Final resting place in limbo for Jim Thorpe, the ‘world’s greatest athlete’
After a 1,400-mile train ride from California to Oklahoma, the body of the man once called “the world’s greatest athlete” lay in repose in a gilt casket, wearing a beaded buckskin jacket and leather moccasins.
It was the spring of 1953, day two of the three-day ceremony in Shawnee, Okla. The deceased’s favorite foods had been placed in the casket, the mourners had gathered to say their prayers, and the ancient ritual to return the dead man’s name to its tribe was about to take place on the sprawling, empty plains of the Sac and Fox territory.
The body of Jim Thorpe was prepared for a journey to the afterlife.
But before the rites could be finished, Thorpe’s widow, Patricia, arrived with the state police and a hearse. The Sac and Fox people watched in shock as the body of the 1912 Olympic champion and onetime 6-foot-1 inch, 202-pound football star was removed from its casket and taken away.
More than 60 years later, the removal of the body is the central issue in what has become a family-feud-turned-legal dispute that could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is a fight that pits Native American customs and an Oklahoma reservation against Jim Thorpe, Pa., a little town in the Pocono Mountains where the athlete’s body has lain in a mausoleum since 1957. Descendants of Thorpe are arrayed on each side.
Jim Thorpe, Pa., which used to be the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, voted in 1954 to merge and adopt the athlete’s name when Patricia Thorpe signed a legal document to have the body moved. Jim Thorpe is a town in which Thorpe himself had never set foot during his lifetime.
The current battle is over a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Jack Thorpe, a son of one of the Olympian’s three marriages, to have the body moved back to Sac and Fox land in Oklahoma. Jack died in February 2011 in Shawnee at age 74, but the Sac and Fox tribe has picked up the case with the help of Thorpe’s surviving sons, Bill, 85, of Arlington, Texas, and Richard, 79, of Waurika, Okla.
On the other side, joining those fighting to keep the body in Pennsylvania, are two of Thorpe’s grandsons: Michael Koehler, 75, of Minocqua, Wis., and his brother John Thorpe, 56, of Lake Tahoe, Calif.
On April 19, 2013, U.S. District Judge Robert Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the Sac and Fox under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Caputo ordered Thorpe’s body returned to his native lands in Oklahoma.
The Borough of Jim Thorpe, not wanting to lose its namesake, has appealed. The borough’s lawyer, William Schwab of Lehighton, Pa., said he thinks the Supreme Court may have to decide the case.
Because his Native American burial ceremony was never completed, the Sac and Fox people believe Thorpe’s soul and body are not truly at rest, that he has been in limbo for six decades. But Thorpe, who was only half Native American, apparently lived a few decades of his life as a Catholic. Even though his life has been chronicled by biographers many times, it isn’t certain whether he identified more with his Native American side or with Catholicism.
The Sac and Fox say they want the body back so they can finish what they started 60 years ago: a proper Native American burial.
Ray Brader, co-coordinator of the Jim Thorpe Birthday Committee in Jim Thorpe, Pa., was close friends with Jim Thorpe’s daughter Grace, who died in 2008 at the age of 86. In an interview while sitting in the crowded back room of his place of work in Nature’s Trail Gift Shop in downtown Jim Thorpe, Brader said Grace always spoke of her father’s Catholic beliefs and did not want him moved to Oklahoma for a Native American burial.
“Grace’s words to me were ‘Ray, he was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic and died a Catholic,’” Brader said. “And she said that Oklahoma had their chance, and if you snooze you lose.”
But Bill Thorpe, Jim Thorpe’s son from his second marriage, remembers otherwise. Bill said that his father may have attended a Catholic church but he was never officially a member. The only reason Thorpe became a Catholic, he said, was that he attended a boarding school as a young man in Carlisle, Pa. “You go to a government school—we call it an Indian school—and they always have you go to church on Sunday,” Bill said. “Whatever church is closest to where you’re staying is the one you used. The closest one to Carlisle was a Catholic church… . He never followed up with that.”
Why is Jim Thorpe in Jim Thorpe?
Shortly after Thorpe’s death on March 28, 1953, the governor of Oklahoma, Johnston Murray, vetoed the idea of erecting a mausoleum and memorial in honor of the athlete. Patricia Thorpe was furious.
Next, the American Indian Hall of Fame at Anadarko, Okla., offered to have Thorpe buried there, but Patricia refused. She thought her husband should have his own private memorial.
In a recent phone interview, Bill Thorpe said Patricia suffered from an alcohol problem and he thinks she was intoxicated at the time she met with the governor, which is why he vetoed the memorial. Not long after this meeting, Patricia called the state police, who went with her to the tribal burial ceremony and had the body taken away. The body was kept in a crypt in Tulsa for one year.
Soon after, the story goes, Patricia happened to be in Philadelphia when she learned of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk’s struggle for economic survival.
Built near the banks of the Lehighton River, an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, the two boroughs once thrived with jobs generated by the railroad and coal industries. But the discovery of oil in the 1920s led to decline—coal wasn’t as valuable.
The local economy was so bad that the editor of the local newspaper, the late Joseph Boyle, started a nickel-a-week fund in which every man, woman and child would give a nickel a week for seven years. The goal was $125,000, just enough to start a textile factory and create jobs.
According to Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame and friend of Boyle, the Associated Press wrote about the nickel-a-week story and it appeared in newspapers across the country. The textile factory was Mauch Chunk’s last hope.
“We were losing our identity,” Kmetz said. “We had a great past, and our future was up in the air.”
Craig Zurn, president and CEO of the Jim Thorpe National Bank and treasurer of the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame, said Patricia Thorpe read about the town’s plight and came bustling into the town bank (which is now the Jim Thorpe National Bank). She asked for Boyle, who happened to be standing next to her in line.
Patricia proposed that her husband be buried in the town to attract tourism and start a steady flow of tourist money. In exchange for her husband’s body, Patricia wanted the people of Mauch Chunk to erect a mausoleum and memorial in her husband’s honor and to change the name of their town to Jim Thorpe, something the people in Oklahoma had refused to do.
Boyle and Thorpe’s widow drew up a contract. The contract says that the two communities will “consolidate under the name of ‘Jim Thorpe’ as a fitting tribute and memorial to the person and memory of the husband of the first party and that appropriately correlated to such designation under the name ‘Jim Thorpe’ the remains of the husband of the first party be laid to rest in the community so bearing his name… .”
The second page of the contract states: “The first party agrees for herself, her heirs, administrators and executors, that neither she nor any of them will remove or cause to be removed the body of her said husband, Jim Thorpe, from the confines of the boroughs of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk… .”
A landslide vote
The townspeople voted: 2,203 agreed to the name change, while 199 opposed. The people of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk (known as Chunkers) took pride in the decision to unite the two towns and change their name. Zurn said that pride is still prevalent among the people of Jim Thorpe (known as Thorpers) today.
“We took a lot of pride in being called the Jim Thorpe National Bank,” Zurn said while sitting in the conference room of the same bank Patricia bustled into in 1954. “This is something they did out of pride and respect for Jim Thorpe. We looked at it as an honor to say we’re changing our name from Mauch Chunk National Bank to Jim Thorpe. Not as an honor to Jim Thorpe himself, but out of respect for the people who voted. These people made a commitment when they decided to make a change.”
It took three years for the mausoleum to be built, 1954 to 1957, during which Thorpe’s body was temporarily placed in the Evergreen Cemetery of East Mauch Chunk. The money from the nickel-a-week fund was used to build the mausoleum.
According to Kmetz, the borough had received three promises to augment tourism. While there is nothing in the contract about those promises, it was said that the town of Jim Thorpe would also build a football hall of fame, a cancer and heart research hospital, and an athletic manufacturing company.
Bert Bell, commissioner of the National Football League at the time, was planning to back the three projects, Kmetz said. But the day Bell was going to announce them, Kmetz said, he died of a heart attack. The football hall of fame, research hospital and manufacturing company never materialized.
“When you have somebody that powerful … asking for funding for the greatest football player that ever lived, at least one of those proposals would have gone through,” Kmetz said.
Tourism eventually did come, but it took about 30 years.
The Borough of Jim Thorpe
Deep in a valley formed by the Lehigh River, the Borough of Jim Thorpe is a quaint town rich in history. Home to one of the country’s first railroads, which was created in 1827, the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk helped to revolutionize coal mining. The Switchback Railroad carried coal 11 miles from the Summit Hill mines to Mauch Chunk before the coal continued its journey to the Delaware River. Mauch Chunk was also the home to one of the richest and powerful men of the time, Asa Packer, a railroad industrialist.
Today, the town is home to rows of antique shops, restaurants and a supposedly haunted New Orleans-style inn. People travel to Jim Thorpe for hiking on the trails, white-water rafting and mountain biking.
Jim Thorpe’s mausoleum is in the stretch of land between the formerly separated towns, away from the bustle of the downtown shops. In a grassy, wooded plot a few minutes outside town, the burnt-red, above-ground mausoleum bears the name Jim Thorpe, engraved in gray. It stands tall in front of the Olympic flag, the American flag, the Sac and Fox Nation flag and between two statues.
One statue is of Thorpe with a football, the other with a discus. To the left of the mausoleum is a walkway with signs that tell the story of Thorpe’s life. A lightning-bolt sculpture represents Thorpe’s Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, which translates “the bright path that lightning makes as it goes across the sky.”
Jim Thorpe’s son Bill Thorpe, who has visited the mausoleum a few times, initially was disappointed, finding the site not well taken care of. He said the two statues, both built in the last 10 years, have greatly improved the area.
A destination for tourists
Tourists come from all over the East Coast to visit the town of around 4,800 people and partake of outdoor adventures. One visitor, Rebecca Sanchez of nearby Wind Gap, has been coming for years to visit her grandparents. She said some Chunkers are still upset about the name change.
“My grandma called it Jim Thorpe, but she didn’t want to,” Sanchez said. “She wanted to call it Mauch Chunk. There’s so much more to Jim Thorpe than Jim Thorpe.”
Tom Loughery, local historian and owner of the Jim Thorpe Experience, a guided-tour service, does not mention the famous athlete on his tours until the ending questions: “Did it work? Do people come here because of Jim Thorpe? Has it ever been a reason to come here? There’s so much more here. Jim Thorpe is just another part of the fascinating history.”
Mayor Mike Sofranko is another who thinks people are drawn to Jim Thorpe for reasons other than visiting the athlete’s mausoleum. “Between hiking, rafting, going to shows, there’s so much to do,” he said. “You can go visit the mausoleum of the greatest athlete of the 20th century. And that’s just one of the many elements of Jim Thorpe.”
Virginia Llewellyn has lived in the town for her 88 years, making her a Chunker. While she was of age to cast a vote at the time of the name change, she opted out. The entire case, even now, makes no difference to her.
“Let them take him,” Llewellyn said. “What good is a dead Indian to us?”
Despite the ambivalence of some, the locals involved in the court case care deeply about Jim Thorpe and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the body in Pennsylvania. They said the borough gives Thorpe the recognition he deserves.
Ronald Sheehan, Carbon County treasurer and secretary of the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame, said it speaks well of a town that it was willing to embrace a new identity and to continue to honor that identity.
“He was a human being, he deserves to be memorialized, not exploited,” Sheehan said. “And I think the town does that. Do people come here for other reasons? Absolutely. But does that mean that we’re less honoring Jim Thorpe? I don’t think so. If anything, those attractions bring people into town and then they discover Jim Thorpe as a person.”
Sofranko said that if Jim Thorpe could see what the borough and the people of the town have done for him, he would be pleased.
“I think the greatest thing Jim Thorpe did,” Sofranko said, “was take two towns and bring them together.”
Remembering the ritual
As to whether Jim Thorpe is actually at rest in Jim Thorpe, Sofranko remembers a ritual that Jim Thorpe’s daughter Grace had performed over her father’s grave years ago. He said part of the ceremony was to create smoke from bark. When the ceremonial leader laid the smoky bark on the ground, the ceremony could go two ways. If the flame rose up and then lay down, the body was at rest. But if it swirled up and stayed up, the spirit was still searching. Sofranko said it was a windy day, and the people were worried. But the smoke stayed put and the flames lay flat.
“That was a ritual that left me with no doubt,” Sofranko said.
The Sac and Fox people do not recognize the ceremony Grace performed as being with tribal ways. Sandra Massey, historic preservation officer with the Sac and Fox Nation, said that women are meant to be the life-giving forces of the earth. Men are the leaders.
Jim Thorpe’s grandson John Thorpe said he had a similar experience at the time the lawsuit was filed in 2010. John was in Texas at a Sundance, a spiritual gathering for Native Americans. Part of the Sundance included a session for the people in a sweat lodge, which was a place meant for people to sweat and re-purify the mind, soul and spirit. On the third day of the Sundance, the medicine man brought John into the sweat lodge. The medicine man said something that reinforced John’s desire to keep his grandfather in Pennsylvania.
“At that time, the medicine man said that my grandpa had made contact with him,” John Thorpe said. “He said, ‘I am at peace and I want no more pain created in my name.’ Indians are very spiritual people, there was no need for him to lie. So there’s no doubt in my mind that my grandpa did make contact with him and that he is in peace. He wants to be left alone.”
The opposing legal arguments
The Borough of Jim Thorpe argues that the widow had the legal right to choose where her husband was buried. But according to the opposing lawyer, Stephen Ward, there is no law stating that once the surviving spouse has chosen a location, the body cannot be moved. Ward, who is representing Richard and Bill Thorpe and the Sac and Fox, said the contract Patricia Thorpe made with the borough is simply an agreement. He said it is overridden by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and by the fact that no other members of the Thorpe family were involved in the agreement.
“First of all, no one can own human remains,” Ward said in his law office in a 52-story skyscraper in downtown Tulsa, Okla. “It’s been a longstanding common law for hundreds of years.”
He said the contract between Patricia Thorpe and the borough could best be described as a “burial agreement.” Ward said it did not make the borough the owner of Thorpe’s body.
Judge Caputo ruled in favor of Ward, citing NAGPRA.
NAGPRA was created in 1990 for museums and federal agencies to return human remains, objects involved with burial ceremonies and sacred objects to descendants, and culturally affiliated Native American tribes.
But the Borough of Jim Thorpe contends that because the town is not a museum or a federal agency of a museum, it does not have to comply with NAGPRA.
As Sofranko puts it, “We aren’t a museum, we don’t use federal money in any way to maintain or care of the monument, there are no Indian or Native American artifacts at the mausoleum. There is a body up there of Jim Thorpe.”
Another factor in the case is a letter that the late Jack Thorpe wrote to Joe Boyle in 1990. The letter, which did not surface until after Caputo’s ruling, said Jack truly believed his father was at rest in Jim Thorpe. When Boyle died in 1992, his wife Rita offered his sports memorabilia to Danny McGinley and Rudy Bednar, the two men who joined Boyle to create the Carbon County Sports Hall of Fame, and McGinley later discovered the letter.
But William Schwab, the lawyer representing the Borough of Jim Thorpe, who wasn’t aware the letter existed until its appearance in the Times-News in Lehighton, Pa., said it was too late to introduce new evidence.
Michael Koehler, another grandson of Jim Thorpe, is the spokesperson for the family members who want to keep the body in Pennsylvania. He said that if the letter had been introduced earlier in the case, the judge might have ruled in their favor.
Sandra Massey, historic preservation officer for the Sac Fox, said the letter does not portray Jack’s true feelings.
“If he did feel that way, he didn’t at the time of the suit,” Massey said while sitting in her office, located in the tribal headquarters in Stroud, Okla. “His actions show that he didn’t feel that way at the end.”
It has also been asked why Jim Thorpe never wrote down where he wanted to be buried.
Massey said he never did this because it was contrary to Native American ways.
John Sanchez, who studies American Indian cultures and teaches journalism at Penn State, said the borough should give the body back to the tribe.
“That was a human being at one time, and people forget that,” Sanchez said. “Those are the remains of a human being. That person talked, walked, thought, loved, hated, fought, lived. Now, in this case, they’re using the most famous athlete of the 20th century as a tourist draw for a little tiny town. I’m an American Indian, and I wouldn’t drive to Thorpe to see a piece of rock with his name on it. We don’t do that.”
Bill Thorpe remembers sitting at the dinner table as a child and listening to his dad talk about how he wanted to be buried on tribal lands.
“He told the family a number of times when we were at dinner,” Bill Thorpe said. “Dad would say if something happens to me, I want to be buried here. He never had a will, so it was nothing ever put down in writing.”
Massey said Thorpe lived his life as a Native American, not as a Catholic, always returning to the tribe and participating in tribal ceremonies.
Massey said: “If he had been a devout Catholic and didn’t have any tribal ways at all, then that’s the way he would have lived his life and that’s the way he would have gone. He specifically wanted to be buried here. He did come back several times, he was a part of the tribal community, and in the traditional community there aren’t many places where you can be traditional. ... He wanted to be traditional.”
While the borough appealed the judge’s decision to move the body back to Oklahoma, the case may not be revisited until next summer. The appeal was filed with the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Sept. 23.
A burial site in Oklahoma
The wide-open plains of Stroud and Shawnee, between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where the Sac and Fox live, are sweltering hot in summer. The only source of water to be seen is stained red from the mud, which is caked into cracks in the ground, thirsting for rain. On the land stands the tribal headquarters, a park named for Jim Thorpe and two casinos.
Thorpe’s descendants are buried in a family plot in St. Leo’s Cemetery in Payne, Okla., and in Garden Grove Cemetery in Shawnee, Okla., both on or near Sac and Fox Land.
Should Jim Thorpe’s body be moved back to tribal lands, Bill Thorpe said a safe and secure burial site had been chosen.
Bill Thorpe said they would bury his father on a 10-acre plot on tribal land in Stroud. The plot already has a warrior monument and is under 24/7 surveillance. In front of the plot is one of the casinos, but Bill said the casino would close down before the burial, so it would not cause any dishonor to his father.
“We will go through the ceremony again and put him to rest,” Bill said. “And he will at that time be at peace.”
Jim Thorpe flourished on the field at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., before becoming an Olympic hero in 1912.