Olympian Giant; Medals Forfeited; Unlawfully Removed From His Grave; Died Pauperised, And A Grandson Of An Irishman.
Jim Thorpe was an Indian/American who wore the U.S. Olympic jersey; Acclaimed by Americans and then outcasted.
An Irish grandfather with a surname of Thorpe and an Indian grandmother, places American Olympic legend, Jim Thorpe, well down the pecking order of people adopted by our All Ireland Hall Of Fame. However Jim Thorpe’s Irishness, attributed to his grandfather, is seldom referred to when writing about the achievements of this 20th century wonder athlete.
Inducting Jim Thorpe into our Ancestral Sons & Daughters Of Ireland Hall Of Fame required careful consideration and the astonishing sports feats achieved by Jim is the sole reason for his induction.
Our website is about preserving and promoting Golden Memories of Famous Sons & Daughters Of Ireland and for current and future generations of Irish men and women browsing our Irish Heriatge website, and reading the great story of one of our ancestors, will we hope, inspire and inform our readers to salute people of Irish ancestry whose off spring became sporting legends around the globe. James Thorpe sits very comfortably into that zone and the story of his amazing sporting life is now preserved for Irish people, Irish Exiles and people of Irish ancestry.
Information on Jim Thorpe’s birthright is fairly scant and even his birth date is an unsure item. The date mostly registered is 22nd May 1887. His parents were of mixed race, American and Indian, and the town of Prague, Lincoln County, U.S.A. claims to be the birthplace of Jim Thorpe.
However the legendary Jim Thorpe cited Shawnee, Pottawatomie County, roughly ten miles south west of Parague, as his natural birthplace. It is unlikely that the Thorpe household had much allegiance to Ireland but the Emerald Isle was never slow to claim ancestral rights for star players in many sports codes.
One factor that perhaps could align Jim Thorpe to the land of his grandfather was his own faith. Born into a strong catholic ethos, Jim was a staunch believer in his faith (handed down by his parents) and that is quite sufficient for any claim to an Irish pedigree.
In the Ireland of 1887 many children were born in mud huts in rural Irish outlands and Jim Thorpe’s first vision of life came from the hut where he was born. Jim had a twin brother Charlie, and they attended the Sac and Fox Indian Agency school in Stroud, Oklahoma.
Charlie helped him through school until he succumbed to a bout of pheumonia when Jim was nine years old. Jim ran away from school several times and in despair his father sent him to the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarders school in Lawrence, Kansas, in the hope this would negate his truancy.
An important factor in Jim’s life was the death of his mother in childbirth and he encountered great depression dealing with this tragedy. Life for Jim could never again be the same after his mother’s death and after several arguments with his father, he left home to work on a horse ranch.
In 1904 the sixteen-year-old Thorpe renewed his relationship with his father and returned home. Shortly after he again entered Carlisle (Indian) Industrial School, Pennsylvania, and this was the seed that made Jim Thorpe a world class athlete.
At the school his athletic ability was recognised and his athletics coach, Glenn Scobey ‘Pop’ Warner, who was an influential American Football coach, recognised that the young pupil had a special talent.
However once more Jim’s life took a downward spiral when his father tragically died as a result of a shooting accident whilst out game shooting.
Still in his teens Jim was now orphaned with his twin brother Charlie, and he decided to stay in the homeplace and do some farm work for a few years.
The call to return to Carlisle (Indian) Industrial School was still breeding in his mind and he finally made a decision to return to the school, a decision that would shape his life upwards and onwards, but tragedy was never too far away in his life.
His athletic career at Carlisle began in earnest in 1907 when he walked past the track and beat all the school's high jumpers with an impromptu 5ft 9in jump and still in his street clothes. This feat astounded his coach and fellow pupils and his earliest recorded track and field results come from 1907.
He also competed in football, baseball, lacrosse and also ballroom dancing winning the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship.
Pop Warner, Jim’s coach, was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his best track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as American Football. Jim Thorpe, however, convinced Warner to let him try some rushing plays in practice against the school team's defence and Warner assumed he would be tackled easily and promptly give up the idea.
Again Thorpe "ran around past and through them, not once, but twice". He then walked over to Warner and said "Nobody is going to tackle Jim", while flipping him the ball.
Thorpe now gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911. As a running back, defensive back, placekicker and punter, he scored his all his team's points, four field goals and a touchdown, in an 18–15 upset of Harvard, a top ranked team in those early days of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
His team finished the season 11–1. In 1912 Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of his efforts – he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points during the season.
Carlisle's 1912 record included a 27–6 victory over The Army. In that particular game, Thorpe's 92-yard touchdown was nullified by a teammate's penalty, but on the next play Thorpe rushed for a 97-yard touchdown. Future President, Dwight Eisenhower, who played against him that season, recalled of Thorpe in a 1961 speech:
“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw”.
He was awarded All American honours in both 1911 and 1912. Football was and would remain Jim Thorpe's favorite sport. He competed only sporadically in track and field, even though this turned out to be the sport in which he gained his greatest fame.
In the spring of 1912, he started thinking about the upcoming 1912 Olympics. He had confined his efforts to jumps, hurdles and shot-puts, but now added pole vaulting, javelin, discus, hammer and 56 lb weight.
In the Olympic trials held at Celtic Park in New York, his all-round ability stood out in all these events and so he captured a claim to a place on the team that went to Stockholm, Sweden.
For the 1912 Summer Stocholm Olympics, two new multi events were introduced, pentathlon and decathlon. The 1912 pentathlon consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, 200 metre dash, discuss throw and a 1,500 metre race.
The events of the new decathlon differed slightly from the American version. Both seemed appropriate for Jim Thorpe, who was so versatile that he served as Carlisle's College’s one-man team in several track meets.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Jim could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat; the 220 in 21.8 seconds; the 440 in 51.8 seconds; the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35; the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds; and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds.
Also he could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He was able to pole vault 11 feet; put the shot a distance of 47 ft 9 in; throw the javelin 163 feet; and throw the discus 136 feet.
These astounding feats and records held Americans in astonishment and bewilder that one solitary athlete could be so accomplished.
Jim’s Olympic schedule was extremely demanding and for an athlete who never trained in preparation, his opponents never knew what to expect from Jim Thorpe.
Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the long jump and high jump. The first competition was the pentathlon. He won four of the five events and placed third in the javelin, an event he had not competed in before 1912.
Although the pentathlon was primarily decided on place points, points were also earned for the marks achieved in the individual events. He easily won the coveted gold medal.
That same day, he qualified for the high jump final in which he was placed fourth, and he also took seventh place in the long jump. This was even more remarkable, as someone had stolen his shoes just before he was due to compete. Undaunted he found some discarded shoes in a rubbish bin, wore an odd pair of shoes and won his medals wearing them. He is shown in a 1912 photo wearing two different shoes and extra socks because one shoe was too big.
Jim Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, his first, and as it turned out, his only Olympic decathlon. Strong competition from local favorite, Hugo Wieslander, was anticipated. However Jim easily defeated the Swede by more than 700 points.
Again Jim confounded all comers, even his own coaches, by his placement in the top four in all ten events. His Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades. Overall, Jim Thorpe of Irish descent, won eight of the 15 individual events comprising the pentathlon and decathlon.
Like many more great and famous athletes, the story of Jim Thorpe had many twists and turns, beginning with the banishment of his Olympic medals due to his professional status whilst at Carlisle College.
Great misery poured down on Jim in marriage and love and he lost out in four marriages before staying with his fifth wife till death.
Along the way Jim also became a chronic alcoholic, lost all his fortune and ended up building ditches for local councils. Even in death events were unkind to Jim and his third wife came in the stealth of night to his burial place, had his remains removed from his grave and he was interred in another county and money was the motivation for his former wife.
His family fought through the courts to have his remains returned to his native soil and it is alleged that racial abuse was a factor in the courts decision to refuse Jim’s off spring their natural right. Jim Thorpe now rests in a grave not intended by his family as his final resting place.
His death as a pauper was well documented in America’s press and the true story of Jim Thorpe’s life does not make for pleasant reading. He was abandoned by his own American people who rejoiced in his remarkable feats at Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
Finally after many unsuccessful petitions, the Olympic titles were reinstated to Jim Thorpe posthumously but a quick glance at the International Olympic Council’s website will reveal, that the titles won so gloriously by an Indian American athlete, with Irish blood in his veins, are still omitted from their files.
The Olympics are anything but professionally organised and run by administrators and Ireland, at the last Olympics in Brazil in 2016, need little reminding of the facts and figures surrounding our own administrators and competitors.
Derry JF Doody