The Unquiet Afterdeath of Thomas Paine’s Corpse

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The Reformation was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood.

William Cobbett

A good trick question for a history quiz would be, “Where is Thomas Paine buried?”  The correct answer would be, “No one knows!’

Paine died in New York City on June 18, 1809.  His views on Christianity had made him persona non grata in the US, his services during the American Revolution to the cause of Independence being overlooked.  A controversy has raged since his death as to whether he did or did not recant his attacks against Christianity.  I would say the burden of the evidence is that he did not.   Six people attended his funeral.  No Christian church would bury him, so his corpse was interred in unhallowed ground under an oak tree on a farm he owned in New Rochelle.  There his bones rested until September 1819, when his body was stolen.

The culprit was William Cobbett, an English admirer of Thomas Paine.  He left with the corpse on a ship to England, just before the authorities could arrest him for grave robbing.  Cobbett was part crank, part persuasive reformer.  He was a political radical, farmer, pamphleteer, member of Parliament and journalist.  He battled for many causes in England, including Catholic Emancipation, the quotation at the beginning of this post is from his fiery book on the Protestant Reformation which may be read on line here, although he was not a Catholic and against the birth restriction views of Thomas Malthus.  Cobbett turned grave robber in order to build a shrine to Paine where his body could rest in honor.

Alas, Cobbett’s plans came to nothing, and at his death Paine’s remains were still in his possession.  Cobbett’s son may have sold pieces of Paine to various collectors, although no one is really sure.   Various people have claimed to have pieces of Paine’s remains at various times, including a Church of England bishop in the nineteenth century who claimed to have Paine’s skull on his mantle piece, although none of these pieces have been subjected to DNA testing.  A sad end to the mortal remains of the author of Common Sense.

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