A few days ago we posted about a pair of real photo postcards featuring Jim Thorpe and his friends at the Carlisle Indian School, circa 1908. In researching the postcard we had identified the sender of the postcards as Joe Charley, who wrote notes to his sisters on each of the two postcards – one to his sister Fannie, and one to Bessie, each of whom had been former students of the school. The postcards were mailed on June 4, 1908. Charley, as we noted, eventually became Chief Joe Charley of the Yakama tribe.
We were very excited to identify Charley in the photo, and to trace Charley and his sisters from their time at the Carlisle school til their later lives.
What we also noticed, however, was that Jim Thorpe was wearing some sort of medal pinned to his tie.
In our research, we learned that Thorpe won a gold medal in the Penn Relays for the high jump, and speculated that since the Penn Relays were in the Spring and the postcards were mailed on June 4, maybe that medal was Thorpe’s gold medal.
Now, just a couple of weeks later, we’re reasonably convinced that it is.
According to Jim Thorpe: A Biography by William A. Cook, Thorpe went out for the track team at the Carlisle Indian School in 1908. The coach was “Pop” Warner (who also coached the football team). That Spring, Warner challenged Thorpe, telling him that if he could clear 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches in the high jump, that he would bring Thorpe with him to the Penn Relays. Thorpe jumped 5 feet, 11 inches.
Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Relays are the oldest amateur track and field competition in the country, dating back to 1895. On April 25, 1908, Thorpe competed in the high jump, and to our knowledge it was his first significant amateur match. His 6 foot, 1 inch jump was good enough to tie him for first, and a coin flip awarded him the gold – to our knowledge, his first track and field award.
Thorpe would continue to dominate during the rest of the track season, trying for (but not qualifying) the Olympic games. That summer, Thorpe joined the Carlisle baseball team. The timing of these postcards’ mailing – June 4, 1908 – coincides with Thorpe’s rise to national prominence, just six weeks or so after his Penn Relays victory.
From what we can gather, the Penn Relays have always awarded a similar medal. Here’s one from the late 1920s that we found online.
The image of the medal in the photo is very small. The ribbon on Thorpe’s medal appears identical to that which we’ve seen on virtually every vintage Penn Relays medal we’ve found online. The dimensions of the medal itself relative to the ribbon also seem very similar. But what about the medal itself? In the postcards, it’s awfully small to see any of the detail.
We scanned the postcards at 1200 DPI and enlarged them, and in each image the medal appeared quite blurry. But we then cropped the best of the two images of the medal itself and enhanced the detail of the image, and the result was quite interesting. While it’s impossible to see detail, the shadows and raised areas on the medal are consistent with the design of the Penn Relays medal.
By changing the perspective of an actual Penn Relays medal and overlaying it on top of the Thorpe medal, then animating the two, you can see what we mean.
While we cannot enhance the image further, prohibiting us from being 100% positive, we are reasonably convinced that Thorpe is wearing his Penn Relays medal in both photographs. We have been unsuccessful in finding other images of Thorpe wearing this medal, the first significant athletic award of his legendary career. All that being said, it is entirely possible that these two postcards are among the only images depicting one of the greatest of American athletes, wearing the first of his many athletic awards.