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Jim Thorpe: The Man, The Myth, the Small Pennsylvania Town

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If I say the name Jim Thorpe, most of you will probably think of the Native American baseball player/football player/Olympian. Some of you, though, will think of the Carbon County, Pennsylvania borough known as “Switzerland of America” and the “Gateway to the Poconos.”

I think of both, and what concerns us here today is how the latter got named after the former. The story starts in another small town in neighboring Ohio.

Jim Thorpe, the man


At the turn of the 20th century, LaRue, Ohio was not exciting place. There were some 1200 people, a few grocery stores, garages, churches and a car dealership or two. The only action in LaRue was to be found at the train tracks in the middle of town. On a busy day, close to 30 trains passed through.

At the time, though, something interesting was starting to brew in the world of sports. In Ohio and western Pennsylvania, the seeds of professional football were being planted, and two men were about to put the game and the town of LaRue in the national spotlight.

One of those men was Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe (also known by his tribal name Wa-Tho-Huk), a Native American athlete who had represented the Sac and Fox Nation and the United States at the Olympic Games in Stockholm and, when he took gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon, was called “the greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav V of Sweden.

After the Olympics, Thorpe signed with the New York Giants baseball team and played sporadically with them as an outfielder for three seasons. In 1915, he joined an early pro football team, the Canton Bulldogs, as a player and coach for $250 a game. Under his leadership, the Bulldogs claimed unofficial championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919, and the country began to take notice of pro football.

In LaRue, a man named Walter Lingo also took notice. Lingo owned a general store, a tire factory and a famed dog breeding kennel. At its peak, Lingo’s Oorang Kennels bred and sold a few thousand Airedale terriers a year. Movie star Gary Cooper, baseball players Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey and President Warren G. Harding all kept Oorang Airedales as pets. Lingo often liked to bring these celebrity owners in to visit LaRue so they could hunt with his dogs and be seen with him in front of newsreel crews and newspaper gossip columnists.

As football took off, Lingo thought that the game would be a great way to promote his kennel and dogs. He decided to organize a pro team, and he knew just who to ask for help in getting it off the ground. Lingo and Thorpe had first met when Thorpe came to Lingo's defense after a group of farmers accused the Oorang Kennels of raising a nation of sheep killers. Thorpe brushed the critics off and said that he once knew an Oorang Airedale that had saved a 6-year-old girl from being trampled by a bull. From then on Lingo and Thorpe had been good friends and hunting buddies.

In 1920, the National Football League was organized and the charter members named Thorpe league president. The next year, Lingo bought an NFL franchise for $100 and brought Thorpe and Pete Calac—a friend and teammate of Thorpe's from his school days—out to LaRue to hunt possum and hammer out a deal. They agreed that the team would play away games almost exclusively, touring the country and advertising the Airedales. Thorpe would play and coach and would field an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians, whose players would help run the kennels when they weren't practicing or traveling for games. Lingo’s other kennel employees pulled double duty on the team, too. The same dieticians and trainers who looked after the Airedales also tended to the players.

Thorpe and the other players soon figured out that Lingo was not all that interested in the team or football. They were not given dedicated practice space and often had to share a field with the local high school’s team. The pre-game and halftime activities at their games were emphasized over the games themselves, and the players were made to change into traditional Indian clothes and perform tricks alongside Lingo’s terriers. They did Indian dances, performed tomahawk and knife-throwing demonstrations, shot fake ducks for the dogs to retrieve and, strangely, re-enacted battles from World War I. On occasion, a player known as Long Time Sleep even wrestled a bear in the middle of the field.

Despite Thorpe’s best efforts, the Indians turned out not to be a very good team, going one 2-year stretch with only three wins. Once the novelty of the halftime show wore off and attendance began to fall, Lingo stopped renewing the franchise in 1924. Some of the players stayed in and around LaRue, working on farms, opening shops and joining the local police force. Thorpe had a hard time holding down a job after leaving professional sports, and worked shorts stints as an extra in cowboy movies, a construction worker, a bouncer, a security guard and a laborer. He died in March 1953 at the age of 64.

Jim Thorpe, the town

After Thorpe’s death, his wife Patricia lobbied officials in Oklahoma, Jim’s home state, to erect a memorial in his honor. When they refused, an angry Patricia decided she would make sure that Jim was honored elsewhere. She heard that the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for ways to attract businesses and tourists, and got an idea. She struck a deal with town officials, and the two towns merged, renamed the new town after Thorpe, purchased his remains, and built a monument to him that includes his tomb (he rests in soil from his native Oklahoma and the Swedish stadium where he won his Olympic medals), two statues of him, and plaques telling his life story.

Thorpe’s memorial didn’t draw too many tourists, but the town has made a name for itself as a destination for outdoor activities like hiking, paintball, and whitewater rafting.

In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a lawsuit against the town in federal court in order to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma and re-interred near other family members. Jack claimed the agreement between his stepmother and Jim Thorpe officials was made against the wishes of Thorpe’s other family members, who wanted him buried on Native American land. So far, the suit is unsettled.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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