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Sixty years after his death, Jim Thorpe's family feuds over body

The Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Joe McDonald
The Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Joe McDonald

By Joe McDonald

JIM THORPE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - The tiny hamlet of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, could lose its namesake, an American sports hero whose interment put the town on the map.

A family squabble has turned into a federal court battle over the remains of the legendary Native American athlete and Olympic medalist, who died in 1953 and whose life was depicted in "All American," a 1951 movie starring Burt Lancaster.

The dispute could take an important turn this week, when the borough court will announce on Thursday whether it will appeal a federal district court judge's decision that could eventually clear the way for Thorpe's remains to leave town.

Town Mayor Michael Sofranko said the council will respond to the input it gets from local residents--who number less than 5,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

"Residents need to say, ‘I want the body to stay here,'" he said.

Jim Thorpe never lived in the eastern Pennsylvania town that took his name, but his remains were placed in a mausoleum here in an agreement with his widow allowing the settlement to be named after him.

Six decades later, a feud over where Thorpe should be buried has pitted his two sons, who want to move him back to native lands in Oklahoma, against his grandchildren, who want him to stay in the Pennsylvania town that erected statues and a monument "to one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century."

The battle escalated last month, when senior U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo issued a ruling in Harrisburg, PA, that upheld a federal law protecting Native American remains and ordered the borough to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The order requires the borough to hire an archaeologist who will conduct an inventory of the remains.

After the ruling became front-page news in the local media, a resident of the nearby town of Lehighton, Jim Deeble and his wife Lorraine, said he was driven to visit the site after hearing that the body could be moved out of town.

"I think he should stay planted where he is," said Deeble, 73, a retired engineer, as he gazed at the memorial. "I don't see any purpose moving him around."

John Thorpe, 56, a grandson who lives in South Lake Tahoe, California, agrees. The grandson said he spoke to a traditional healer during a sun dance in Bastrop, Texas. "He told me that my grandfather made contact with him, and my grandfather told the medicine man, ‘I'm at peace and want no more pain created in my name.'"

Another grandson, Mike Koehler, 74, who lives in Minocqua, Wisconsin, said the remains should be left where they are.

"Leave the man alone!," said Koehler. "For God's sake, let him rest in peace."

The current burial site of his grandfather, who played professional baseball and football and won gold medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, happened by chance. The renowned athlete's third wife, Patricia, now deceased, was looking for a place to bury her husband when she saw a television report about two small towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, that were seeking to merge under a new name in 1953.

"She felt something needed to be done and she was in Pennsylvania at the time," John Thorpe said. "Patsy and the town came up with an agreement he would be buried there and the town would change its name and erect a monument."

One of Thorpe's sons, Bill Thorpe, 84, of Arlington, Texas has a different take on how his father's body ended up in Pennsylvania. He said his father's wife "farmed" his remains around to several cities after Thorpe died of a heart attack in California, where he lived a near-destitute existence in a mobile home.

"I think she was shopping his body, really," said Bill Thorpe.

He and his brother, Richard, are plaintiffs along with the Sac and Fox Nation, in the 2010 suit which lays the groundwork for the possible return of Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma.

If the borough does lose its namesake, few people think it would be the death knell for its vibrant tourist industry, which features train rides, whitewater rafting, quaint shops and restaurants, and tours of the old jail and gallows where migrant Irish coal miners known as the Molly Maguires were hanged in the 1880s.

(Reporting by Joe McDonald; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Arlene Getz and Alden Bentley)

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