How Mistaken Identity Led to a 1936 Family Reunion in Tomahawk

May 29, 2019

For this week's A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about something that rarely happens.

Back in 1936, a case of mistaken identity led a family in Tomahawk to discover a loved one was not in fact dead, but very much alive.

Hi, this is Gary Entz for WXPR’s Northwood’s moment in History

The death of a beloved relative is one of the most difficult things that any family can face.  Although it does not happen often, every now and again a case of mistaken identity can lead family members into believing a loved one has passed on when quite the opposite is true.  Such as the case with a Tomahawk family in 1936.

Joe Le Tendre was born around 1878.  He was 57 in 1935, and in the winter of 1935-1936, Le Tendre left his family in Tomahawk in search of lumber work.  He was unclear about where he was going and wasn’t overly concerned about anyone worrying about his whereabouts.  However, as winter turned to spring and spring to summer, Le Tendre did not return home.  Then in July 1936 the authorities in Tomahawk received word of a death in North Dakota.  A man who had identified himself as “Frenchy” from Tomahawk had died in that state, and his physical description – right down to a missing left eye and crippled hand – fit Joe Le Tendre perfectly.  The family authorized shipment of the remains back to Tomahawk, but when the casket arrived, they looked on the body and proclaimed that it bore no resemblance to Joe Le Tendre whatsoever.  No one knew who the body in the coffin had been in life and no one claimed him, so he was buried quietly in Tomahawk.  Meanwhile, Joe Le Tendre was still missing.

One month later, in August 1936, Earle Cronkrite, a banker from Tomahawk who was now working in Woodruff, spotted Joe Le Tendre.  He walked over to the long-missing man, double-checked to make sure it was Le Tendre, and proclaimed “you’re supposed to be dead!”  He explained all that had happened to Le Tendre, but Le Tendre just laughed it off.  Le Tendre remained in Woodruff, but after a night’s sleep decided it might be a good idea to let his family know that he was still alive.  Rather than call or telegraph them, he simply found a ride and took a leisurely trip over to Tomahawk.  When he arrived outside of town, he first stopped at Lee Myre’s tavern where he was again informed that he was dead.  Myre did what Le Tendre himself should have done.  He called Le Tendre’s Tomahawk family and let them know that their lost loved one was sitting at the bar having a drink.

So where had Le Tendre been all that time?  Rather then heading west to North Dakota, Le Tendre had gone north into the UP.  He worked through the winter in remote lumbering camps and had spent the spring with a brother who had a cabin in the UP – a brother who was apparently equally irresponsible and did not bother letting anyone know that Le Tendre was there.  Nevertheless, in the end it was a happy reunion for all.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.