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(Paine, Thomas)
Collection of Letters and Manuscripts Concerning the Last Days and Death of Thomas Paine, 1838

Group of six items, 13 pages total, manuscripts inscribed on various size sheets, mainly quarto and folio, in generally good clean condition, one manuscript with tape repairs and some splitting to folds.

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            Because of his atheism and "radical" politics, the famed author of "Common Sense" was the most controversial notable of the American Revolution and early nineteenth century. A shelf of 19th century Paine biographies hotly debated his alcoholism, disreputable relations with women - and whether, on his deathbed in 1809, the notorious atheist and free thinker had "found religion."  In 1808 Paine moved to Greenwich Village from New Rochelle. By the time of his death a year later he had been largely forgotten. Only six mourners attended the funeral, the manuscript accounts contained in this collection contain the recollections of some of the few who remembered him and attended him at his death.

The materials in this collection record an investigation made less than twenty years after the death of Thomas Paine, when many of those who knew Paine in later life were still living - including the investigator himself: Grant Thorburn, a Scottish immigrant to New York who became prosperous selling seeds imported from England, and, in 1834, published an autobiography1 in which he provided an "unvarnished account of Paine's manner of life," and in a subsequent work, published in 18522, provides sixty years of reminiscences of life in America which further elaborates on Thomas Paine, in which he explained how he had come to know Paine in the last years of his life, when "his company [was] shunned by the more respectable of his friends on account of his unpopular writings and hard drinking" and after his divorce from a "respectable young woman" who accused him of "cruel usage." Thorburn often visited Paine at his New York lodgings to argue politics and religion, later concluding that he was "the most unreasonable mortal I ever conversed with." After writing a critical magazine account of Paine which "brought all the free-thinkers between Passamaquoddy and Baltimore on my back", Thorburn decided to undertake this historical inquiry of his own, in conjunction with William Giles Goddard, a newspaper publisher and Professor at Brown University.

Thorburn was diligent in tracking down and interviewing Mary Rascoe, a Quaker neighbor of Paine's who often took him refreshment while he was sick and dying and scribbling out a manuscript recanting his Atheism, which she believed was suppressed by his former friends. Thorburn himself doubted this, learning from Paine's Doctor that when Paine screamed "Jesus!" as one of his last words, he was swearing in pain.

The present papers are apparently unknown to any Paine biographer.

Inventory of collection:

  • 1. Grant Thorburn, Halletts Cove [Long Island], March 5, 1838 to William L. Stone, folio, two letters, two pages. The first considering whether Paine was a "Licentious Character" the second enclosing letters concerning an account of Paine by William Carver.
  • 2. Grant Thorburn, New York, May 14, 1838 to William G. Goddard, Providence, 1 page, requesting the return of manuscript sketch of Paine's life which he had sent him earlier.
  • 3. Unsigned and undated letter, apparently to Thorburn concerning "the attack upon, or the defence of Paine alluded to by your friend Goddard," and which criticizes the first biography of Paine: "Cheetham's Life of Thomas Paine," which appeared after Paine's death, in which the author recounts his own experience at Paine's deathbed. The anonymous author of this letter states that he was holding Paine's hand as he expired. Quarto, 4 pages.
  • 4. Four page manuscript headed: "The Life of T.P." unsigned and undated, sent to William G. Goddard, Providence, Rhode Island, the address leaf is free franked by Rhode Island Congressman, J. L. Tillinghast, The author was acquainted with Paine and offers an unflattering assessment of his character, claims to have read a eulogy on Paine at his funeral.
  • 5. Three page manuscript, folio, "An Account of Thomas Paine received from Mary Rascoe" Contains a recollection of Paine's last days in Greenwich Village, and speculation concerning a lost or suppressed Paine manuscript which he was purportedly working on before he died.
  • 1. Thorburn, Grant, Forty Years' Residence in America,(Boston:1834)
  • 2. Thorburn, Grant, Life and Writings of Grant Thorburn: prepared by himself, (New York:1852)