March 30, 2001

Rehabilitating Thomas Paine, Bit by Bony Bit

By DAVID W. CHEN

EW ROCHELLE, N.Y., March 29 Nothing has been easy for Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War patriot, agitator and pamphleteer, since New York State awarded him 277 acres here in 1784.

Residents in what was a Tory stronghold disdained him. He was prevented from voting and branded an atheist. Finally, he retreated to Manhattan, where he died in 1809, childless, scorned and impoverished. Ten years later, his body was exhumed from his farm and shipped to England by a zealous supporter who hoped that Paine would be accorded more respect. Instead, legend has it that some of his bones were recycled into buttons, and others were either tossed into the garbage or lost to history. On the other hand, specific pieces said to be parts of his body include a skull owned by a family in Australia.

Now, however, this suburb in Westchester County has decided that the man who wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls," should finally be allowed to rest in peace. And the city is mounting a concerted attempt to right old wrongs all the way down to attempting to bring the head, and whatever else may remain of Paine, back home for a proper burial.

"His picture should be up there with the founding fathers," said Brian McCartin, executive director of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association here. "Why isn't it? Because he's dangerous. But the bones, because of their unique and borderline bizarre nature hopefully, that will get people interested in Paine first, and then make them realize that he was a true visionary."

The vow to search for Paine's bones officially called the Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative coincides with a celebration of all things Paine that began here today.

Cablevision pledged to contribute $1,000 to the search for Paine's remains. C-Span rolled out its mustard-colored bus promoting its series on American writers, which includes a segment on Paine to be broadcast live from here on Monday. The Huguenots marching band of New Rochelle High School, resplendent in purple and white, played Earth, Wind and Fire and Louis Prima. And for the next few days, New Rochelle's schools and library have scheduled a series of forums, performances and exhibits related to Paine and his controversial opposition to slavery, Federalism and organized religion.

"I think this kind of national attention will really bring the focus back to the important things in life," said Mayor Timothy C. Idoni of New Rochelle, noting that despite Paine's fame, many people still associate New Rochelle as the setting of the fictional television characters Rob and Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

But long after the educational programs have concluded and the television trucks have left, the quest to solve the mystery of whatever happened to Paine's body will continue.

According to historians, Paine's body was exhumed in 1819 by William Cobbett, a onetime Paine foe who later became an admirer. Cobbett felt that Paine was not being given his posthumous due, so he decided that England, where Paine spent the first 37 years of his life, was a more appropriate burial site.

The trouble was, hardly anyone else cared. So Paine's remains were kept in a trunk in Cobbett's attic.

When Cobbett died in 1835, his son was apparently unsuccessful in auctioning off the bones, and may have buried them in the family plot, said Mr. McCartin. Or maybe he didn't: in the 1850's, a Unitarian minister in England said that he had Paine's skull and right hand, and in the 1930's, a woman in Brighton insisted that she had Paine's jawbone.

In 1987, a Sydney businessmen claimed that he had purchased Paine's skull while on vacation in London. He sold it to an Australian named John Burgess, who claimed that he was a descendant of an illegitimate child of Paine's. And now, Mr. Burgess's wife is trying to raise the $60,000 needed to pay for DNA testing, said Gary Berton, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association here.

Both Mr. Berton and Mr. McCartin doubt the paternity claims. They are, however, impressed by the skull itself, which is said to have a number of markings similar to the ones that the Cobbetts etched.

"The number of markings and exact locations on the skull seem to match what we know of the markings," Mr. Berton said.

If DNA tests are done, the historical association will match the results to the hair samples stored at the museum here. If necessary, the association could authorize the exhumation of Paine's brain stem, which is buried in a secret location on the grounds of the Thomas Paine Museum here, said Mr. Berton, who is so passionate about Paine, he lives on the same property that Paine owned in Bordentown, N.J., before to moving to New Rochelle.

For now, most Paine artifacts are on display at either the museum or the adjacent Thomas Paine cottage, which was Paine's residence from 1803 to 1806, and is run by the Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Association. At the museum, visitors can inspect Paine's wallets, glasses, watch and gloves. But most eerily, they can also see his death mask and what Mr. Berton said was his "grave mask": the molding made from Paine's decomposed body, while in exile in England, in 1822.

 
 
 

Friends of Paine HOME