The covered wagon left New York City shortly after midnight. It was mid September, 1819, and even at this hour the air was still heavy and humid. As he headed north through the deserted streets of Manhattan Island, the driver stewed silently on the prospect of the night before him. In normal times, he would have refused a commission like this, but these were not normal times. The city was suffering an outbreak of yellow fever, and there was a rapidly growing exodus of those who could afford to leave, particularly those in the business quarter to the south of the island, where the driver plied his trade. ‘Not one store in fifty remains open,’ it was reported of downtown New York.
Short of custom, and uncertain when he might be able to resume regular work, he had reluctantly accepted the money of the two Englishmen who were now sitting behind him. He did so even though he knew that they were engaged in an act of wilful illegality. Even though he knew that they were going grave-robbing.
These were not, however, conventional resurrection men, stealing the bodies of the recently deceased so that they could be sold to medical schools for use in dissection. They were leading figures in British radicalism, and the motivation for their mission was not pecuniary, but political.
The senior of the two was William Cobbett. Fifty-six years old, six-foot tall, plump, he had a full face, ruddy cheeks and greying hair, and was wearing knee breeches and waistcoat that were no more than twenty years out of date. He looked the very image of the English gentleman farmer. He was that, but he also wrote and published Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, the biggest selling newspaper in Britain. And he was considered a serious enough threat to the political stability of his homeland that, in 1817, he had deemed it wise to withdraw to America for a period, to evade the attention of the authorities.
He’d been joined there by the other passenger on the wagon, the thirty-two-year-old William Benbow, the man who’d been printing the Register in his absence. Where Cobbett was the most influential writer in radical politics in Britain, Benbow was becoming known as one of the more dangerous activists. In early 1817, he had been one of the leaders of the Blanketeers March that had aimed to take thousands of weavers from Manchester to London to protest against government policies. The demonstration failed, broken up by a regiment of dragoons even before it left Lancashire, and Benbow had been arrested on a warrant for high treason, held in gaol for eight months before being released without charge. Seeking respite from state repression, he had also concluded that a sojourn in America might be a wise move.
So here they were, radicals in a post-revolutionary land, but Cobbett and Benbow had no intention of remaining as political exiles. Their plan was to return shortly to England, and this trip out of the city, this grave-robbing expedition, was part of their preparations for what they hoped would be a spectacular homecoming.
Because the body they were intending to snatch was that of the notorious Thomas Paine, the man whose legacy was still – ten years after his death – both incendiary enough that his writings were banned in Britain, and inspiring enough to make him the greatest hero of the radical movement. A rope-maker from Thetford, Norfolk, Paine had emigrated to America and played a leading propagandist role in the revolutions both there and, subsequently, in France.
He was a prophet without honour in Britain – where he’d been convicted, in absentia, for sedition – and he had proved troublesome even in his adopted country. Venerated though he had been as a fighter for American independence, his opposition to slavery and his assaults upon the Christian religion had alienated him from society, so that when he died in New York in 1809, he had been denied a burial in consecrated ground, rejected even by the Quakers. His remains lay instead in the corner of an untilled field in New Rochelle, just up the coast from the city. And it was there that the covered wagon was headed, carrying the two Englishmen who had resolved to reclaim his body and restore his reputation.
Even more audaciously, they planned to take the bones on a triumphal tour through the towns and cities of Britain, hoping that these secular relics would prove to be a symbol of defiance, would inspire the masses to rise up in the name of liberty and democracy. They knew there was discontent in the land – that was why they’d fled to America – and maybe this would be the catalyst for the long-dreamed-of British revolution.
Originally, this had been Benbow’s idea, but his colleague had readily agreed to the proposal, seeing the enterprise as an elaborate apology for earlier errors; in his younger days, Cobbett had been highly and noisily critical of Paine, and this was – as he saw it – a chance to make amends.
The expedition reached New Rochelle just before daybreak. The heavy, mahogany coffin was duly removed from its makeshift burial-place beneath a walnut tree, and the party set off on the twenty-two mile journey back to the city. They made better time on the return trip. The sun was now risen, allowing a faster pace to be set by the driver, who was anxious to get rid of his passengers and their macabre cargo, that he might resume more congenial – and more legal – business.
The disinterment had not, however, gone unnoticed in the early light of dawn. A woman saw what Cobbett and Benbow were up to and alerted a neighbour, who gave chase, intending to apprehend the grave-robbers. But the Englishmen had luck on their side. They travelled southwards on the Boston Post Road, and at Eastchester, where the road split, they took the old road, heading south-west and crossing to Manhattan on the King’s Bridge. Their pursuer, meanwhile, continued due south on the new road, down to Morrisania, where it became apparent that he’d missed his men. The chase ended without the quarry ever having been aware that it had started.
Back in their lodgings, the two men carefully decanted the bones of Tom Paine into an unmarked wooden box, and managed to dispose of the coffin without arousing suspicions, but the journey home to England proved more troublesome. A trans-Atlantic passenger service, the Black Ball Line, had recently been set up between New York City and Liverpool, and they booked themselves on the Amity, due to set sail on 10 October 1819. The ship arrived in England, however, without Cobbett on board.
The problem, as Benbow explained to the waiting press when he arrived in Liverpool, was that the shipowners had refused to allow his comrade to embark. The Black Ball Line was run by American Quakers who disapproved of Cobbett’s politics, just as they had disapproved of Tom Paine’s blasphemies, but it was more than doctrinal difference that had prevented his passage; it was business. Cobbett had behaved so badly on his outward journey, acquiring such a reputation for ‘insolent and offensive conduct’, that the other passengers on the Amity refused to travel with him.
So Cobbett was left behind in New York, where, mercifully, the yellow fever outbreak was beginning to subside. He turned up in England three weeks later on the Hercules, having finally found someone prepared to accept his custom, and amongst his luggage was the box containing the remains of Thomas Paine, nearly two months on from the disinterment.
By now, with an ocean between them and the scene of their crime, the two men were speaking openly of the events in New Rochelle. Benbow declared that ‘being instrumental in the removal, forms one of the happiest periods of my life,’ while Cobbett was in triumphant mood: ‘Let this be considered the act of the reformers of England, Scotland and Ireland,’ he proclaimed. ‘In their name we opened the grave, and in their name will the tomb be raised.’ And in the Customs House at Liverpool docks, he displayed Paine’s skull to those who’d come to greet him.
The story acquired sufficient notoriety that it inspired a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank – titled ‘The Political Champion turned Resurrection Man’ – and a verse by the notorious poet, and radical sympathizer, Lord Byron:
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 relationship between Cobbett and Benbow did not long survive their return to England. The country they found was very different from the one they’d left. The angry public response to the Peterloo Massacre was being met by a government clampdown on political agitators, and Cobbett’s newspaper was one of the first victims.
In the newly strained circumstances, a dispute over money saw the two colleagues fall out – neither the first nor last time that either fought with other radicals – and by early 1821 Cobbett was writing in anger: ‘Benbow has turned out the greatest rogue and villain of all.’ The two men who had dug up the bones of Old Tom Paine never spoke to each other again.
As for the bones themselves, the idea of parading them through the country didn’t seem quite such an inspired idea anymore. With radicalism in retreat, there was little obvious call right now for an evocation of yesterday’s hero, and in this new era, the parade of the holy relics of radicalism never materialized. Cobbett did briefly try to raise money for a suitable memorial to Thomas Paine, but he found few takers and the idea petered out. An attempt to sell locks of the dead man’s hair, soldered into rings, similarly failed to spark the public’s imagination.
Overwhelmed by his own financial concerns, Cobbett let the bones slip from his mind. And then they slipped from view altogether. They were still amongst his possessions on his death in 1835, but the auctioneer of his estate refused to include them in the sale, on the grounds of taste, and they were later lost, so that the final resting place of Britain’s greatest revolutionary is now unknown.