Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Carlisle, Carbon County
A multi-sport gold medal winner at the Stockholm Olympics, Jim Thorpe attended the Carlisle Indian School.
Awards: Olympic Medal, College Football Hall of Fame, Pro Football Hall of Fame
Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe was born in 1887 in Prague, Oklahoma. Better known as “Jim,” Thorpe is best known for his all-around athletic ability. After starting his career playing football at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, his career blossomed into one of the best athletic careers in history. He later became a multiple gold medal winner in the 1912 Olympics, while also obtaining success in professional football and baseball. After devoting much of his later life to his eight children, Thorpe died from a heart attack in Lomita, California, on March 28, 1953.
Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe was born May 28, 1887, in Prague, Oklahoma. Thorpe, better known as “Jim,” was the son to Charlotte Vieux and Hiram Thorpe. As one of ten children, Jim Thorpe spent most of his time as a young child tending to the family farm. As a member of the Sac and Fox Indian Tribe, at the age of six Thorpe was sent to boarding school that was specifically designed for Native Americans (the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School). Thorpe’s twin brother, Charles, died while attending the same school. Thorpe bounced in and out of school, often running away due to depression stemming from his brother and mother’s deaths and also due to multiple arguments with his father. Thorpe returned home to his father in the early 1900s and decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. While in school, Thorpe met inspirational coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, who helped Thorpe’s athletic career mature.
Jim Thorpe’s first amazing ability was observed when he surpassed a mark of 5’9” in the high jump, which most older boys were incapable of doing. Even more impressive is the fact that Thorpe was wearing overalls at the time. Thorpe was asked to play for the football team, where he led Carlisle to an impressive 11-1 record in 1911. The following year, Thorpe and Carlisle won the national championship in football. One of Thorpe’s opponent’s stated, “He was superhuman. There is nothing he can’t do!” Thorpe’s speed and power on the football field, both as a halfback and as a cornerback, fostered his on-going success as a track and field athlete, where he gained most of his fame. He became a member of the varsity squad in 11 different sports, including baseball, football, and track. He was so good in baseball that he was asked to play semi-professional ball, for which Thorpe was paid a minimal fee. After competing in all three sports relatively at the same time, Thorpe earned himself a spot on the national track team, after being voted All-American, to represent the United States in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Competing in both the pentathlon and decathlon, Thorpe dominated the rest of the field and won two gold medals. When King Gustav of Sweden presented Thorpe with his medals, Thorpe later said that this was the proudest moment in his life. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s glory in the spotlight was short-lived. A newspaper reporter revealed that Thorpe had played professional baseball for money, which made him ineligible to compete. Therefore, Jim Thorpe was stripped of any honors he earned while competing in the Olympic Games. This scandal really hurt Thorpe, who stated, “They used me as a guinea pig to make up the rules.”
Thorpe played professional baseball and football for over 15 years with various teams such as the New York Giants, the Boston Braves, and the Canton Bulldogs. Despite making a lot of money, Thorpe sat the bench the majority of the games. He devoted more of his time to football, where he became one of the greatest halfbacks of all time. Thorpe’s last game occurred in 1929 against the Chicago Cardinals, when he was 41-years-old. Thorpe later served a variety of odd-jobs after retiring from athletics. He was a bartender, a ditch digger, a painter, and also served time in the merchant marines. Thorpe also devoted his time speaking to many schools and children about the importance of athletics and how it relates to sportsmanship.
By 1945, Thorpe had married his third and final wife, having already fathered eight children. During 1950, Thorpe became very ill and had no money left. He was hospitalized for lip cancer, and three years later, Thorpe died on March 28, 1953, of a heart attack while eating dinner with his wife, Patricia Askew, in Lomita, California. Upon Thorpe’s death in 1953, “the New York Times saluted him as the greatest athlete of them all. There seems to be general agreement that no one ever equaled him on the football gridiron.”
After Thorpe’s death, his wife, Askew, wanted Oklahoma, Thorpe’s home state, to build a memorial and have it erected to remember the late Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately at the time, money was scarce, so she turned her attention towards two small towns in eastern Pennsylvania (Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk) that were trying to attract visitors and business. She convinced both towns to rename themselves into one town: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. To this day, a monument of Jim Thorpe and his burial site can still be seen there. In 1973, Thorpe also received his amateur status back, and later, he was given back the gold medals he had won by the International Olympic Committee, in large part due to the work of his children. He then had an award named after him in 1986 (Jim Thorpe Award), which is given to the best defensive back in college football each year. Thorpe also had a movie made about his life called, Jim Thorpe: All American.
Brown, Don. Young Jim Thorpe. Bright Path. New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press, 2006.
Coffey, Wayne. Jim Thorpe. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1993.
Crawford, Bill. All American. The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
“Jim Thorpe Is Dead On West Coast at 64.” New York Times. 29 Mar. 1953: 1.
Lipsyte, Robert. Jim Thorpe. 20th-Century Jock. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.