They dug up the body in the dead of night.
Men armed with shovels and pickaxes extracted the coffin and fled into the October darkness. Authorities gave chase until the body snatchers’ wagon raced over King’s Bridge and into Manhattan. Thus began the saga of the remains of Thomas Paine.
At the end of the American Revolution, radical pamphlet writer Thomas Paine was a national hero, best known as the author of Common Sense, which convinced many Americans to join the fight against the British. Over time, however, Paine became a social outcast, particularly for his controversial views on organized religion. He died in poverty on June 8, 1809 and only six people attended the burial at his farm in New Rochelle, New York. One obituary noted, “…he lived long, done some good, and much harm,” (New-York Evening Post, June 10, 1809, p. 2).
His isolated grave was all but forgotten until a onetime foe, then later admirer, William Cobbett, dug up his skeleton ten years after his death.
Cobbett, a journalist and loyal Englishman, had once been Paine’s bitterest enemy. Writing under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine, Cobbett published scores of pamphlets and two newspapers, Porcupine’s Political Censor and Porcupine’s Gazette, in which he defended the monarchy and attacked those who supported democratic ideas. Cobbett lashed out at many of the founding fathers, but his most vicious attacks were directed at Paine, even writing a malicious biography of him.
Eventually, Cobbett returned to England in 1800, but he quickly became disillusioned with the Tory class he had so staunchly defended in America. By the time he returned to the United States in 1817, he had completely reversed his opinion on democracy and about Thomas Paine. He believed that he had done Paine a great injustice in the past and sought to make amends.
Cobbett was horrified when he visited Paine’s neglected grave in 1819 and deeply felt that the man had not been given his posthumous due. He decided that since America had turned its back on its revolutionary hero, he would rebury him in England.
After disinterring Paine’s grave, he shipped the bones in a common merchandise crate and predicted their momentous effect. “…those bones will effect the reformation of England in Church and State.” Unfortunately for Cobbett, the bones failed to stir England and Cobbett became a laughingstock, the subject of vicious caricatures and grim jokes.
Despite Cobbett’s noble motive, the public responded in horror to the desecration of the grave, especially because of the surreptitious way he went about it. Lord Byron even wrote about the incident, which was widely quoted at the time:
“In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,
Will Cobbett has done well;
You visit him on earth again;
He’ll visit you in hell”
Soon after his arrival in England, Cobbett proposed to build a beautiful mausoleum for Paine and said that he would raise the funds by public subscription. The idea was so unpopular, though, that he never made an effort to collect money.
He next announced a great dinner would be held on Paine’s birthday, but again the plan was abandoned because no one took him seriously. Finally, he had locks of Paine’s hair soldered into rings, which he hoped to sell, but ultimately found no buyers. The remains of Thomas Paine would find no resting place in England.
Upon Cobbett’s death in 1835, his oldest son sold off his father’s effects at auction to pay for his own bankruptcy. Cobbett’s publisher requested that Paine’s remains be included in the sale, but his appeal was denied by the Lord Chancellor, who refused to regard the bones as an asset of the estate. The bones then were passed to a day laborer, then Cobbett’s secretary, then a furniture dealer, then oblivion.
According to legend, some of the bones were lost or destroyed, made into buttons, or sold off individually. Over the years, several people have claimed to be in possession of parts of the bones—a rib in France, a jawbone in England, a skull in Australia. The only part of Paine near his original burial site is a mummified brain stem and a lock of his hair, which were buried in a secret location by the historical association.