The Times that Try Men’s Bones

Into The Great Debate, his 2014 book about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, Yuval Levin stuffed a lot of fascinating history, politics, and philosophy. At the beginning of his Conclusion, Levin also tells the bizarre story of what happened to both men after they died (Burke in 1797, Paine in 1809).

Burke worried that if the French revolutionaries and their followers came across the English Channel and took charge in Britain, “they would exhume his body from its resting place to make an example of their staunch opponent.” Because of this, he wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave, apart from where his son and wife would end up, but his descendants ignored his wishes.

Paine, on the other hand, feared that his enemies, upset by his writings against religion, might also come after his body. Feeling they might “be deterred only by the sanctity of a Christian cemetery,” he petitioned the Quakers, asking if they would “admit a person to be buried in their burying ground who does not belong to their Society.” If not, he said, he’d like to be laid to rest on his farm in New Rochelle, NY. Which is what happened, after the Quakers said no thanks.

Ten years later, ironically, Paine’s body was dug up, secretly – not by his enemies but by an English radical who wanted to return it overseas to serve as the centerpiece of “a glorious memorial to his hero. But Paine’s antimonarchical views had not been forgotten in Britain, and the government refused to permit a monument…. Worse yet, Paine’s remains were eventually lost. Their final disposition remains unknown to this day.”

The site adds to the story, reporting that one theory claims Paine’s body was lost in transit. Another says that the grave robber, finding no one interested in his proposed memorial, kept the Paine remains in a trunk in his attic, and after his death his son started auctioning it off in various bits and pieces. “A minister in England claims he has Paine’s skull and right hand; an English woman insists she has his jawbone. Others claim to have buttons constructed from the bones. The Thomas Paine Museum states it has the brain stem buried in a secret location on the property.”

A March, 2001 article in The New York Times also mentions the hidden brain stem, and adds that “In 1987, a Sydney [Australia] businessmen claimed that he had purchased Paine’s skull while on vacation in London.”

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