With the annual bombardment of "10 best" lists and the onslaught of the awards season, we thought it was time to come up with our own award. There is no cash prize, nor will anyone win tickets to a Bengals game or to the Hawaii Bowl to see the Bearcats play. The reward is a better understanding of a prickly probate issue and, we hope, a greater appreciation for just how compelling probate law can be.
And so, we are happy to award this year's Most Interesting Probate Story to the efforts of Jim Thorpe's sons to repatriate their father's remains to the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. Thorpe died in 1953. Another son filed the lawsuit in 2010. After his death, his brothers took over as plaintiffs.
Thorpe has been hailed as the greatest athlete in history. He was a high school football star, won the Olympic medals for the decathlon and the pentathlon (the medals are another story altogether) and played both professional baseball and football. He was named All American twice and was one of the first players to join the Football Hall of Fame.
His sons claim that Thorpe's widow (their stepmother) agreed with them that Thorpe would be buried in Oklahoma in a traditional Sac and Fox ceremony. The night before the interment, though, she apparently changed her mind. She left with Thorpe's body, eventually burying him in a mausoleum in a Pennsylvania town that officially adopted his name. Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is home to the Jim Thorpe Area Hall of fame Thorpe's grave is in the Jim Thorpe Memorial Park.
By law, Thorpe's widow had every right to decide where her husband would be buried. He had left no will and no written instructions. His sons claimed he told them he wanted to remain in Oklahoma, but there was no record to support the claim.
Make that by Americanlaw. According to the Sac and Fox Nation, written records, including wills, are not a part of their culture.
To make their case in American courts, though, the plaintiffs had to look to a federal law, specifically the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. We'll explain further in our next post.
Source: USA Today, "Fight for Jim Thorpe's remains continues 62 years later," Erik Brady, Aug. 8, 2015