The Adventures of Thomas Paine’s Bones by Moncure Conway
First President of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association
The complete essay from the TPNHA Collection:
Although pious legends picture Thomas Paine as terrified of death, his only fear was lest he should live too long, and suffer like his parents from helpless age. When at length death was plainly approaching his only dread was excited by the zealous aggressions of proselytizers, whose eagerness for some miraculous manifestations from heaven or hell, at the death bed of the famous deist was likely, he foresaw, to fabricate a fabulous fulfillment. He therefore sent for the widow of friend Elihu Palmer, who had been left in poverty, to watch beside him till his death. His next anxiety was lest fanatics, in their disappointment that he was neither converted nor carried off by Satan, should subject his body to indignities, and, his parents having been Quakers, he requested burial in the Friends’ graveyard in New York. This was refused solely because of his deism, nothing whatever being alleged against his character. He was buried at New Rochelle on the farm presented to him by the State of New York at the close of the Revolution because of his services in that struggle.
And even then Paine entered on his posthumous career. There was no Quaker formula against deism, and the refusal of a grave to Paine, resented by some members of that Society, began a controversy which as I believe resulted twenty years later in a split, and the establishment of the rationalistic Society now known as “Hicksite Quakers”.
A plain headstone was placed at Paine’s grave, but bits of it were chipped away by visitors. A Fragment is sometimes shown at Paine’s celebrations in New York, and the destruction of the headstone ascribed to orthodox vandalism. But Gilbert Vale, who in 1837 edited The Beacon, said in that paper that it was done by “admiring visitors”. In his paper of July 15, 1837, Vale says: “After Cobbett violated the grave, and removed the bones from the remains of Paine, the headstone as broken, and pieces successively removed by different visitors; one large fragment was preserved by a lady in an opposite cottage, in which Mr. Paine had sometimes boarded; but this fragment gradually suffered diminution, as successive visitors begged a piece of what they could no longer steal. To preserve the last remnant the lady has had it plastered up in a wall.” The cottage alluded to is the Bayeaux house, and the lady Mrs. Badeau, who lived there with her mother, the widow Bayeaux, when Paine was a boarder. Her son, Mr. Albert Badeau, whom I visited in New Rochelle in 1891, preserved various relics of Paine. He saw Cobbett’s workmen digging up Paine’s bones about dawn.
In September 1819 Cobbett wrote from America a public letter to Lord Folkstone in which he advised him to read Paine’s “Decline and Fall of the British System of Finance”: “and then blush at the use of the words ‘Lower Orders’; blush to think that this man, born in humble life, knew more than all the ‘higher orders’ put together. Yet while such a fellow as pensioned Johnson, ‘that slave of state’, stands in colossal marble in St. Paul’s, 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. His fame is the property of England; and if no other people will show that they value that fame, the people of England will. Yes, my Lord, among the pleasures that I promise myself, is that of seeing the name of Paine honoured in every part of England, where base corruption caused him, while alive, to be burnt in effigy. Never will England be what it ought to be until the marble of Pitt’s monument is converted into a monument to the memory of Paine.”
In the same month the remains were dug up. “Our expedition”, wrote Cobbett, “set out from New York in the middle of the night; got to the place (twenty-two miles off) at peak of day; took up the coffin entire; and just as we found it, goes to England. Let it be considered the act of the Reformers of England, Scotland and Ireland. In their name we opened the grave, and in their name will the tomb be raised.” (Cobbett’s Register xxxv. P.382.) According to The Beacon (Dec. 27,1845) a little finger of Paine was left in America, and was “in the possession of a friend on Long Island.”
In Manordes’s “Biographical Treasury” it is said, “Many however assert that Cobbett did not take that trouble, but brought over from America the remains of a criminal who had been executed.” There is not however the slightest room for doubt on this point. Not only did Mr. Albert Badeau of New Rochelle witness the removal of the coffin, but the grave itself long bore the like witness. Dr. Clair J. Grece of Redhill has sent me an extract from a diary kept by his uncle Danial Constable while in America, who visited the grave on July 26,1822, and says “The grave is surrounded by a stone wall 16 feet by 12 and l8 inches thick, about 4 feet high. The grave is sunk in about the depth of a coffin. Some of the neighbors aided the three men who came with a wagon a little before day. They say had the proper authorities had known in time they would prevented the outrage.”
An aged Quaker informed me that a number of “Friends” who were on the “Elizabeth” when Cobbett came aboard with the big box, at New York, left the ship on learning its contents; but those who looked for a striking judgment on the vessel were disappointed. Cobbett with his strange freight landed at Liverpool on November 21,1819.
Before relating the adventures of Paine’s bones it may be of interest to record that the project of a monument to Paine at New Rochelle originated in 1837 with Gilbert Vale, who compiled a biography of Paine, and Mrs. Badeau, who, with her mother Mrs. Bayeaux, - both orthodox, - preserved an affectionate memory of the author and his sojourn as a boarder in their home at New Rochelle. The graceful monument was designed by John Frazee, an eminent architect, gratuitously, and was constructed at James’s marble works in New Rochelle. The portrait was cut from a medal of the time, owned by a Mr. Gill and is - or was- a good likeness. The monument is not exactly over the grave but near its head. The farmer into whose hands the surrounding land had passed would not permit the committee to reach the twelve square feet which had been reserved inviolably for Paine’s grave, by Madame Bonneville, so they had to purchase, at a cost of $50, twenty square feet of ground at the corner of the road and the lane leading to Paine’s house. The largest subscription for the monument was that of Hiram Parker, $30, the others having mostly one dollar each. The total cost, including the land, was $1,634. The monument was erected in November 1839, in the presence of about fifty persons, but without any formalities or speeches.
The reaction caused by the French Revolution was beginning to subside when Cobbett brought to England the bones of its famous outlaw, who, the Attorney General had declared in 1792, should never enter the country again except in vinculis. The “Painites” were reviving interest in their hero, and Richard Carlile had just been sent to prison for publishing the “Age of Reason”. And by the way, soon after his arrival Cobbett visited Carlile in gaol: the prisoner said “Ah, had I been in America, they would not have thrown me in prison.” “No”, replied Cobbett, “they would have tarred and feathered you.”
Cobbett’s enterprise was met with mingled wrath and ridicule. Probably most people now have no association with the incident except the four lines of Byron (following an equally cynical epitaph on Pitt) in a letter to Moore, from Ravcuna, Jan. 2,1820
“In digging up your bones, Tom Paine, Will Cobbett has done well: You visit him on earth again, He’ll visit you in hell.”
“Pray”, adds Byron, “let not these versiculi go forth with my name except among the initiated, because my friend H. has foamed into a reformer, and I greatly fear will subside into Newgate.” Even while the poet was writing, his friend H. - John Cam Hobhouse - was already in Newgate. It was for a pamphlet on Lord Erskine, so severely contrasting his earlier with his reactionary position, that it must almost have seemed to summon Paine as a Banquo at the feast of his once noble defender, but afterwards ennobled prosecutor. In fact Byron, in his Southern retreat, interested only in his alter ego Don Juan, was little aware of the political situation in England, and took the laughter over Paine’s bones to be more genuine than it was. The merriment was not that of the Tories, but rather an effort of the old Whigs to hooh-pooh an incident fallen at the most serious crisis since the French Revolution.
In August had occurred the terrible suppression of the mass meeting at Manchester (“Peterloo”). The trials of the Carliles and other heretical publishers and writers were filling the radicals with consternation. The storm was rising concerning Queen Caroline around whom the liberals were gathering with intense wrath against the Prince Regent whose full reign was at hand. Eight days after the arrival of Paine’s bones at Liverpool three different Bills were introduced into Parliament, all heavily loaded guns aimed against the recovery by the people of rights lost during the French revolution - the Seditious Meetings Bill, the Training Prevention Bill, and the Blasphemous Libels Bill. The promoters of these measures were not slow in availing themselves of the Paine-Cobbett incident. On December2 Mr. Wilmot made a strong point of it in the House of Commons:
“Does anybody advocate the principle of these meetings? If such a man exists it can only be in the person of the individual just returned from America, who has dug up the unhallowed bones of the blasphemer, and has brought them to this country for the purpose of creating a frenzied feeling in favour of his projects, and like old John Ziska, who desired that his skin be made into a drum to rouse his countrymen, wished to stir up impiety and disaffection by the exhibition of this mummery to the initated people of this country.”
After that, the Whig ridicule began, as if by mot d’ordre, and on December 17 a leading opponent of the government Bills, Earl Grosvenor, utilized the ridicule to prove them unnecessary:
“To prove still further the feelings by which people are actuated, I beg leave to mention the way in which a posthumous production, the bones of Thomas Paine, has been treated in this country. The person by whom that vile experiment has been tried found that he had a little mistaken the feeling and character of the people of England. Was there ever any subject treated with more laughter, contempt, and derision than the introduction of these miserable bones, - whether the bones of Thomas Paine or not I will not undertake to decide.”
Mr. Edward Smith of Walthamstow, Cobbett’s able biographer, does not share my suspicion that this ridicule was artificial. He says that Paine’s religious heresies had obliterated his political ideas.” In England he was known by his theology; and was branded as an Atheist by the hirelings who could not, or dare not try to refute him.” He reproaches Cobbett for not knowing that such things do not strike or interest the English mind. But two years later the performance was imitated by the importation in a ship of what was left of the bones of Major Andre for burial in Westminster Abbey, and Cobbett wrote: “All the differences between me and the Duke of York is, that I bring home the bones of an Englishman famed throughout the world for his talents and writings; and that the Duke brings home the bones of one who was hanged as a spy.” As for the ridicule, it was, apart from newspaper paragraphs, chiefly represented by some anonymous rhymes written with skill, but with an affectation of rudeness, and printed in the cheapest form. The date of the first effusion in December1 819, about three weeks after the bones were heard of in London, and it was entitled, “The Political House that Jack Built”. In a picture Cobbett is seen in a boat marked “Rights of Man”, seated on a coffin, and rowed by two Negroes.
“B is a boat that used to ply Across the Brooklyn Ferry; To Market Slip that’s called the Fly, A pretty kind of wherry.
“And ’tis constructed on a plan That’s best to cut the waves: The name of it is rights of man, And rowed by Negro slaves.
“This boat Bill Cobb hired for a week, And entered on a trip, A passage over sea to seek In Merchant Brig or Ship
“A coffin with him too he took When Paine’s Bones lay in state, And tried each bark from Sandy Hook, In vain - quite to Hell’s Gate.
“And thither was his utmost scope, Nor farther has he been; The massive door refused to ope Just yet - to let him in.”
Another piece is headed “sketches of the Life of Billy Cobb and the death of Tommy Pain”. The woodcut here shows Cobbett under an apple tree, his hat on the ground full of apples, with Paine’s skeleton on one side seizing him by the throat, and on the other the Devil touching him on the shoulder. The muses tell that when Paine was dying the Devil appeared and said his skull was now to be buried “for ever and ever.”
“One boon and only one I crave”, Said Thomas with a sigh, “Let it be till there pass my grave A caitiff worse than I.”
The Devil thinks it quite safe to agree to this, but when Cobbett touches the grave Paine springs up, and attacks him on old scores, for Cobbett had reproduced “Oldys”’ libels in America, and was connected to Painism only in after years. The Devil is at first rather pleased with the fight, being afraid that he may be “superceded” on his throne by one of them, but finally he reconciles them in view of the mischief they can do in England. Another woodcut shows Cobbett, coffin on shoulder; and next we see the ship.
“E for Elizabeth doth stand And that’s a vessel’s name, That lately sailed from Yankey-Iand And to the Mersey came.”
Another hand identified in Notes and Queries, Feb. 29, 1868 as Thomas Rodd, Sr., (“John English” is the pseudonym) wrote an “Ode on the Bones of the Immortal Thomas Paine, newly transported from America to England by the no less immortal William Cobbett, Esq. Hic labor hic opus. Great Paine for little trumpery.” (4 to pp 8). This privately printed poem (now very rare) tries at points to be satirical, without much success; it is severe on Paine’s theological negations, but discloses a certain admiration for the arch-heretic. I quote a specimen:
“No Judge or Jury does he fear, Nor e’en the Attorney General’s frown Nor dread lthuriel with his spear Can knock this doughty Champion down.
’Tis cowardice to strike the slain, ’Tis cowardice to strike Tom Paine High high in dust the hero lies, And from his narrow box his face defies.
Who shall the great Arch-Flamen be Of this new god? Upon whose shrine Let brass and farthing candles shine; His pen once gain’d the victory,
And still victorious reigns, in spite Of all the Bishop could indite: None but the mighty hand of Law Against this daring Chief the quill could prosperous draw.”
Whether under more auspicious circumstances Cobbett could have received any enthusiasm for Paine can now be only a matter of conjecture. In 1820 George the Third, born in the same year with Paine, gave a fatal blow to all interest in his bones by dying on Paine’s birthday, January 29. Thenceforth popular feeling was entirely occupied with the sufferings of Queen Caroline and the affairs of George IV. Cobbett at once began his efforts to get into Parliament, and Paine’s bones were stored away and forgotten for many a long year. It appears, however, that he occasionally exhibited the bones. The Rev. Gerald Davies, of Charterhouse, wrote to the “Surrey Times”, Feb. 2, 1889, that he was told by the late James Wyatt, of Bedford, geologist, that in boyhood, being at Normandy Farm, Cobbett’s last residence, he said, “Is it true you keep the bones of Tom Paine, the infidel?” Cobbett replied, “What do you know about Tom Paine?” But he took the boy up stairs and showed him the bones. William Cobbett dies June 18, 1835, at Normandy Farm, near Guilford. His son J.P. Cobbett found himself unable to pay off his father’s debts and his own, and the effects were sold by Thomas Piggott at auction in the autumn of the same year, on the premises. This information was communicated to the “Surrey Times”, Jan. 19, 1889,b y D.M. Stevens, who adds:
“My informants, who were present at the sale, told me that a box was pointed out as containing the remains of Paine, and they believed that the box and its contents were described in the catalogue, and that some allusion being made to the fact, the auctioneer refused to bring the lot under the hammer. What eventually became of the box and its contents is an unsolved problem, and, notwithstanding my own efforts to solve it, had better to remain so. The whole subject is a painful one, and I have no doubt that Cobbett, of whom we Surrey men have abundant reason to be proud, often regretted that he had not left the noted Freethinker’s bones to remain in their original American resting-place.”
Gilbert Vale, who was in correspondence with English freethinkers, stated in “The Beacon”, Dec.27, 1845, “The bones fell into the hands of an elderly female, a nurse in Cobbett’s family, and by her given or sold to Lta King’s gardener.’” Lord King, who died two years before Cobbett, was a nobleman who held many opinions in common with Paine. His residence, Ockham, was not far from that of Cobbett.
I have a letter (autograph) written by Gilbert Vale, Aug. 20, 1860, in which he says: “Cobbett did take the bones of Paine to London: they are in the hands of the friends of Paine, who will one day put a monument up to him. I saw some of the parties in charge of them in 1848, and I have a pamphlet on the subject which I suppose I brought from England in that year.”
The pamphlet was: “A Brief History of the Remains of the late Thomas Paine, from the time of their disinterment in 1819 by the late William Cobbett M.P., down to the year 1846. London: J. Watson, 1847” pg.8.
I was acquainted with James Watson, and gave the address at his burial, in 1874. He was an able and exact man, and as he no doubt wrote the pamphlet himself, the following statements in it were undoubtedly those Watson received from Benjamin Tilly, - a tailor, and a factotum of Cobbett in London. According to the pamphlet Cobbett brought the coffin-plate, inscribed “Thomas Paine, died June 8, 1809, aged74 years.” (Both Watson and Tilly would certainly know that laine was- born January 29, 1737, and this pres6rvation of an error as to his age, probably due to Madame Bonneville who ordered the coffin, is a certificate of the genuineness of this plate, which must still be in existence.) Cobbett placed Paine’s remains for a short time “in the keeping of a well known friend of his in Hampshire” (Lord King?), but they were brought to London, and remained in Cobbett’s house, Bolt Court, until January 1833, when Tilly sent them to Normandy Farm. There they remained until Cobbett’s death (June 18, 1835). James Paul Cobbett (his son and executor) inscribed his own name in several places on the skull, and on the larger bones. This gentleman was charged with insolvency by one Jesse Oldfield, who had been his father’s shopman, and the litigation resulted in the appointment of a receiver for the Normandy Farm estate, George West, a neighboring farmer. In January 1836, when Cobbett’s effects were sold at his Farm, the auctioneer refused to offer Paine’s remains, and they were retained by the receiver to await the orders of the Lord Chancellor, who, on the subject being mentioned to him in Court, refused to recognize them as part of the estate, or to make any order. Georgel West’s receivership ended in 1839. After keeping Paine’s remains nine years, he ascertained that Tilly wished to carry out Cobbett’s intentions concerning them, and he therefore, saysW atson, conveyed them in March, 1844, to Mr. Tilly (13 Bedford Square, East, London) “by whom they will in all probability be kept, until a public funeral of them can be arranged.”
In “Notes & Queries”, January 25, 1868, a writer signing “A Native of Guilford” states that in the summer of 1849 he saw Paine’s bones in a box in the house of John Chennell, corn merchant in Guilford, who told him that they had been purchased at the Cobbett sale at Ash by someone ignorant of the contents of the chest. A writer in the “Surrey Times”, January 19, 1889, states that the same merchant, Chennell, possessed a porcelain jar, with parchment cover inscribed “The GreatP aine’s Bones”, but that “only a few bones were inside the jar”. To this the Surrey editor adds: A correspondent from the United States was assured that in 1849 they were lying in the cellar of Mr. Chennell’s house, and inquiries are being anxiously made in the States for any authentic information as to them..” This American correspondent had probably got his information from the “Native of Guilford” in “Notes & Queries”, which can hardly be correct. It does not harmonize with the porcelin jar story, and the latter is inexact; the sale was not at Ash, but on the Normandy Farm premises. Chennell may have kept the remains for some years for the receiver George West, but if any were there in 1849 it could only have been a few of the bones which, as will presently appear got separated from the rest. In that year they were seen in possession of Benjamin Tilly.
About 1860 Tillv died in the house of a Mr. Ginn, wood-merchant, Bethnal Green, and left with him a number of Cobbett’s MMS. and Paine relics, but apparently without careful information. According to a statement made to me by Mr. George Reynolds of 23 Stepney Green, his attention was called to these relics in 1879 by a daughter of Mr. Ginn, who was a member of the Baptist Church of which he (Reynolds) was then minister. He purchased the box of papers and relics which proved to be the MSS. Of Cobbett, and some of the brain and hair of Paine, of which Mr. Reynolds is still in possession. From these papers he ascertained that Tilly had owned Paine’s skeleton, and he at once inquired about it. Mrs. Ginn said that in cleaning the room after Tilly’s death she found a lot of bones in a large bag and sold them to a rag-and-bone collector. Mr. Reynolds says she did not appear to know they were human bones. Mr. Ginn, however, knew they were human, and said it was “a skeleton with the exception of the skull and leg or arm.”
On hearing this story of Mrs. Ginn it struck me that there was an accent of sophistication about it. The rag-and-bone collector must have known they were-human bones, if she did not. She may have expected to gain some credit with the Baptist pastor for having turned the remains of “Tom Paine” into more rubbish and dust. I have since discovered that her story is not true, and also, what Mr. Reynolds did not know, that the skull and right hand of Paine had indeed, before Tilly’s death, been removed and gone on a career of their own.
It is probable that Tilly never. knew that any of the bones had been removed from the box. Mr. Joseph Cowen (of the “Newcastle Chronicle”) tells me that about 1853-54 he was consulted by James Watson concerning the propriety of a public burial of Paine’s bones at Kensal Green. Watson said they were in the possession of a tailor who kept them in a box on which he sat while at work.. Mr. Cowen went with Watson to the shop of the tailor who however was not at home. On his next visit to London he again went to the place, but the tailor had removed without leaving any address. Mr. Cowen says it was in the neighborhood of Red Lion Square, and he does not remember he name; but it was no doubt Tilly, who might have been temporarily working in that neighborhood. Mr. Cowen never heard of the matter again, but he remembers asking James Paul Cobbett about the bones, and finding that he knew not what had become of them, and evidently did not wish to talk on the subject.
In December 1874 I inserted in the “National Reformer” an inquiry concerning Paine’s remains. I received the same week a note from Mr. James Dickens of Denham Vila, Guilford, who said that he had made inquiries there, but could only learn that at the Cobbett sale “there was no bidder” for the box and its contents. My inquiry, however, was taken up, and Mr. J. Darbyshire of Manchester, in a letter of September 18, 1875, to “The Secular Chronicle” (London) suggested that “Messrs. Bradlaugh, Watts, G.L. Holyoake, Foote, Mrs. Law and Mrs. Besant, and others should be requested to look after the remains of Thomas Paine and conduct a public funeral, and that a monument be erected over his grave.” Mr. Darbyshire was “sure that sufficient cash would be obtained for so good an object.” Therein he was no doubt right, but Paine’s remains were not discovered.
Meanwhile, however, a lecture I gave in London in 1876 on Thomas Paine attracted the attention of Edward Truelove, the veteran publisher rationalist literature, who wrote me (Dec. 2,1876) that in 1853 or 1854 the Rev. Robert Ainslie came into his shop in the Strand, and observing Paine’s Works “volunteered the very startling information that he, the Rev. Robert Ainslie - of all men! - had in his possession the skull and right hand of Thomas Paine, but did not say how he came by them, evading my question.”
Mr. Ainslie was not aware that Mr. Truelove knew his name, but the bookseller recognized him as the Secretary of the London City Mission, under whose auspices many years before a course of lectures had been given in Eagle Street Chapel against “Infidel Socialism”. Mr. Ainslie gave one of the lectures, and Mr. Truelove was naturally startled that any remains of Paine should have fallen into such orthodox hands. However, he did not mention to Mr. Ainslie that he recognized him. But on a later occasion, when the minister again entered his shop (removed to Holborn) he asked him what had become of Paine’s bones, and his question was not answered.
Mr. Ainslie probably became the owner of Paine’s skull and right hand before George West brought the box to Benjamin Tilly. His daughter Margaretta (first wife of the late Sir Russell Reynolds) having received an inquiry of mine addressed to her father (1877) who died before it arrived, answered:
“Mr. Thomas Paine’s bones were in our possession. I remember them as a child, but I believe they were lost in the various movings which my father had some years ago. I can find no trace of them, but if I do by more inquiries.”
I heard nothing more from Mrs. Russell Reynolds, and she died in 1880. The late Sir Russell Reynolds had, as he lately wrote me, “an obscure recollection of having seen the bones of a hand a great many years ago.” As Margaretta Ainslie was married in 1852, her childhood recollections probably extended into the years preceding 1844, when Watson says the bones were brought to London. This marriage took place at Fromer House, Bromley, Kent, where Mr. Ainslie resided at the time, and it is not Improbable that his near neighbor, Charles Darwin, inspected the skull of his predecessor in heresy. But it is a more picturesque reflection that eventualities should have brought Paine’s skull back to the vicinity of his favourite haunt, -the so-called “Tom Paine Tree”, an ancient oak in the grounds of the old Bishop’s Palace.
As this tree has not, I believe, been mentioned in any book, it may interest the reader to know that there is such a tree, and that it is said by long tradition to be the favourite resort of Paine while writing the “Age of Reason”. I recently visited the tree, in company of Mr. Coles Childs, present owner of Bromley Palace. The trunk, about 25 feet in girth at the ground, is entirely hollow, but the foliage is ample, and there is hardly a dead branch. As a matter of history Paine did pass some time in Bromley, and a very intelligent watchmaker there, Mr. How, told me that he remembers his aged father pointing out the rather handsome residence, “Church Cottage”, as that in which Paine resided. There is no evidence that Paine wrote any part of the “Age of Reason” at Bromley, but it is not improbable. In my historical introduction to the “Age of Reason”, just published, I have shown that parts were written long before its publication; the subject was always near his heart, and he was fond of discussing it with his neighbors. In the early months of 1792 Paine was residing with his publisher, Clio Rickman, at 7 Upper Marylebone Street (still a bookbinding with the old bookshelves remaining), where the swarming of radicals left too little leisure for writing. “Mr. Paine goes out of town tomorrow to compose what I call Burke’s funeral sermon”, says John Hall in his diary, April 20,1792. This was at Bromley, where, on May l4, he heard of the summons of the publisher of “Rights of Man”, and hastened to London, and claimed the right to stand in the publisher’s place. He then doubtless resumed work at Bromley, and one may indulge the picturesque legend that there in “Church Cottage”, which was ecclesiastical property, and beneath the giant oak on the bishop’s grounds, this heresiarch worked on the book that was to shake temples. From the “Tom Paine Tree” one may almost see Down homestead, where Darwin still more shook the temples, though the most venerable of them became his monument.
The Rev. Robert Ainslie had a brother who was an eminent veterinary surgeon, and in his professional or some other capacity was, I am told, connected with the estate of Lord King at Ockham, not far from Cobbett’s place. It was through him that the Rev. Robert Ainslie heard of Paine’s bones. His son. Mr. Oliver Ainslie, tells me that the remains were then in the rooms of the auctioneer Richards( 43 Rathbone Place) “for sale”, and that the skull and right hand were there purchased by his father. It is thus clear that all of the facts were not known to Tilly and Watson. In Watson’s pamphlet it is stated that the bones were brought up to London by George West and given to Tilly, at 13 Bedford Square East. But Benjamin Tilly’s name does not appear at that place in the directories of the time; indeed it does not appear at all until 1852. It seems possible that the tailor had no such fixed residence as would carry as his name into the directory, and that he confided the box of bones to the auctioneer Richards until he had a house of his own. If so Richards, or some subordinate, may have abstracted th e skull and hand and sold them to Mr. Ainslie, Tilly remaining ignorant of the trespass. It is possible, however, that the skull and hand had been sold by West the receiver to Chennell of Guilford before the remains were brought to Tilly, who did not examine them. Mr. Edward Smith tells me that he “interviewed” the son of Chennell in 1877, and heard that Paine’s bones had been sold, and brought 7s 6d. Mr. Truelove says that when he told Watson that Ainslie had the skull he smiled in credulously, yet amid all the tangle of conjectures the certainties are that Tilly had the skeleton without the skull and right hand, a portion of the brain and several pieces of hair, and that Ainslie possessed the cranium and right hand.
Mr. Oliver Ainslie remarked that the smallness and delicacy of Paine’s hand were such that the late Professor John Marshall, of the Royal College of Surgeons, at first thought it the hand of a female. “The head was also small for a man, and of the Celtic type I should say, and somewhat conical in shape, and with more cerebellum than frontal development.” ’Some little time after his father’s death the skull and hand were brought from 7l Mornington Road, where the Rev. Robert Ainslie had resided, to Mr. Oliver Ainslie’s house 48 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, whence they were taken away by a Mr. Penny, to whom had been confided some arrangements of the room containing them for a new tenant. Mr. Oliver Ainslie became interested in the remains only when too late to save them, and has not been able to find Mr. Penny, nor does he know his full name. He fears that Penny may have disposed of the skull to one of the wastepaper dealers nearby. But this appears to me improbable. Every physician must possess a skull, which is worth more than a wastepaper dealer would pay. This skull of Paine also had the name of J.P. Cobbett written, or perhaps scratched, on it. If an obvious remark may be forgiven, Mr. Penny would hardly be so pound foolish as to dispose of a skull so inscribed as mere rubbish, and it is probable that Paine’s skull is now in some doctor’s office or craniological collection.
The Rev. Robert Ainslie, whom I met at Brighton in 1863, was a man of ability, and my conjecture would be that his purchase of Paine’s skull may have been due to an interest in phrenology, were it not that he bought the hand also. Mr. George Jacob H lyoake tells me that he spoke to Mr. Ainslie about these bones, but that the minister did not wish his name publicly connected with them at the time. There were sufficient reasons for this, but they have long since passed away.
Mr. Ainslie had been, it will be remembered, an official member of the City Mission, which consists of men belonging to different denominations, but has a reputation of being very strict about their orthodoxy. Mr. Ainslie’s orthodoxy was assailed by some of his fellow-labourers in the City Mission, and though he warmly resented this at the time it would appear that his assailants saw the tendencies of some of his views more clearly than himself, for some years after the controversy he became (1860) minister of a liberal chapel at Brighton, where he remained until 1870. Mr. Ainslie had come into possession of Paine’s skull some years before his orthodoxy was called in question, and the hue and cry might have been disagreeably renewed had it reached the public that while Secretary of the City Mission he had the bones of the terrible “Tom Paine” in his house.
It appears certain that when he purchased the skull and hand, Mr. Ainslie was quite unconscious of any heretical symptoms. If it were admissible for Painites to believe in the potency of saintly relics they might point to the fact that Paine’s skull fell into the hands of an orthodox member of the City Mission, and Paine’s brain into those of an orthodox Baptist Minister (Rev. George Reynolds), and that both of these ministers subsequently became unorthodox. And indeed it seems not improbable that these relics may have contributed something to the result, by exciting in the two divines some curiosity to know what thoughts had played through the lamp whose fragments had come into their possession. And it is difficult for one who reads the “Age of Reason” to remain precisely the simple believer he was before.
That Paine’s skull is still somewhere in London is highly probable, and were any found with the name “Cobbett” on it its genuineness could be easily proved by another word or two on it which for the present I reserve. As to the other remains of Paine’s skeleton they were not destroyed, as Mrs. Ginn’s story might imply, for they were seen in by the Rev. Alexander Gordon, now a Unitarian tutor at Manchester, in 1873, and heard of in 1876. Although that gentleman gives no further particulars, the correspondence which has passed between us leaves no doubt on my mind that he was led by his respect for Paine (despite divergences from that author’s religion) to secure for the remains quiet burial, - perhaps near his parents at Thetford. I find especial satisfaction in this belief since reading in the “New York World” (January 26,1896) the following statement:
“Out in the country, somewhere back of New Rochelle, in a lonesome spot, there is a mound with a monument raised over it, and an inscription to the effect that the remains of Thomas Paine lie beneath that stone. If this is not true a great many worthy people are wasting their indignation, for the majority of those who pass the monument and know to whom it is erected, throw stones at it. Thus do Christians show their contempt for those whose opinions do not agree with theirs.”
This stone-throwing ceased, I believe, some years ago; the pious anti-Painites may have found that they were really adding to the author’s cairn by attributing such importance to his writings long after those of his opponents were forgotten.
Of the remains of Thomas Paine exhumed by Cobbett there are now traceable a portion of his brain and two locks of his hair. One of the latter was presented to me by Mr. Edward Smith, biographer of Cobbett. Paine’s hair never became grey. The hair before me (on the old paper wrapping of which is written in Tilly’s hand “Mr. Paine’s Hair”) is soft and dark, with a reddish tinge. The portion of Paine’s brain owned by Mr. George Reynolds is about the size of one’s fist, and quite hard. It is under glass and beside it is a note in Tilly’s writing:
“On Tuesday January 7th 1833 I went to 11 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, and there with Mr. Entrell and Mr. Dean, I saw, at the house of Mr. Cobbett, the remains of Mr. Thomas Paine, when I procured some of his hair, and from his skull I took a portion of his brain, which had become hard, and which is almost perfectly black. - B. Tilly”
There are other personal relics of Paine. During the American revolution Paine wrote the fifth number of his “Crisis” at the house of the Hon. William Henry at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and his spectacles and shoe-buckles were left there. These were presented by a grand-daughter of Mr. Henry to the National Museum at Washington, where I examined them. The spectacles (silver) have small glasses of extraordinary power. Paine’s arm-chair and his brass and irons are in the possession of Albert Badeau at New Rochelle. It is said that a walking cane of his exists but I cannot discover it. Mr. G.J. Holyoake has a copy of Paine’s portrait (Sharp’s engraving of Romney’s picture) with the author’s presentation to Rickman on it. Claire J. Grece, of Redhill, possesses Paine’s snuff-box presented to his uncle, Daniel Constable, in 1807, by Paine. Edward Truelove possesses the writing-table used by Paine while in Rickman’s house in 1792. Alfred Hammond, of Lewes, possesses imprints of his (portrait) seal while an exciseman in that town, Louis Breeze, Stratford-by-Bow, has a piece of wood from the birthhouse of Paine, at Thetford, now destroyed. Of course there are many autograph letters of Paine, but no manuscript of anything he ever wrote for publication has been preserved.
A considerable number of these relics were among the five hundred articles shown at the Paine Exhibition in South Place Chapel, openedD ecember 2 , 1895.There were also first editions of his works, and many polemical caricatures, books, and pamphlets called forth by these works; there were portraits of famous men - American, English, French - whose swords were unsheathed to maintain or assail the republic of Paine’s vision, with its rainbow flag; but most impressive of all was the darkened bit of brain whence radiated the inner light of that miraculous Thetford Quaker.
If we pass from personal relics to relics of personality, those of Paine are innumerable; and among these the most important are the legends and fictions told concerning him by enemies, unconscious that their romances were really tributes to his unique influence. Nothing concerning Paine seems to have been too marvelous for acceptance, in the past, and even in our own time one occasionally meets with inventions suggesting a certain praeternaturalism in his character. Thus on September 21, 1895,a London journal, “Answers”, gravely published as a genuine autograph letter of Paine’s, in the possession of one of its Dublin readers, the following, said to be addressed to a linendraper at Chelmsford:
“Chapter Coffee House
London, May 8th, 1793
“Sir, - in perusing the Chelmsford paper I see you are a vendor of Fleecy Hosiery, and as you are a man after my own heart, a Leveller and a Talker of Treason, please to send six pair of the above Fleecy Hosierie to me at Chapter, and I will send you the money. Yours, Tom Paine.”
I wrote to the editor asking to be put into communication with the owner of this letter signed “Tom(!) Paine”, and written more than seven months after Paine had left England forever, but he could not do so -of course.
I must venture to repeat here, though it is mentioned in my edition of the “Age of Reason”, a legend told me by Mr. Van der Weyde, the eminent London photographer, who remembers when a boy a sermon in which the preacher said that Tom Paine was so wicked that he could not be buried. The earth would not hold him. His bones were placed in a box and carried about from one place to another, until at last they came into the hands of a button-maker, and now his bones are traveling about the world in the form of buttons! This variant of the Wandering Jew legend recalls to me a verse which William Allingham added with pen to his admirable poem “The Touchstone” in a volume in my possession. The original poem, it will be remembered, closes with burning the formidable man’s touchstone, and strewing the ashes on the breeze, little guessing that each grain of these `conveyed the perfect charm.’ The manuscript addition is:
“North, South, in the rings and amulets, Throughout the crowded world ’tis borne, Which, as a fashion long outworn, Its ancient mind forgets.”