The teaching of anatomy at European medical schools had become standard practice by the middle of the sixteenth century. Instruction included the dissection of a human corpse. Initially, bodies at hand were those of (male) criminals or heretics.
The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organs. A dissection at the time was both education and spectacle. It was attended by professionals, painters, and the curious alike. The cutting up of a body was a celebration of scientific progress.
By the early eighteenth century medical education was expanding rapidly. A shortage of corpses for dissection offered lucrative opportunities for grave robbers. Stealing dead bodies in order to facilitate the study of muscles and bones had long been practiced in medicine and art. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were known for stealing cadavers from morgues in order to research anatomy.
Grave robbers (also known as “resurrection men”) were despised by the public. People were determined to protect the graves of their relatives. The rich could afford wrought-iron coffins, heavy tombstones, or vaults. The poor dug heather and branches into the soil to prevent disinterment. Watchmen patrolled cemeteries through the hours of darkness, but graves were still violated.
Not all thefts were carried out with criminal intent. Just over two centuries ago, a daring act of body snatching took place at New Rochelle, New York. It was the case of one Brit digging up the mortal remains of another Brit.
For Liberty’s Sake
Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, in rural Norfolk. He joined the Excise Service in 1762, worked in Lincolnshire and Sussex, whilst trying to put his emerging socio-political ideas into writing. In 1774 he visited Benjamin Franklin in London. The latter encouraged his “political son” to move to the American colonies by providing him with a letter of introduction to a merchant in Philadelphia. Three months later Paine sailed across the Atlantic, barely surviving a bout of scurvy. He arrived in time to participate in the Revolutionary War.
Paine’s principal contributions to the political struggle were the powerful pamphlet Common Sense, advocating colonial America’s independence from Britain, and The Crisis, a pro-revolutionary series of essays. Paine is believed to have coined the term “United States of America.”
His Common Sense sold a staggering 50,000 copies to a population of roughly three million. He refused royalties because it was liberty not money that had motivated him. The essay was championed by George Washington at a crucial point in the Revolution and Paine, in turn, dedicated his Rights of Man (1791) to the first President. Paine’s rousing voice inspired Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ (some historians speculate that parts of the text were ghost-written by him).
In 1775, Paine published a critical analysis of “African Slavery in America.” He was an abolitionist almost a century before the end of slavery. Starting in April 1777, Thomas worked for two years as Secretary to the Congressional Committee for Foreign Affairs and then became clerk for the Pennsylvania Assembly at the end of 1779. In March 1780, the Assembly passed an abolition act (freeing 6,000 slaves) to which Paine wrote the preamble.
As his income was meager, he fell into financial difficulties. Having approached Washington for help, the latter pleaded with State Assemblies to pay Paine a reward for his work. Pennsylvania awarded him meager compensation. New York gifted Paine a farm cottage and some land in New Rochelle. In April 1787 he returned to Europe.
Back in England, Paine published the Rights of Man in two parts in 1791/2. It was a rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. William Pitt’s government was terrified that revolutionary tendencies might travel from France to England and ordered the suppression of suspicious books. Paine was targeted and a writ for his arrest was issued in early 1792. He fled to Paris where the Girondins welcomed him as an ally. Despite not speaking French, he was elected to the National Convention in 1792.
With the rise of Robespierre, Paine’s fortunes changed. He was arrested in December 1793 for opposing the mass use of the guillotine and the execution of Louis XVI. He was charged with treason. Detained at Luxembourg Palace (turned prison), he continued to work on The Age of Reason. He was released in November 1794 thanks to the intervention of James Monroe, the American Minister to France.
Paine’s political principles were attacked by a fellow Brit during his stay in America. William Cobbett took up writing in 1794 when he published a pamphlet that denounced the radical scientist Joseph Priestley who had recently fled Britain and was welcomed by supporters in New York.
For the next five years, using the pen-name Peter Porcupine, Cobbett wrote numerous pamphlets and newspapers articles (in 1801 he collected his American writings in twelve volumes – printed in Philadelphia – under the title Porcupine’s Works) that condemned Republicanism, radicalism, and egalitarianism.
He characterized Thomas Paine as an “unconscionable dog,” a “wretched traitor and apostate,” and a man “famous for nothing but his blasphemy and his hatred of England.” Readers witnessed a bitter political feud fought out between two Englishmen on American soil.
In 1800, Cobbett and his family returned to London where he initiated the Political Register, a weekly periodical that was published continuously between January 1802 and his death in 1835. Owing to financial difficulties he sold his shares in this project in 1812 to London-born publisher Thomas Hansard. The ongoing record of parliamentary proceedings that today is known as Hansard could justly be termed Cobbett.
Over time, his writing began to reflect a growing disillusionment with political developments in general, and with the Tories in particular. He went the full circle. In 1817 he was accused of seditious writing. Fearing arrest, he took refuge in Hempstead, Long Island.
When he returned to England two years later, he had reversed his opinion on the fundamental principles of democracy and adhered to the political philosophy of Thomas Paine, his former foe.
Disturbed by Napoleon’s increasingly dictatorial rule, Paine had returned to America in 1802 at President Jefferson’s invitation. The welcome was cool. His relationship with American friends had soured in 1796 after publication of an open letter to George Washington in which he accused the President of conspiring with Robespierre to have him imprisoned.
Matters got worse after publication of the first two volumes of The Age of Reason in 1795, with a third part appearing in 1802 in New York, in which he denounced atheism while at the same time condemning religion. He was branded a heretic. Painophobia broke loose both sides of the Atlantic. A New York minister was dismissed for shaking hands with the author. Thomas Paine died in poverty in June 1809 and was laid to rest in New Rochelle. Six people attended his burial.
Cobbett was horrified when he visited Paine’s neglected grave in 1819. He felt that the thinker was not granted the respect he deserved. He decided to bring the deceased back to his land of birth. In October 1819, Cobbett and company set out towards New Rochelle. Armed with shovels, they dug up the coffin, extracted the body, and disappeared in the dead of night.
Police officers gave chase until the grave robbers raced over King’s Bridge into Manhattan. Having reached the docks, Cobbett and corpse sailed back to England aboard the Hercules. Three weeks later, upon revealing the body box to custom officers in Liverpool, he announced: “There, gentlemen, are the mortal remains of the immortal Thomas Paine.”
Cobbett’s plan to build a memorial was met with anger and ridicule. Isaac Cruikshank produced a cartoon in which he mocked “The Political Champion turned Resurrection Man!” (1819); Byron produced a quatrain in a letter to his friend Thomas Moore (January 2nd, 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.
The public rejected Cobbett as a common grave robber. Paine, even in death, remained a radical undesirable to British authorities.
Bones & Buttons
In 1822 William Cobbett had a “grave mask” made from the decomposed body. What was left of Thomas Paine was stored in his attic and remained there until his death in 1835. Cobbett’s eldest son sold off his father’s effects at auction to pay for his 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 a bag of bones as an asset of the estate. For Thomas Paine there was no resting place in England. What followed belongs to the world of fantasy.
According to legend, some of the bones were lost or destroyed, others turned into buttons, or sold off individually. Over the years, several people have claimed to be in possession of body parts – a rib in France, a jawbone in England, a skull in Australia.
The only body parts near Paine’s original burial site are a mummified brain stem and a lock of hair that were located by Moncure D. Conway, Paine’s biographer and founder of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. They were buried at a ceremony on October 14th, 1905 in a box under the activist’s statue on New Rochelle’s North Avenue.
Illustrations, from above: Woodcut of anatomical dissection, 1493 by Johannes de Ketham (Wellcome Collection, London); Common Sense, 1776 by Thomas Paine (printed in Philadelphia); Paine’s cottage at New Rochelle; William Cobbett’s first volume of Porcupine’s Works; The Political Champion turned Resurrection Man, 1819 by Isaac Cruikshank (British Museum); Paine’s death mask; and Thomas Paine statue, New Rochelle.