Newsletter: Disputed Bodies

October 20, 2015

10/20 Episode: THORPE’S BODY


2015-08-31 17.11.59

The law is part of our lives –– but what about after we die?

Sure, we can write wills and trusts to describe in great detail what we want done with our propery. But what about our bodies? What happens to our “remains” is decided by the people we leave behind.

But what if the living can’t agree on what do to with our body?  Life of the LawReporter Rachel Proctor May gets to the heart of a particularly tenacious dispute over what to do with the body of legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe.

Listen to THORPE’S BODY here.

Radio programmers can find our new episode here on PRX, Public Radio Exchange.

Reporter’s Notebook: Rachel Proctor May


Reporter Rachel Proctor May takes us behind the scenes on THORPE’S BODY:

I am not a sports fan. That’s my excuse for never having heard of Jim Thorpe before I saw a blurb in the National Law Journal  The story by Tony Mauro described how the Sac and Fox Nation had petitioned the US Supreme Court for review of the lower court decision that Jim Thorpe’s body should stay in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
As soon as I saw, “Jim Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania,” I knew there was a story. What I didn’t realize was how many stories Jim’s story contained.
For this piece, I ended up focusing on NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) because, well, as it turned out, that’s the legal issue. Plus, John Thorpe and Sandra Massey’s conflicting opinions of what NAGPRA is for and how to best honor Jim’s Native heritage are a nice window into the tensions that exist within any group of people seeking justice.
But that meant there just wasn’t room to get into another story: the story of why the town of Jim Thorpe still cares so much about keeping Jim’s body in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Here’s what I mean: Jim’s body was supposed to turn things around for the town. But then it didn’t. The grumbling began almost immediately. The mausoleum was vandalized and there were at least two referenda to change the name of the town back to “Mauch Chunk.” People openly went around town saying, “all we got is a dead Indian.”
So when Jim’s son showed up looking to return his father’s body to his trial homeland,  the town could have said yes. As a practical matter, they didn’t seem to “need” Jim. But not only did the town fight the lawsuit, when they lost at the US District Court, they went on to appeal the Court’s decision. Why if they no longer wanted Jim’s body, would they do that?
As I began to ask talk to the people of the town, one reason they gave for continuing their fight to keep the body was that between following a NAGPRA proceeding and appealing the Court’s decision, appealing was the cheaper option. Ok, that’s possible, but it wasn’t the only reason people gave. Another reason they gave was their fear of a “breach-of-contract” lawsuit by Patricia Thorpe’s heirs. While such a suit is theoretically possible, I’m skeptical. For one thing, Patricia (Jim’s widow) and Jim didn’t have children. It wasn’t clear whether they would want to sue.   It’s also not entirely clear the whether the contract she signed with the town, is enforceable.
The third story I heard from the people of the town is this: “Jim Thorpe brought us together and without Jim Thorpe, we may fall apart”. See, in the 1950s, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk weren’t just poor. They were desperately poor – and the two towns hated each other. Nineteenth century tensions between Irish mine workers and German mine management had crystallized into a long history of inter-city rivalry. Some in the town say that when they joined together and they became the one town of “Jim Thorpe” they were able to wipe the historic slate clean. It’s a good story, but I still don’t understand why it matters today. After 60 years as a single town, I’m not seeing things falling apart again just because Jim’s body is moved away.
But if the body were moved, it would have forced the people of the town to ask whether it made sense to remain “Jim Thorpe” or whether the town should again be called, “Mauch Chunk.” On the one hand, the town is full of “Mauch Chunk” signs – the bank, the opera house, a gift shop — so lot of people and institutions still identify with the “Mauch Chunk” name. On the other hand, a public debate over whether to change the name from Jim Thorpe to Mauk Chunk would be contentious, and a name change would be expensive –think of all the signs! The maps! The stationery! (Plus, “Mauch Chunk” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.) So at the end of the day, the explanation that made the most sense to me was that the town has been Jim Thorpe for 60 years. If it no longer has Jim Thorpe’s body, the town would have to ask itself: who are we? And that’s never an easy question to answer. Easier to keep the body.


Cats and Sounds:  LOTL Producer Shani Aviram


Meet the woman behind the scenes who designed the sounds of THORPE’S BODY.

I’m Shani, a composer and sound designer, currently based in Philadelphia. My first write-up about sound design was in CatSynth, a blog devoted to cats and synthesizers. I’m originally from Jerusalem, Israel and have been living in the US since 2008 when I moved to Oakland, CA to study music composition at Mills College. At Mills, I also stumbled into radio production and through my studies, I got my start in radio at KALW 91.7 in San Francisco.

Since 2012, I’ve been collaborating with radio producers and podcasters, creating creative approaches to the use of audio, in narrative productions. I’ve worked on Love + Radio’s remix album and live performance, The Heart’s radio play “Movies in Your Head” (which won the 2015 Prix Italia Golden Award for New Radio Formats) and the BBC documentary “Bring Your Darlings Back to Life”, produced by Reduced Listening, to name a few.

In my spare time, I bike the streets of Philadelphia, partake in an obscure American singing tradition (shape note singing) and compose experimental chamber and electronic music for its own sake. I also try to keep my photo off the internet and have mostly succeeded.


LIVE LAW: Truth or Dare? Brooklyn – Nov. 3


Would you tell the truth? Or would you take a dare?

We’re coming together in one place, for one night, to hear a few brave souls share truth or dare moments in their lives. Join us on Tues night, November 3 at theThe Knitting Factory in Brooklyn to hear Life of the Law’s Ben Adair (First Last Time – podcast, Marketplace, Reveal),   Mary Adkins (NY Times, The Atlantic),Joselin Linder (This American Life), Alex DiFrancesco (Author of The Devils That Have Come to Stay), Will Coley (KCRW, BBC, PRI, The Moth), Felix Neals(author), Larry K (it’s a secret), and other, even more secretive storytellers tell the secret stories of their lives.

Doors open at 6:30. Stories begin at 7:30. Admission is $10 in advance, $15 on day of the show online and at the door. Get your tickets  here.  More info… LIVE LAW Brooklyn

The Knitting Factory, 361 Metropolitan Avenue.


Staff Review: “The Lonely Death of George Bell”


This week, New York Times joined Life of the Law this week in exploring ownership of dead bodies and what happens when nobody shows up to claim a corpse.

Turns out it happens far more often then people might imagine. In New York City alone, more than 50,000 people a year die without next of kin, friends, or others to claim their bodies. What happens to the deceased when they die alone?

George Bell is the subject of this long narrative piece by reporter N. R. Kleinfield, whose writing about New York City and metropolitan grit has found life inside the paper of record for more than 40 years. In his latest piece, Kleinfeld unravels the story of a life after it’s over, uncovering secrets and surprises while city administrators work to try to give Mr. Bell the peace of a final resting place.


Stay tuned for next week’s LIVE LAW story: A Novitiate on Death Row