold works hard to set his main character in a larger context," wrote Adam Woog in the Seattle Times. "Many disparate strands of Americana come into play, with the McCurdy mummy as their unwitting nexus. We're thus treated to potted histories of, among other things, cadaver preservation, the Osage Indians, exploitation film making, grave snatchers, and carnivals."

Elmer the mummy was discovered in 1976 in a Long Beach, California fun house during the shooting of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. When a technician moved what seemed to be a dummy, hanging overhead from a noose, one arm fell off, and the horrified crew discovered that the dummy was, in fact, a mummy. It was Elmer McCurdy, embalmed with generous amounts of arsenic, a method of preservation that ended around 1920. The copper jacket of the bullet that had killed him was also discovered, and it was determined to be of a type that ceased to be manufactured before World War II. Additional clues to the mummy's identity were found in his mouth—a rusted 1924 penny and ticket stubs, one of which read "Louis Soney's Museum of Crime," along with a Los Angeles address.

Born in Maine in 1880 to an unwed teenager, McCurdy left the home of the aunt and uncle who raised him and traveled west, where he worked as a miner, plumber, and soldier. It is said that he may have learned about explosives from Douglas MacArthur while at Fort Leavenworth. Investigators discovered that McCurdy had been killed by a posse in 1911, in a shootout in an outlaw refuge in the Osage Hills of Oklahoma following a failed train robbery, during which the thieves found only a few dollars. That Elmer had picked the wrong train was indicative of the life he led, filled with mistakes and drunken misdeeds. He was a man who couldn't find success, even in crime. Booklist's George Cohen felt that Svenvold "has done a first-rate job in documenting the story of a second-rate felon."

The undertaker who handled McCurdy's body was unable to find someone willing to pay for his work, so he used enough arsenic to preserve the corpse and charged five cents a viewing to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up." In 1916, a carnival owner claimed the body, saying that he would return it to McCurdy's mother, but in fact, he saw an opportunity to cash in. McCurdy traded hands many times. He traveled with the Museum of Crime, was sold to Craft's Carnival Circus, and then was featured as "The One Thousand-Year-Old Man" in a Long Beach wax museum. McCurdy was used as a prop for the film Narcotic, by Dwain Esper, who was also responsible for the cult film, Reefer Madness.

McCurdy was rejected for a spot in the Mount Rushmore Haunted House, because he had become too stiff, and it was then that the owner of the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, who thought he was a prop, decided to cover him with paint that glowed in the dark under ultraviolet light. After the 1976 discovery, McCurdy was finally laid to rest in a boot hill in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where he became a tourist attraction and the headliner in a local bed and breakfast's murder mystery weekends.

David Traxel noted in the New York Times Book Review that the story of Elmer McCurdy has been retold in poems, a play, another book, and in a documentary film, but said that "what Svenvold brings to the party, aside from jaunty prose and a keen eye for the incongruous but telling detail, is a willingness to ramble with his subject through the decades and across the country, using him as a line upon which to string odd facts and insights about the lower reaches of American culture."



Booklist, October 15, 2002, George Cohen, review of Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and After-Life of an American Outlaw, p. 368.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1998, review of Soul Data, p. 695; September 15, 2002, review of Elmer McCurdy, p. 1373.

New York Times Book Review, January 26, 2003, David Traxel, review of Elmer McCurdy, p. 17.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 2002, Rusty Pray, review of Elmer McCurdy.

Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2002, review of Elmer McCurdy, p. 61.

Seattle Times, November 29, 2002, Adam Woog, review of Elmer McCurdy.


BookPage, (August 27, 2003), Lynn Hamilton, review of Elmer McCurdy.

Kansas City Star Online, (November 19, 2002), John Mark Eberhart, review of Elmer McCurdy.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Online, (December 15, 2002), T. W. H. Miller, review of Elmer McCurdy. *