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Thomas Paine’s Missing and Scattered Body, that’s Old News!

10/29/2019

by Miriam Liebman

My first task this year as the Gardiner Archival Dissertation Fellow has been to work through the material objects in the Thomas Paine Collection. The objects in the collection range from tokens dated from the 1790s to Thomas Paine’s watch and his traveling writing kit, but what I was not expecting to find was a fragment of his brain. That’s right, part of his brain. With Halloween this week, ‘tis the season for spooky stories about the body of an American Revolutionary.

Thomas Paine’s body has been a story discussed and speculated about for a long time and I tell my students about it every time we discuss Thomas Paine in class. For those who don’t know, the story of Thomas Paine’s body goes something like this: Upon his death, Paine desired to be buried in the Quaker cemetery in New Rochelle, but the Quakers were concerned many would make pilgrimages to his grave. Instead, when he died in 1809, he was buried on his farm in New Rochelle. Several years after his death, William Cobbett, an Englishman who believed Paine deserved a proper burial in England, his country of birth, came to New Rochelle and dug up his body. Once Cobbett brought Paine’s body back to England, he was unable to raise the funds to rebury him and so Paine’s bones sat in a box in his home. Ultimately, they were auctioned off and many all over the world today claim to have parts of his skeleton. (There are of course more detailed records of this story in the collection, but as this post is about his brain, I had to skip over some of the details).(1)

Two pieces of Thomas Paine's hair. Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHAC), Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College (IC).

Now back to Paine’s brain! While I knew the collection at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies contained two locks of his hair, I was not expecting, however, for the two locks of hair to look different from one another. The first lock of hair is about 8.5 cm in length and is a light brown color. The second lock of hair, however, is a very dark brown, almost black, color and looks matted. At first I was confused why there would be a difference between the two hair samples. However, as I continued to read through the papers in the collection about the hair samples, I discovered why that was the case. (See photo above for an image of the two locks of hair.) The second sample contained a piece of Paine’s skull. The records also indicate that the collection contains a fragment of his brain and it turns out his brain stem! (See image below of the brain stem.)

A portion of the brain of Mr. Thomas Paine. 'tuesday January 7th. 1833, I went to 11, Bolt-court fleet street, and there with Mr. Gutsell 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 portions of his brain, which had become hard and which is almost perfectly black.' Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHAC), Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College (IC).

As you can imagine, I was quite shocked by my discovery and Ala, the postdoctoral fellow, and I quickly went to inquire if everyone else knew about the skull sample and brain stem. And, they did! Ala and I could not get over our shock for the rest of the day. For the next several days I was telling everyone who would listen about this discovery.

The provenance records, or the records of ownership to show authenticity, relating to the brain include a handwritten note by Benjamin Tilly-Cobbett's secretary, a newspaper printing of that note, as well as a long document articulating the narrative of how the Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHA) came to acquire the sample of Thomas Paine’s brain. A minister by the name of George Reynolds acquired it from a family in the town he worked. The father of the family had received it from Tilly. Reynolds sold it to Moncure Conway, a biographer of Thomas Paine, for 5 pounds. Just 5 pounds! Conway then sold it to the TPNHA. On the back of a note related to Paine’s brain, William Van der Weyde, a former president of the TPNHA, wrote, “The Fragment of Paine’s brain is not in the house at New Rochelle but was placed under the monument at N.R.- to be more exact it reposes under the bronze bust which surmounts the Paine monument.”(2) This monument is on North Avenue at the entrance of Paine Avenue in New Rochelle. Maybe this Halloween a visit to this monument is just the place to tell a spooky story about the rogue brain stem buried beneath!


Citations

1. For another blog post on Thomas Paine’s body see Michael Crowder’s post from last year about Paine’s body and his legacy. Return (1)

2. Letter from Eustace Conway dated July 27, 1923. Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHAC), Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College (IC) Return (2)