Mummy in a Tree: The Strange Demise of Jean La Rue

The mass execution of 38 Sioux at Mankato in 1862


The summer of 1862 marked a turning point in the contentious relationship between the United States government and the Sioux. In Minnesota, much of the Sioux corn crop had been destroyed by insects, leaving many families facing starvation. When aid and food rations promised by the government failed to arrive, the Sioux took the matter into their own hands by raiding and pillaging the farms of white settlers.

On August 17, four young Sioux attempted to steal eggs from a farmhouse, but were caught in the act by the farm's owner. After a heated argument, the Sioux slaughtered five members of the innocent family, much to the chagrin of tribal leaders. Believing that the federal government would declare war on the Sioux in retaliation, a chief by the name of Little Crow made the fateful decision to launch a pre-emptive "scorched earth" campaign against white settlements along the Minnesota River. Over 500 white settlers lost their lives in this bloody conflict, along with roughly 150 members of the Sioux tribe. Those Sioux who fled to the safety of North Dakota were apprehended by the military and brought back to Minnesota, where they were sentenced to death. Although President Lincoln commuted the sentences of many of these men, 38 of them were hanged in Mankato on December 26.

While much has been written about this event, which has come to be known as the Dakota Uprising, considerably less has been written about Jean La Rue, a French immigrant who became the strangest casualty of this bloody series of battles.

On August 29, less than two weeks after the four Sioux boys had triggered the conflict by slaughtering the farmer's family, a detachment of troops traveling upriver from St. Paul to New Ulm attempted to scare away the rampaging Sioux by firing their rifles. White settlers who were living on the banks of the Minnesota River near the town of Le Sueur, however, mistook this fusillade as the rifle shots of hostile Indians. Many of the settlers fled in fear, including Jean La Rue, who was working as a farmhand for an Ottawa Township farmer named Edward Gleek.

La Rue, scared out of his mind, raced into the farmhouse and grabbed his rifle, along with a few possessions, and fled into the woods in search of a place to hide. He wouldn't be seen again for 57 years.

In July of 1919, Edward Gleek, now an old man, was clearing a parcel of land along the river. At one point it became necessary to cut down an ancient, gigantic white oak tree at the edge of his property. The giant tree, which had stood rotting and decaying for as long as anyone could remember, broke when it toppled to the ground, revealing that it was hollow for a length of about fifteen feet. As Gleek's crew of farmhands began to chop up the wood, they made a horrifying the discovery inside the trunk-- the mummified remains of a human body. The body, as described by the Le Sueur newspaper, was "not at all decayed, but dried and shriveled by the lapse of time into something rivaling the best Egyptian art."

Gleek, who was summoned to the scene by the woodchopped, immediately recognized the well-preserved face of the corpse. It was Jean La Rue, whose whereabouts had been unknown since August 29, 1862. Inside the cavity of the tree were also found La Rue's rifle, bullet pouch, powderhorn and several hundred dollars, which seemed to indicate that La Rue had attempted to hide inside the tree for safety.

One can only imagine the fear that must have coursed through his body as he hid inside the white oak, desperately clutching his rifle and praying that the marauding Sioux warriors wouldn't stumble across his place of concealment. And, as terrified as he was at the thought of getting scalped by a tomahawk or bludgeoned by a Sioux war club, this fear must have paled in comparison to the terror he surely felt when he realized that he was stuck inside the tree and that escape was impossible.

It's impossible to say how long Jean La Rue survived before succumbing to a strange and ghastly death, but he was alive long enough to write a note, which he presumably feared might never be read. Inside the mummy's pocket, Edward Gleek found the note, which read: Can not get out. Surely must die. If ever found, send me and all my money to my mother, Madam Suzanne La Rue, near Tarascon, in the province of Bouches, Du Rhome, France.




Baxter (Kansas) Daily Citizen, July 14, 1919.
Manhattan (Kansas) Morning Chronicle, August 22, 1919.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1919.