Summary of the Burial

The story of why Jim Thorpe’s body is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is a long and convoluted one. In an interview conducted for his biography, Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete, Robert W. Wheeler quotes independent oilman and publisher and editor of the Shawnee News-Star, Ross Porter, as he explains what happened in 1953.

“When Jim died, his brother, Frank, came to see me and said, ‘I would like to bring Jim back to Shawnee. I’ve spoken with Mrs. Thorpe and she has agreed. This is where he always wanted to be buried but we don’t have enough money.‘ I had no idea what it would cost but we immediately formed a committee and set out to raise some funds.

“Eventually, we raised about $2,500 and brought him, his widow and children here. We wanted to build a memorial in the park area between the baseball park and football field. During the campaign, I presented the request to the board of education that the name of the stadium be renamed Jim Thorpe Stadium.

”I told Mrs. Thorpe we would do everything possible to make it work. I took the matter up with Senator Walker and Representatives Levergood and Stevens and asked them for $25,000 to begin preparing architects’ plans and specifications. Then Governor Murray called and asked me to serve on the Jim Thorpe Commission. I assured him that I would if he agreed not to veto the proposed bill.

“ ‘Oh, why would I veto it, Ross? I’m part Indian myself. Oh, no! If this thing goes through, don’t worry about it!’ was his answer. Sure enough, it went through, and within forty-eight hours it was on Murray’s desk, and he double-crossed us and vetoed the bill. “
...Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete, by Robert W. Wheeler, pp.228-229

Upon hearing about the betrayal by Governor Murray, Mrs. Patricia Thorpe was furious. The children were in the midst of a three-day Indian burial ritual for Jim Thorpe with the body laid out in an Indian burial lodge on the Sac and Fox reservation. Mrs. Thorpe arrived with state troopers in tow and demanded the body. The troopers escorted the body to a waiting hearse leaving Jim’s children and family members stunned.

Mrs. Thorpe was determined that if Oklahoma did not honor Jim Thorpe, she would find someone else to build a fitting memorial to her late husband. She tried the National Football League, which failed her, and finally after an unsuccessful meeting with the president of the NFL, Bert Bell, in Philadelphia, saw a short news report on the television in her hotel room about the towns of Mauch Chunck and East Mauch Chunck, Pennsylvania having a “nickel-a-week” industrial fund to try and bring their towns back to prosperity. She left the next morning to find the leader of the project, Joe Boyle.

Joseph Boyle, the dynamic editor of the local newspaper and the individual most responsible for the coming together and renaming of the towns remembered the day vividly:

“I was standing in the National Bank talking to Gerry Jackson, the cashier, when this woman came in. She went up to Hal Bitterline and said, ‘Where’s Joe Boyle?’ So Hal sent her over to me and she introduced herself as Mrs. Jim Thorpe.

“She had been visiting in Philadelphia when she heard of this unique nickel-a-week plan which we were then developing with the idea of bringing industry to our town. Under this program each resident would contribute five cents a week to the fund. She was impressed by a small town, trying to do a big thing with a little thing -- a nickel.

”Before leaving, Mrs. Thorpe proposed the idea that if we would consent to change our name to ‘Jim Thorpe,’ she would bring Jim’s body here, and then the National Fraternal Order of Eagles, of which he had been a member, would create a memorial so that he could be properly edified. Then she left.

“My first reaction to the idea was that it was impossible. It could never happen for the simple reason that Mauch Chunk was a name that was near and dear to everybody. But at the same time, when I spoke to other people in the town, they saw in it a great opportunity to bring the two towns together for the first time. Because, actually you see, we had two towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. Mauch Chunk in turn was broken down into Mauch Chunk and Upper Mauch Chunk. Each had its own certain degree of pride and there was a rivalry built up. We just couldn’t get together on big projects with any success because there was too much pulling apart.

”She had agreed to come back at some later date and, in the interim, former legislator and strong civic worker, Frank Bernhard, who was impressed by her story, and I decided that when she returned we would discuss it at greater length. By that time, I had a fairly representative group of businessmen and citizens who sat down with her...

“Then, the residents voted to change the towns’ name and Jim’s body was brought here... We decided to place his body in a temporary crypt over in the Evergreen Chapel until such a time as we could create a memorial.

”Thinking that the National Fraternal Order of Eagles was going finance this plan, we expected to be contacted soon... Well, time went on and the Eagles were not fulfilling their obligation, if they ever had one. Finally, we believed that something had to be done. We knew none of us, individually, had enough money to create this memorial so we had to borrow the money from this industrial fund that we had been raising... The agreement Mrs. Thorpe signed and which was signed by the borough council, was that the borough would provide this memorial if the Eagles did not. And of course after two years, our committee felt that we were obligated because all the other preliminary work had been done.

“So, we decided, one night after a great deal of soul-searching, that this was the right thing to do and it would be good for the community. We had already gained a great deal by bringing the two towns together so we arranged with the Summit Hill Marble and Granite Company to prepare this $10,000 memorial mausoleum.

”We had the dedication of the monument on Memorial Day of 1957.”
... Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete by Robert W. Wheeler, pp.229-231

The town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania has done a fine job of honoring Jim Thorpe. Today the mausoleum is in perfect shape and statues and descriptive plaques grace the area. There is no argument against the town.

However, ever since Jim’s body was ripped away from the Indian burial ceremony, his sons (from his second marriage) and daughters (from his first marriage) fought to have his body properly interred on Indian land in Oklahoma. In 1982, when Jim’s Olympic medals and honors were returned, the issue became very public. Sports Illustrated even subtitled their story of the restoration “Jim Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe’s family all won’t be right till his body lies in ancestral ground.”

“Jim’s seven children all want the body back in Oklahoma. Grace, 60, and Gail, 64, who live together in Talequah, Okla., and Charlotte, 63, who lives in Phoenix, were born to Jim and his first wife, Iva Miller Thorpe. Four sons were the product of his second marriage, to Freeda Kirkpatrick, the only one of Thorpe’s three wives still alive. They are Jack; Carl Phillip, 55. a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington; Richard, 48, a government worker in Oklahoma City; and William, 54, who is with an aircraft company in Dallas. Jim and his third wife, Patricia, had no children. To varying degrees, all the children blame Patricia for the unrestful state of Thorpe’s soul. “Look, I don’t have anything against the people of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania,” says Jack. “They did what they thought was right. But I don’t see where it would hurt them if they didn’t have the body. No matter what the motives of anybody, it comes down to the same thing -- Dad’s body was sold as a tourist attraction.” ...”The Regilding Of A Legend,” Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated, October 25

Throughout the years, Jim’s children made appeals to Jim Thorpe, PA to return their father’s remains to them for reburial in Oklahoma. Eventually, it seems that Jim’s daughters became convinced by the goodwill of the town to change their minds and support leaving their father buried in Jim Thorpe, PA. A 2001 article, however, reported five of the six children still wanted a proper Indian burial with only Grace having changed her mind by that time (http://www.roadsideamerica.com/news/5729). Throughout the years, the sons have stood steadfast in their desire to have their father properly buried according to his Sac and Fox and Pottawatomi heritage on native soil.

As a last resort, Jack Thorpe brought a lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania to have his father’s remains “repatriated and reburied within his tribal homeland.” The Sac and Fox tribe and Jack’s two remaining brothers, William and Richard joined in the suit. Using the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items,” which include human remains, to their respective peoples, the Thorpe family is arguing to have their father’s remains repatriated to his tribe in Oklahoma.

Losing a valiant battle with cancer, Jack Thorpe died on February 22, 2011 before any decision had been reached by the court about his father’s remains. William and Richard Thorpe, along with the Sac and Fox tribal members, still fight on to have Jim Thorpe’s soul finally rest in peace in his native soil.

Timeline

March 28, 1953 Jim Thorpe dies
1953 Body taken from Indian burial service by Patricia Thorpe
1954 Body temporarily placed in crypt in Evergreen Chapel in Jim Thorpe, PA
May 30, 1957 Body interred in Mausoleum and Dedication in Jim Thorpe, PA
1982 Olympic Medals and Honors restored. All of Jim Thorpe’s seven children come
out publically in support of returning his body to Oklahoma.

2010 Jack Thorpe begins a lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, PA to have his father’s remains returned to his tribe in Oklahoma for reinterment on tribal land.
February 22, 2011 Jack Thorpe dies
2011 William Thorpe, Richard Thorpe and the Sac and Fox tribe continue the lawsuit against the Borough of Jim Thorpe, PA


©2012 Rob Wheeler All Rights Reserved

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