The Battle Over the Body of Jim Thorpe

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Legendary athlete, Jim Thorpe holding a helmet and wearing his Canton Bulldogs uniform in circa 1917. He is looking directly at the camera and has a big "C" on his chest.
Jim Thorpe in his Canton Bulldogs gear photographed in circa 1917. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early 1900s, no one embodied the spirit of American athleticism more than Jim Thorpe. Thorpe, a member of the Sax and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, shocked the track and field coach at the Carlisle Industrial Indian School when he performed a five-foot nine-inch high jump while in his street clothes. He went on to become a phenom in track and field before moving on to the more rough and ready sport of football. Leading his school over then-champions Harvard, Thorpe would go on to become a national celebrity as a member of the All-American Team two years in a row.

He soon set his sights on the Olympics. The Olympics were still in its infancy, with many of the events that we now associate with it only beginning. At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, these included the pentathlon and the decathlon, a mix of track and field events that would put any athlete to the test. Thorpe earned a place on the United States Olympic team and wowed the crowds with his demonstration of talent. He would win four of the five events of the pentathlon, then went on to score 8,413 points in the decathlon. This set a record that would not be broken for over twenty years; this record is more impressive, since Thorpe set this record wearing a pair of mismatched, poorly fitted shoes, as his own pair was stolen the day of the decathlon!

Jim Thorpe pictured in shorts, odd socks and his hands on his waist at the 1912 Olympics.
Jim Thorpe pictured at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With two gold medals around his neck, Thorpe returned to the United States a celebrity. Unfortunately, the news would break six months after the games that he had played two seasons of semi-professional baseball, a common thing for college athletes in the era to do during the summers. This stripped him of his medals, as the Olympics was strictly for “amateur” athletes. However, new doors were opened for him, and he went on to a career in both professional baseball and football. Sadly, he retired from professional sports just as the Great Depression hit. Despite receiving proceeds from a movie based on his life and having a minor stint as a Hollywood actor, Thorpe fell into alcoholism, losing what money he had earned, before dying of heart failure in 1953 at the age of 65.

Jim Thorpe running on a track with another man named McGloughlin in Celtic park new york. Thorpe is wearing white shorts and a black vest with a C on it.
Jim Thorpe (behind) running alongside McGloughlin (front) at Celtic Park in New York City, United States in 1910. Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

After his death, Thorpe’s body lay in state at a local Oklahoma cemetery while local citizens raised money to erect a monument to him. At one point, they petitioned the Oklahoma state government for funding but were denied. While this was going on, Thorpe’s third wife made a secret deal with the city governments of two small townships in eastern Pennsylvania. Loading up Thorpe’s body, she shipped it there. The townships merged to form the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, eventually building a large monument, two statues, and several plaques. Thorpe in his life had never even visited the region, but the new town hoped to use his memory and celebrity to attract tourists.

This did not sit well with Thorpe’s children as well as his fellow Oklahomans. In 2010, his son Jack Thorpe sued the Town of Jim Thorpe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, claiming that his father’s burial in Pennsylvania contradicted family wishes and that his step-mother had made the deal without clearing it with the rest of the family. The Town of Jim Thorpe fought this in the courts, not wanting to lose their town’s namesake. In the words of one article at the time, they wished to “keep Jim Thorpe in Jim Thorpe”.

the memorial of Jim Thorpe located in Jim Thorpe Pennsylvania. It has his name in large letters and shows different sports he has taken part in.
The Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Credit: Doug Kerr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Initially, the courts sided with the Thorpe children’s lawsuit, agreeing that Jim Thorpe’s body could be covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 2011. The town appealed, however, and the appeals court reversed the decision in 2013. The appeals court noted that “absent clear and compelling reasons”, there was no chance that Jim Thorpe’s body would be moved. After the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Thorpe family, the case was over. Jim Thorpe, to this day, remains in the town named for him, in a place he had never seen while he was alive. 

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