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Have You Seen This Founding Father?

June 2024
2min read


In March 1809, two months before his death, a sickly Thomas Paine was refused a plot at a Quaker cemetery in New York City. The pamphleteer and political activist, who had incited the colonies to rebel with Common Sense and horrified Christians with his deist The Age of Reason , resigned himself to being interred on his farm in nearby New Rochelle. He predicted to a friend, “The farm will be sold, and they will dig up my bones before they be half rotten.”

Paine was prescient. The man who unearthed him was William Cobbett, a radical English writer who wrote in 1819, “Paine lies in a little hole under the grass and weeds of an obscure farm in America. There, however, he shall not lie unnoticed much longer. He belongs to England.”

That same year, in an attempt to stir up revolutionary feeling, Cobbett crossed the Atlantic, went to New Rochelle, and illicitly dug up the body. He took it back to England, where he hoped to erect a reverential monument. But King George III’s death a few months later aroused a nationwide sorrow that precluded any attempt at rabble-rousing.

Cobbett died a debtor in June 1835, and his estate fell into the hands of a receiver, George West. As is elucidated in two articles reprinted in the March 2002 Journal of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association , in 1837 West gave Paine’s bones to Cobbett’s friend Benjamin Tilly, who hoped to revive the idea of erecting a shrine. But Tilly, too, fell into debt and never reburied them. He died in 1860 at the London home of some friends named Ginn. Mrs. Ginn later said she had sold the aging relics to a rag-andbone collector for destruction soon after Tilly’s death. Her house was the last known resting place of Tom Paine.

Even at the time of Tilly’s death, bits and pieces of Paine’s skeleton were embarking on a grisly diaspora. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century the Reverend Robert Ainslie bought the skull and right hand, either at an auction of Tilly’s estate or from a corn merchant who had bought them from West, the receiver. When Ainslie died, he left the bones to his son, but a hired man absconded with them, and they were lost to history.

Years earlier, when the remains were still in Cobbett’s possession, Tilly had taken a lock of hair and a two-by-oneinch chunk of brain. In the late 1870s Mr. Ginn sold these two relics to a minister, who sold them to a bookseller, who in 1900 sold them to Moncure D. Conway, the first president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. He described his purchase: “’Mr. Paine’s hair’ is soft and dark, with a reddish tinge. The remnant of Paine’s brain is … leaden in color, and quite hard.” The association has held on to the hair and the brain fragment ever since.

They are now the only verified parts of Paine’s body whose whereabouts are certain. A couple in Australia has claimed since 1988 to have Paine’s skull, but no DNA testing has yet been performed. Numerous other tales about purported pieces of Paine have been discounted.

While all those well-meaning Englishmen were busy not burying Paine, Americans were building him the sort of memorial Cobbett had envisioned. In 1839 a private group erected a stone pillar on top of his vacated gravesite, and in 1905 the association crowned it with a bronze bust. Whenever the rest of Paine does turn up, the association is ready to pay it the respect Cobbett never could.

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