Thomas Paine’s Remains Are Still a Bone of Contention

From Associated Press

More than 180 years after Thomas Paine’s remains were dug up and carted off to England, his disciples think it’s time to bring home the man who helped inspire the American Revolution.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, since most of Paine is missing and bits of him seem to have migrated all over the world.

“I don’t know how effective this will be, but it would be wonderful for the city to welcome back our most famous citizen,” New Rochelle Mayor Tim Idoni said Friday.


The effort to collect the remains of the famous revolutionary--the Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative--and put them to rest again was announced as part of this weekend’s Paine celebration in New Rochelle, where he settled in 1784.

Parts of Paine might still be in England, possibly in the form of buttons made from his bones. There might be a rib in France. A man in Australia who claims to be a descendant says he has Paine’s skull.

“In a way, it’s poetic, the fact that his body is scattered to the four corners of the Earth,” said Gary Berton, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Assn. “This is the man who said ‘The world is my country.’ ”

The only Paine parts that are still anywhere near the original burial site on his New Rochelle farm are his mummified brain stem and a lock of hair that the historical association says it is keeping in a secret location.

When he died in 1809, he was generally out of favor, partly for his opposition to organized religion, partly for his arguments against the elite running the country. He was buried on his farm but didn’t even get the simple low stone wall around his grave that he specified in his will.

Ten years later, William Cobbett, a former rival who had attacked Paine but later revered him, dug up his body without permission and took it to London with grand plans for a memorial that would inspire England’s democracy movement.

The memorial never materialized. The boxed bones were passed down to Cobbett’s descendants and eventually sold off, bit by bit.

Now the historical society is calling on historians and collectors around the world to help track down as many bones as possible for an eventual reinterment, perhaps in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death.

“That would be a great anniversary,” Berton said. “We’re going to do it eventually--if not in this generation then the next.”

There is considerable hope that the skull in Australia could really be Paine’s. Berton said it is the right size and has some incised markings that match descriptions left by Cobbett and his son. It was purchased in England by a man named John Burgess, who claimed to be the descendant of an illegitimate son of Paine.

The historical association hopes to raise enough money for DNA comparisons of the skull with the lock of hair.

Berton said he hopes the campaign will also bring renewed attention to Paine, who he thinks is not fully appreciated for his forward-looking principles, including women’s rights and abolition of slavery.

“We want to restore Paine’s proper place in history as well as restoring the grave site,” he said.