It was 100 years ago this month that Jim Thorpe put America on the world’s sports map and made the Olympics a global phenomenon. But the fight over Thorpe’s body still lingers in a federal court.
Two weeks ago, two of Thorpe’s sons were testifying in court-ordered mediation in a federal lawsuit over the final resting place of the late Olympian’s body, according to a northeast Pennsylvania newspaper.
Thorpe stunned the world by winning the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics by a huge margin over two favorites. The news made global headlines, and Thorpe received a hero's welcome in New York City.
It also made the Olympics a legitimate global competition, since the games featured a man called “the greatest athlete in the world” by the King of Sweden.
Little known outside the United States, Thorpe was a college football star at Carlisle Institute in central Pennsylvania and was already a legend there by 1911 after he scored all his team’s points in a win over Harvard.
Thorpe’s coach, Pop Warner, encouraged him to try out for the Olympics in 1912, even though he had never heard of the competition. Thorpe also was a track star at Carlisle, and he easily won a place on the U.S. team sent to the first truly international Olympic games.
Outside America, Thorpe was the first “superstar” in international sports after his Olympic win.
After the Olympics, Thorpe dominated college football for another year. But in the first legal fight of his career, the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his gold medals for playing in a minor league pro baseball league before the Olympics.
Thorpe had played baseball for $2 a day, like other college students, but didn’t use an alias. In a letter of apology to officials, he said, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.”
The apology wasn’t accepted.
Thorpe’s parents were both part-Native American at a time when some Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in elections. In fact, until a congressional act in 1924, about one-third of Native Americans living in the United States weren’t considered citizens and were ineligible to vote.
Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in what became Oklahoma. He had a multicultural background, since his parents were Catholic and Native American.
Despite the Olympic snub, Thorpe’s legend steadily grew. He was one of the founding fathers of what became the National Football League, and he played major league baseball. In a 1950 survey, Thorpe was named the greatest athlete of the half century, easily beating out Babe Ruth.
Thorpe fell on tough financial times after his sports career ended, and he died in California in 1953 at the age of 64, just two years after his story was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster.
Thorpe's two post-death legal battles
It was just after Thorpe’s death in 1953 that two legal battles took root that restored his Olympic glory and led to the current fight over his burial place.
In a long legal fight that eventually saw the U.S. Congress side with the Thorpe family, the IOC partially restored Thorpe’s name to the Olympic record books in 1982. (His original gold medals were stolen from museums after Thorpe returned them to the IOC.)
It turned out that Thorpe’s biographers discovered he never violated the amateur rules of the Olympics in the first place, since the claim about Thorpe’s pro baseball career was filed well past a reporting deadline in 1913.
The current legal fight involves a decision by Thorpe’s late third wife, Patricia, to sell his remains just after his death to two towns in eastern Pennsylvania called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk.
Patricia Thorpe claimed the body the night before a traditional Sac and Fox burial ceremony could take place in Oklahoma.
Thorpe’s remains were sold on the condition that the towns combine, call themselves “Jim Thorpe,” and erect a monument to Thorpe.
Currently, part of Thorpe’s lineal family and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma are suing the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, asking that his body be returned to Oklahoma under terms of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
The plaintiffs claim the Thorpe memorial falls under the definition of a museum receiving federal funds and his remains are, in fact, artifacts that should be returned to his lineal descendants in Oklahoma.
The town disputes the claim, and there are other Thorpe family members who want the body to remain in Pennsylvania.
View Thorpe v. Borough of Thorpe legal documents
The issue is now in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled late last year that parts of the lawsuit may continue.
Caputo also ordered that William and Richard Thorpe take part in mediation talks two weeks ago.
William Schaub, the attorney for Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, told a local newspaper that a Supreme Court precedent was on the town’s side, since Jim Thorpe died in California.
"Burial has traditionally been governed by the states. Jim Thorpe was a resident of California," Schwab said. "He died in California. This case should be governed by the California probate code which gave Jim Thorpe's third wife the right to bury him as she saw fit. They are trying to trump state law.”
Schwab cited a high court ruling involving the late Anna Nicole Smith’s estate that found that a state probate court had the power to handle estate disputes.
Ironically, as the court case continues over Thorpe, his body rests in a mausoleum that contains soil from his home in Oklahoma and dirt sent from the former Olympic stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.
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