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Found: A Mummified Monkey in the Ceiling of a Department Store

Thanks to the sleuths in a Facebook group, we may even know how it got there.

The mummified monkey in question.
The mummified monkey in question. Courtesy Old Minneapolis

When you’re renovating an old building, you expect to find some strange things hiding. Maybe there’s an old report card someone slipped into the floor, or some cool out-of-date candy wrappers. Maybe there’s a secret room or two. Or maybe there’s an entire monkey, mummified by time, hanging out in the ceiling.

As the Old Minneapolis Facebook page first reported, construction workers remodeling Dayton’s Department Store discovered the petrified primate earlier this week. Since then, people from all over the state, including the mayor of a nearby suburb and the governor of Minnesota, have been clamoring to offer explanations for its presence.* It seems this mystery—like the monkey—goes all the way to the top.

Dayton’s Department Store was founded way back in 1902. While it eventually spread to 19 locations, its flagship store is “literally at the center of Minneapolis,” explains Alan Freed, one of the administrators of the Old Minneapolis Facebook page. People who grew up in the city have plenty of memories there, whether it’s of riding the escalators up and down or visiting Santa in the eighth-floor auditorium space during the holidays.

Dayton's Department Store, where the monkey was found.
Dayton’s Department Store, where the monkey was found. Bobak Ha’Eri/CC-BY-SA-3.0

So when Freed found the user-submitted photo and reposted it to the main page, asking members to help solve “The Mystery of the Mummified Monkey,” they jumped into action. “Finding a carcass of a mummified animal in the bones of a well-loved old department store certainly is appropriate for the site,” says Freed. “But it’s not typical.” Many offered theories. One recalled a circus on the building’s eighth floor.* Another mentioned her boyfriend’s long-ago lost pet.

By Tuesday night, Freed says, they’d gotten a few stories that seemed to mesh. The first came from Steven Laboe, who had heard it from a Dayton’s old-timer. “He told me about the monkey who had escaped from the 8th floor pet store,” Laboe wrote. “They found the cage empty on a Monday… and finally determined that the monkey had escaped in the air conditioning duct work… Someone complained about a horrible odor a few hours later.” And then, apparently, everyone forgot.

Soon after, other readers provided details. One was Regan Murphy, now the mayor of the nearby city of Robbinsdale. Murphy tweeted that his father, Larry Murphy, had “stolen a monkey from a Dayton’s display back in the 60s.” After it “shat all over my Dad’s friend’s bedroom,” he continued, they “returned” their new pet by releasing it into the store. “This is probably that monkey.”

The inside of Dayton's, just before renovations began.
The inside of Dayton’s, just before renovations began. August Schwerdfeger/CC BY 2.0

Larry has since passed away, as has the aforementioned accomplice, Tom Netka—but Netka’s daughter, Bonnie Sheridan, sent Old Minneapolis a video of her dad talking about taking the monkey. According to the video, he snuck it out in his jacket and kept it in his room for a couple of days. “He ran around and wouldn’t stop pooping,” he says, twirling a finger above his head. “Just kept on going.” (“Grandpa, did you really steal a monkey?” a small child asks at one point. “That’s not nice.”)

On Wednesday, the Governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, threw a bit of a wrench into the proceedings by offering up his own story. Dayton is the great-grandson of George Draper Dayton, who founded the department store in the first place, and worked there in the summer of 1968. He said at an (unrelated) press conference that the store put up a rainforest display and was surprised when the monkeys started eating the birds. In the process of separating the two, he continued, they lost a primate, who escaped into the ceiling.

The view from the top floor of the former Dayton's building. The monkey was so close.
The view from the top floor of the former Dayton’s building. The monkey was so close. August Schwerdfeger/CC BY 2.0

Freed—who, as he tells me, has spent “the last three days of my life fielding media inquiries about a monkey”—prefers the first story. He has been paying careful attention to all theories offered, and if you stack Netka, Murphy, and Leboe’s tales together, he says, they add up. “They’re consistent in almost all ways,” says Freed. “The timing, the timeline… it doesn’t lead itself to obvious suspicion.” If you ask him how the monkey got up into the ceiling, his money is on the pair of preteen boys.

He’s now trying to track down more details about the next phase of the story: the discovery. Freed eventually learned who found the monkey, he says, and sent him some questions. “I said to him, ‘You’re the guy who found it, what was that like? Were you surprised? Did it come at you out of nowhere?’” he says. “He never responded.” The person who posted the photo, too, has gone quiet. “It might take another 50 years for these two guys to come and tell their story.” But when they do, the Old Minneapolis Facebook group will be waiting.

*Correction: This post previously stated that the Dayton is the governor of Minneapolis. He is the governor of Minnesota. Also, this post previously stated that the circuses took place on the top floor, when they actually took place on the eighth floor, which is not the top floor.