Funerals, like weddings, can be messy family affairs. Few people who met Patsy Thorpe — the third and most difficult spouse of Jim...

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PRAGUE, Okla. —

Funerals, like weddings, can be messy family affairs.

Few people who met Patsy Thorpe — the third and most difficult spouse of Jim Thorpe, that primordial American athlete — accused her of being pleasant, in particular Thorpe’s children from previous marriages.

So when she pulled up to her husband’s in-progress Native American funeral at a farm near Prague on April 12, 1953, with a hearse and a highway patrolman in tow, everybody knew something bad was about to happen.

What transpired, however, is perhaps unmatched in the history of American funeral proceedings.

She barged into the service and said her dead husband was “too cold.”

She ordered the coffin loaded into the hearse and drove away.

She shopped the body around over the next several months, looking for a memorial for him and cash for her. After alienating almost everyone, she wound up 1,340 miles away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, asking two tiny boroughs straddling a bend in the Lehigh River — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — to unite under the name “Jim Thorpe” in exchange for his corpse.

It was bizarre, but the Chunks, once vacation getaways for presidents and the East Coast smart set, were desperate. Their coal-based fortunes had devolved into midcentury squalor. Civic leaders hoped the name change and a memorial might return them to prosperity.

With a parade, tooting horns and a marching band, they signed the deal, and Jim Thorpe today lies in a red marble mausoleum in Jim Thorpe, Pa.

This might be the end of the story, except for the fact that the four sons of Jim Thorpe never forgave and they never forgot.

They have asked, pleaded and two years ago sued in federal court to force the borough to right their stepmother’s wrong. They want to bury their father where he wanted: in or near the Thorpe family plot on the rural plains, near his birthplace east of Oklahoma City.

To them and the Sac and Fox Nation, it is a fundamental human right for Native Americans to bury their people where they wish them to be buried.

Jim Thorpe, Pa., has politely but steadfastly refused.

“We lived up to our end of the bargain,” Mayor Michael Sofranko said. “That’s about as American as you can get.”

The sons’ quest has lasted 59 years, through 11 presidential administrations.

“I’ve got nothing against the town,” said Richard Thorpe, 79, one of two surviving Thorpe children. “But we want Dad back here in Indian Country. We want to finish that funeral.”

Peerless prowess

One hundred years ago, the Sac and Fox athlete Wa-tha-sko-huk, aka Light After the Lightning, aka Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, became the most famous Native American of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest U.S. athlete ever.

In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he won the decathlon and pentathlon, a feat never duplicated. His scores in the combined 15 events were off the charts. He set records that took decades to break.

Sweden’s King Gustav V presented him the gold medals and said, in awe, “You, sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world.”

People tend to splutter when trying to describe Thorpe’s ability. But let’s look at one small example: Thorpe’s performance in the final of the decathlon’s 10 events, the 1,500-meter run.

His won at 4 minutes, 40 seconds, which is running 12 mph for five minutes.

The world’s current greatest athlete, Bryan Clay, can put that in perspective.

Clay won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 2008 Olympics and the silver in 2004. He is primed to go again this summer in London.

He trains six to eight hours a day with the most sophisticated equipment, coaches and dietary nourishment science can offer. But if Clay ran his best, at the peak of his world-champion powers, he would only beat Thorpe by one second.

It’s fair to note Thorpe was running in mismatched shoes. Someone had taken his pair before the competition, and he had to hustle up two different shoes.

Yet, this is only a fraction of his legend.

At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he played college football at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He was by far the nation’s best player. A halfback, he would amuse himself by calling out to defenders where he was going to run, then plowing them over.

He almost single-handedly created professional football. He was the first president of what became the National Football League. (The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, because of Thorpe’s championship career with the Canton Bulldogs.)

He also played pro baseball for six years.

In 1950, sports writers overwhelmingly named him the nation’s greatest athlete of the half-century. In second place — drawing barely one-third of Thorpe’s first-place votes — was Babe Ruth.

“Thorpe,” Clay says, “did things that were just insane.”

Yet the man’s personal life was mortal, messy and sad.

Troubled life

Born on the Sac and Fox reservation in 1887 (often incorrectly reported as 1888), three years before the Wounded Knee massacre put a bloody end to the Indian wars, he was five-eighths Indian and endured a lifetime of racist slights and insults.

Thorpe’s twin brother died at age 9. His mother died when he was 14. His father died when he was 16.

He was stripped of his Olympic medals in 1913 for having played semipro baseball before the 1912 Games, a ticky-tack violation of his amateur status. (The medals were posthumously returned in 1982.)

Pro football paid a pittance, so he never accrued much wealth. When he made money, he shared it with friends or squandered it. His firstborn child, Jim Jr., died in his arms at 3, a blow friends said hobbled him for the rest of his life. He divorced, remarried, divorced and remarried.

Thorpe preferred to listen than talk. He often was away from his seven later-born children and distant even when present. He eventually drank to stunning excess (Thunderbird wine), failed to plan for the future and moved constantly. He tried everything: football coach, security guard, ditch digger, house painter, car salesman, bar manager, Hollywood bit actor and public speaker.

His health worsened, his third marriage deteriorated. At 65, he died of a heart attack in his trailer house in Lomita, Calif., on March 28, 1953, poor if not impoverished.

Thorpe had three daughters from his first marriage, Charlotte, Grace and Gail; and four sons from his second, Carl, Bill, Richard and Jack.

While Patsy was technically in charge, the entire family voted to take him home to Oklahoma for burial, as was his wish. He was to be given a Sac and Fox traditional rite, a Roman Catholic Mass and then be held in a mausoleum until Oklahoma could finalize plans for a memorial. Gov. Johnston Murray set up a memorial commission.

“Patsy was all on board with it at the time,” says Bill Thorpe, now 83 and a retired aircraft-factory worker in Arlington, Texas.

The burial likely would be in the family plot in the Garden Grove Cemetery, about a mile from the old homeplace. Thorpe’s father, Hiram, lay in Row 2. Thorpe’s twin, Charlie, and sister Mary are buried nearby.

Once the coffin was home, friends and family gathered in the evening for the service. The Daily Oklahoman reported that cooking pots bubbled with “chicken, beef, deer meat and corn.”

The rite was to last until dawn, when Thorpe’s body would be carried through a door facing west, thus freeing his soul to the afterlife.

Patsy burst in about 9 p.m. She was white and didn’t care for her late husband’s Native American roots, Buford and other biographers have noted.

“We were just so astonished when she came in that nobody really said anything,” Bill remembers.

The children, sons and daughters alike, were mortified. To the tribe, removing the body was a cultural insult and an act of sacrilege; it also left Thorpe’s soul adrift.

Patsy went ahead with the Catholic service the next morning and stored the body in a mausoleum, awaiting the state’s memorial. But Gov. Murray vetoed the measure, citing budgetary straits.

Patsy was furious. She was adamant her husband would get a fitting memorial.

Five months after Thorpe died, she had his coffin trucked to Tulsa, hoping that city would build a memorial. It said no. The children were now so angry that Bill asked the governor to stop her from moving the body again. Murray declined, calling it a family argument.

By summer’s end, Patsy was looking for (and alienating) other bidders.

In September, she saw a TV report about the Chunks, two tiny boroughs trying to shore up finances by persuading residents to chip in a “nickel a week.”

When Patsy showed up, making her unorthodox pitch, civic boosters thought unification under the Thorpe banner might attract the proposed NFL Hall of Fame, a 500-bed hospital center, a sports stadium and a sporting-goods factory.

Townspeople went for it by a 10-to-1 ratio.

It flopped, badly.

Few tourists came. Neither did the Hall of Fame, research hospital, stadium and factory. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the town of 5,000 began a slow resurgence as a regional tourist destination.

“It’s all heritage tourism, mountain biking, white-water rafting,” says John Drury, former head of the local Chamber of Commerce. “It’s certainly not due to the mausoleum.”

Thorpe’s three daughters, meanwhile, grew to love the town, though Charlotte went back and forth on whether her father should be buried there. Grace helped sanctify the burial spot in a religious rite — putting his long-wandering soul to rest, she said.

Sofranko, the mayor, believes Thorpe is just fine right where he is.

“Bringing Thorpe here, changing our name, all that we’ve invested over the years, that’s part of who we are now,” he says. “He brought a divided town together.”

The sons, meanwhile, made pilgrimages to the memorial. If the town wanted to call itself Jim Thorpe, they were flattered. But to use his body to do it, they believed, was using his corpse like some sort of mascot.

“Dad had never been there in his life,” Richard says.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jack, who would become chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, began asking the town to return the body, Bill remembers. “The answer was an emphatic no,” he says.

There was a far darker source of the sons’ outrage than a family spat, however.

By the latter half of the 1800s, as the frontier moved west and Native American tribes were relocated and massacred and resettled, whites began to regard them as two-legged curios, a breed about to vanish.

As early as 1867, the Army Medical Museum began using native corpses for infectious-disease studies. A few years later, the museum advertised for skulls to enhance its “scientific” study. Tens of thousands of graves were looted in ensuing decades, the bones and relics often shipped to museums, if not traded on the collectibles market.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It is designed to force museums to return human remains and sacred artifacts to their tribes of origin.

The Thorpe sons were intrigued with the sweeping power of the graves-protection act. It essentially asks three questions: Is the entity a museum? Does it have control over the remains? Can those remains be identified as members of a tribe?

If so, federal law mandates they be returned.

Definition of museum

The statute’s definition of “museum” is extremely broad: any state, city, municipality, school or institution that receives federal funds, for any purpose, even indirectly.

The sons believed they could sue under the act with a slam-dunk case. There was only one problem: their half-sisters. But by 2008, all three women had died.

Jack thought the end was in sight. “I’ll see it in my lifetime,” he told AOL FanHouse in 2009, referring to a court victory even before he filed the paperwork. He filed the suit the next summer in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania.

He didn’t live to see anything else happen. Eight months later, he died.

Two brothers were left to continue the fight, Richard and Bill (Carl had died in 1986). The 3,000-member Sac and Fox Nation joined the suit, with Principal Chief George Thurman and the tribe’s historic-preservation officer, Sandra Massey, at the forefront.

They were not surprised that the borough council voted 6-0 to fight them.

William Schwab, the borough’s attorney in the case, has argued that the borough is not a museum, that the graves-protection act was not intended to cover cases of “modern” people, and, most recently, that Thorpe’s Catholic faith forbids disinterment.

U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo has agreed with some of those arguments. But more important, he has ruled the borough is a museum, the key victory for the plaintiffs. The other two prongs of the act are not in question.

Caputo’s latest ruling, handed down in November, said several of the borough’s objections to returning the remains were “erroneous.” There is a clause in the act, however, stipulating that if the holder of the artifacts has a “right of possession,” the holder may keep them; if the judge holds that Patsy’s contract gave the borough such a right, it will not have to return Thorpe’s body.

There is no timetable for a final ruling.

Schwab says the borough will appeal if it loses.

Sofranko, the mayor, considers all this over a beer. “You want an issue like this to be put to rest,” he says. “But sometimes there’s really no way to do that. Sometimes in life, there just isn’t.”