Jim Thorpe was born in 1888 on Indian territory in Oklahoma, died in 1953 in Southern California and was buried in a town that changed its name to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. More than half a century later, a controversy rages over whether Jim Thorpe should stay in Pennsylvania, or whether his remains should return to his birthplace.
On Tuesday night HBO‘s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (10 p.m. ET/PT) will air a segment dealing with that controversy, and centering on Jim’s son Jack Thorpe, who’s now in his 70s and wants to see his dad brought back to Oklahoma to be buried, which Jack says is consistent with Native American spiritual beliefs.
Jack is still bitter toward his father’s third wife, who made the decision to take his remains from a burial ceremony in Oklahoma and made a deal with two small towns in Pennsylvania, convincing them to merge, change their name to “Jim Thorpe” and serve as the place to bury him.
“Everybody was highly upset but there was nothing we could do,” Jack Thorpe says of seeing his dad’s body taken from the funeral. “The surviving spouse has legal jurisdiction over the body and she wanted him out of there. It was an insult. You just don’t do things like that.”
But while Jack insists that American Indians believe a person can’t really be at rest unless he’s buried at the place of his birth, Jack doesn’t provide any evidence that his father shared those beliefs. And he certainly doesn’t provide any evidence that his father would have wanted his remains dug up 57 years after he died and moved across the country.
It might seem crazy that a couple of towns (which were previously called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk) merged and called themselves Jim Thorpe, but in 1953 Jim Thorpe the man had recently been named the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, and his burial site was sure to be a tourist attraction. It was Thorpe’s widow who came up with the idea of convincing the two towns to change their names in exchange for honoring her late husband in that way.
And although Jack Thorpe is still hurt all these years later, one of Jim Thorpe’s grandsons from a different marriage appears on the program and insists that keeping his grandpa’s remains in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is the best way to honor him. In fact, Jim’s grandson says that it would be sacrilegious to move the remains because the burial ground has been sanctified in an Indian ceremony.
“We believe that ground is sacred, and to remove him from that ground is wrong,” Jim Thorpe’s grandson says.
Jack Thorpe has taken the town of Jim Thorpe to court, and it seems clear that whatever happens, it’s going to result in hurt feelings and added grief to the few remaining people who could call Jim Thorpe a loved one. I don’t see this ending well, and the only thing I could conclude after watching the thought-provoking Real Sports piece is that I hope Jim Thorpe — unlike his descendants — is at peace.