News

Can a Town Be a Museum? The Battle Over Jim Thorpe’s Bones

by Allison Meier on September 13, 2013

Jim Thorpe at a meet before the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 (via Getty Images/US National Library)

Jim Thorpe at a meet before the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 (via Getty Images/US National Library)

Jim Thorpe was arguably the greatest athlete of all time, yet the sports legend has mostly been in the news of late due to his remains, which were controversially buried in a town he never visited.

Jim Thorpe competing in the discus as part of the decathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm (via Wikimedia)

Jim Thorpe competing in the discus as part of the decathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm (via Wikimedia)

Following a federal ruling made this April under the 1990 Native American Graves and Repatriation Act that designated the town as a museum, his final resting place may finally be relocated to his birthplace on Sac and Fox tribal land in Oklahoma. But Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, the town that took on his name when they took on the responsibility of his burial, isn’t letting to bones go without a fight.

“The reason Jim Thorpe ended up in Jim Thorpe is mostly because of his last wife, Patricia,” Bess Lovejoy, author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, which includes Thorpe in the tales of the wandering afterlives of famous remains, told Hyperallergic. “Other family members had wanted to bury him in Oklahoma, but Patricia didn’t think the state was making enough of a fuss. At one point, she even showed up at a traditional Native American funeral for Thorpe with a police escort and took the body away. Later she offered it to two struggling Pennsylvanian towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, whose plight she had heard about on TV. The two towns had been thinking about forming into one, and she said they could rename the new town ‘Jim Thorpe’ if they buried his body. The towns agreed, because they thought Thorpe’s burial site would bring a lot of foot traffic, although it didn’t. ”

Jim Thorpe's tomb in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania (photograph by Charles Tilford)

Jim Thorpe’s tomb in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania (photograph by Charles Tilford)

As the Associated Press reported, Jim Thorpe the town is raising funds to make an appeal this month against the relocation decision for Jim Thorpe the person. Winning gold medals for both the five-event pentathlon and the ten-event decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics, the King of Sweden reportedly declared to Thorpe: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe also vaulted to success in professional football (serving as the first NFL president), baseball with the New York Giants, and basketball, competing until the age of 41 when the Great Depression hit. Then his life spiraled down through odd jobs, humiliating turns as an Indian in B-movies, and alcoholism until he died penniless in 1953. Perhaps the worst hit, though, was the stripping of his medals due to having been paid to play semi-professional baseball prior to the Olympics (a violation of the amateurism laws of the time), and although his medals were reinstated in 1982, his astounding records have still not been restored.

Statue at the Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania (photograph by Doug Kerr)

Statue at the Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania (photograph by Doug Kerr)

When Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, was formed under the name and acquired corpse, many members of Thorpe’s family were unhappy and angry with his third wife’s giving of his body to strangers to basically turn into a roadside attraction. His tomb is now encircled with some odd modernist tributes and bronze realism statues of the athlete in his prime, but the wide tourist interest in the late athlete never came. Thorpe’s surviving family is divided about the remains, but the current case comes from a filing by his youngest son Jack back in 2010 to get the his father returned to his family.

What makes the case even more interesting is in the ruling about the town being a museum, with the people in the town arguing that the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act is aimed at archaeological and historical artifacts, not the recent disputes of family burials. Even the judge in the case admitted that it was an exceptional application of the act, noting to the Tulsa World that “the circumstances here are unique [...] I don’t know that you could apply this case to very many others.” The argument was that the town receives federal funding, and the grave is on the city’s land.

This could potentially open the door to other similar cases; perhaps the Apaches might use it to relocate Geronimo’s grave from Fort Sill where he died a prisoner to Arizona, for example. However, as of now the fate of Thorpe’s tomb in Pennsylvania will likely guide whether a similar ruling on a town being treated as a museum could be applied in the future, and whether he will finally get to rest in peace in his home state.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Patrick Trotti

    The greatest athlete of the 20th century has been dragged through the mud for reasons both in his control and out of his control. So sad to see that this is where the conversation has ended up. Nowadays an athlete with a syringe of steroids gets guaranteed contracts and endorsements not stripping of medals and public humiliation as he aged. Forming a town just to “acquire” a body and turn it into a roadside attraction is highlighting the worst part of our celebrity/sports infatuated culture. You know how to properly cherish his memory? Leave his corpse alone, rest it among family and friends and make sure his name is never forgotten, even if his records have.

Previous post:

Next post: