By Erik Brady, Posted, August 8, 2015
JIM THORPE, Pa. — The man this borough is named for lived one of the most astonishing lives of the 20th Century. Remarkably, his story in death is even more astonishing — and very much alive.
Jim Thorpe, the man, is buried in Jim Thorpe, the place — though the man had never been to the place while breathing. Whether his remains will remain in a roadside mausoleum here, as an appeals court ruled, or can be repatriated to the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, as the tribe hopes, is now up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chances are the appeals court ruling will stand, as the high court gets roughly 10,000 petitions each year and hears oral arguments in fewer than 100 of them. Even so, what are long odds to a man born in American Indian territory in the 1880s who’d one day win Olympic gold medals, play big-league baseball and emerge as an early star of pro football?
This is the story of perhaps the greatest athlete in recorded history and how his octogenarian sons are trying to bring him home for a traditional Sac and Fox burial that was interrupted 62 years ago by their father’s third wife, who arrived with police to spirit his corpse away in a hearse.
The story revolves around Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — onetime coalmining towns in northeastern Pennsylvania that agreed to merge and rename themselves as part of an unusual arrangement with Patricia Thorpe after her husband’s 1953 death. The story also revolves around the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted by Congress in 1990 to rectify the longstanding plunder of American Indian burial grounds by making it possible for remains and sacred objects to be returned to descendants and tribes.
“It was dad’s wish to be laid to rest on Native American land where he was born,” Bill Thorpe tells USA TODAY Sports. “He told me. He told my brothers. And I just think we should honor his wishes.”
William Schwab, an attorney who represents the borough, says there’s no record of this wish. Even so, he says, the borough might very well accede to the brothers’ wishes if the family were united on this. Bill, 87, and Richard, 83, Jim Thorpe’s sons from his second marriage, want their father’s remains returned to Oklahoma; John Thorpe, a grandson from his first marriage, does not. (Jim Thorpe and Patricia, known as Patsy, did not have children.)
Stephen Ward, an attorney who represents the Sac and Fox Nation as well as Bill andRichard Thorpe, says the answer is simple — the borough should keep the name and the mausoleum, just not the remains.
That doesn’t work for Jack Kmetz of the Jim Thorpe Area Hall of Fame. “Without him,” he says, “we’re not Jim Thorpe anymore.”
Ward rejects that reasoning.
“The borough seems to be taking somewhat the view that his remains are some sort of mascot,” he says. “Because it is an Indian, somebody thinks the remains belong to them and they own them. That’s what NAGPRA was intended to address.”
American Indians buried on federal land were long viewed as “archeological resources” and many museums routinely collected Native American remains and funerary items such as burial clothes and jewelry. NAGPRA provides lineal descendants and affiliated tribes a process for repatriation from museums, which the law defines as any institution or state or local government agency that receives federal funds and has possession of or control over Native American cultural items.
U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled in 2013 that the borough is a museum under that definition. But last fall a panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “interpreting ‘museum’ to include a gravesite that Thorpe’s widow intended as Thorpe’s final resting place” would be an absurd result and reversed the district court under the rarely used absurdity doctrine.
The Thorpe brothers and the Sac and Fox Nation petitioned the Supreme Court in June to overturn the appeals court. Ward, their attorney, says native people have long struggled to have their religious practices and burial customs respected, and he says the high court should take the case to solidify the meaning of NAGPRA as well as to clarify the absurdity doctrine.
Schwab, who represents the borough, says the appeals court found that spousal rights trump tribal rights and he expects the high court to see it the same way.
“We don’t think this is a case for the Supreme Court to hear,” he says. “We see this as the tribe coming up with facts that are not in the record. I’m seeing this as the case they wish they had, rather than the actual facts of the case.”
The story goes that when Thorpe won the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games, Sweden’s King Gustav told him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” The royal sentiment is etched on mausoleum marble.
The International Olympic Committee would ultimately strip Thorpe of his medals for playing semipro baseball for as little as $2 per game in the years before competing in the Games, thereby rendering him a professional in the since-discredited era of amateurism. The IOC returned the medals nearly 30 years after his death.
Thorpe burst to fame as an All-America running back at Carlisle Indian School in central Pennsylvania, roughly 100 miles from his future burial site. In 1911, he scored all of his team’s points in an 18-15 upset of Harvard. In 1912, after his Olympic triumphs, Thorpe ran roughshod in a big win against Army. Dwight Eisenhower, who played for Army that day, said Thorpe “could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
Grantland Rice put it more poetically: “He moved like a breeze.” More poetic yet was his Thunder Clan name, Wa-tha-huk — “The Bright Path the Lightning Makes as It Goes Across the Sky.”
Thorpe played six seasons of Major League Baseball, mostly for the New York Giants, batting .252, while also playing pro football (for the Canton Bulldogs and others) so well that he was an inaugural member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame 10 years after his death. In 2000, ABC’s Wide World of Sports anointed Thorpe as athlete of the century ahead of luminaries such as Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
But Thorpe’s personal life did not match his athletic career. He struggled for years with alcoholism. He married three times; the first two ended in divorce. He was married to his third wife at the time of his death, though Bill Thorpe says his father was estranged from Patsy by then. Schwab says there is no record of that.
Thorpe died of a heart attack at age 64 in California in March 1953 — without a will. Sandra Massey, Sac and Fox historic preservation officer, says it is a profound misunderstanding of their culture to expect wills and other written records.
Bill Thorpe says his siblings and Patsy agreed to burial in Oklahoma and preparations were made for a traditional three-day ceremony under tribal customs and traditions. But Patsy arrived during a ritual feast the night before burial, evidently upset that the governor had vetoed a state appropriation to build a memorial near the gravesite.
“It was in the middle of a dinner ceremony,” Bill Thorpe says. “I guess you’d call it a goodbye dinner. And Patsy comes in with mortuary people and some police and took his body. And there wasn’t a thing we could do, being as how she was the wife. We tried to say, ‘Hey, don’t do this.’”
Massey — whose mother, Henrietta, attended the interrupted feast — says police had no authority on tribal lands and she calls the body-taking “psychic terror.” She says her people believe Thorpe’s spirit cannot be at peace until the full ceremony is concluded.
“Death ceremonies are a process,” she says. “What happens if the process is not completed? We never had to contemplate that before. We think he is in limbo.”
Bill Thorpe says Patsy Thorpe shopped his father’s corpse across the country for a year before making a cash deal, sometimes reported as $500. “She was paid I think under-the-table type,” he says.
Grandson John Thorpe says there’s no record of any payment and he personally searched for one. Schwab calls the allegation that Patsy was paid no more than folklore.
“When we hear serious legal issues and human rights issues dismissed as folklore, that’s offensive to the Sac and Fox people and this legal team,” Ward says. “The borough’s position is it’s folklore because it’s not written down. That’s a misunderstanding of Indian traditions. They didn’t have contracts; histories weren’t written.”
John Thorpe believes Patsy was looking not for money but for a place that would honor the memory of her husband in grand fashion, as his home state had failed to do, though pie-in-the-sky plans for a stadium and a cancer center in Pennsylvania never materialized.
Ward says the interment agreement specifies that Patsy and her heirs will not remove the remains as long as the borough keeps the name Jim Thorpe.
“But Bill and the rest of the family are not her heirs,” Ward says.
A FAMILY DISPUTE?
Suzan Shown Harjo, co-author of My Father’s Bones, a play about the Thorpe case, was lead petitioner in the original trademark case against the team name of Washington’s NFL club. She sees certain similarities between the cases.
In one, she says, Washington team owner Daniel Snyder asserts ownership of the term “Redskins” — and, by extension, she says, of Native Americans — and in the other the borough professes a sort of ownership of Thorpe’s remains.
“Dan Snyder owns a team, and he thinks he owns us,” Harjo says. “In Pennsylvania, their sense of ownership is very clear. They’re saying, ‘This is our property. We paid good money for him and we put his name on our town, and now he’s ours.’ That’s exactly what the repatriation law is there to stop — these roadside attractions to exploit people long after they’re dead, almost like a peep show.”
My Father’s Bones imagines the case through the memories of Thorpe’s sons, including Jack Thorpe, who sued to reclaim his father’s remains in 2010. Jack died a year later, and Bill and Richard joined the suit. But grandsons from Thorpe’s first marriage — Mike Koehler, who since died, and John Thorpe — filed friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition.
“Patricia Thorpe made the decision, and that should be the end of it,” says attorneyDaniel Wheeler, who represents John Thorpe.
“Somehow the tribe has gotten involved in this,” John Thorpe says. “I believe this to be a family matter. I know my grandpa is a nationally recognized hero, so it’s difficult to keep this a family matter, but at the basis of it, that’s what it is.”
The appeals court panel said as much when it ruled NAGPRA “was intended as a shield against further injustices to Native Americans. It was not intended to be wielded as a sword to settle familial disputes.”
Ward says the NAGPRA repatriation process includes opportunity for family members and others to state their positions before a decision is reached. Still, he says, “The tribe’s and the sons’ interests would carry more weight than more distant relatives who are not members of the tribe. … In our view it is ludicrous to say this is a family dispute. We have support from a great majority of the lineal heirs of Bill’s father.”
JIM THORPE, PA., THRIVES
Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were prosperous places that fell on hard times as oil replaced coal. The Thorpe tomb never did become the tourist attraction that townspeople had hoped for when they merged, but today the region thrives on tourism — hiking, biking and whitewater rafting in and around one of the most beautiful small towns in America.
Kmetz, of the local sports hall of fame, says Jim Thorpe, the place, honors Jim Thorpe, the man.
“Our town is named after the greatest athlete who ever lived,” he says. “Nobody else can say that. … What’s left to argue over? They had first shot (to bury Thorpe in Oklahoma) and rightfully so, but the governor reneged on it. We have a signed contract from his wife. What they claim their father said doesn’t hold the same water as the contract we have in our hands.”
Kmetz thinks NAGPRA should not apply to Jim Thorpe — man or place. “Calling us a museum is way out of bounds,” he says. “There’s no doors at the mausoleum.”
The burial site is set on a knoll on Route 903. There are a pair of statues — Thorpe with a football and Thorpe with a discus — plus historical signposts sketching out that astonishing life story.
David and Michella Priest and their daughter Madelena visited recently, on vacation from Waunakee, Wisc. They learned of the burial site only after they’d arrived in nearby Lake Harmony.
“I’d never heard of Jim Thorpe before,” Michella Priest says.
They knew nothing about how Thorpe came to be here — or about how his sons hope to take him home.
“Wow,” David Priest says. “That’s a crazy story.”