In January of 1776, no one knew what the outcome of the American rebellion would be or could be. In the midst of this confusion, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. Arguing that America should not be ruled by kings, but by her people, Paine gave the country a glorious cause and clear purpose. Had he stopped there, he would have earned a secure place at the top of America's pedestal of heroes. But he didn't.
In 1794, Paine's The Age of Reason blasted Christianity, and America blasted Paine. Paine went from hero to pariah at the speed of the printing press. When at last he died, no one would bury him. Even the Quakers refused to accept the apostate's corpse. Paine had no family to care for his remains, and his country did not care for them either. Finally, a friend interred him in land on Paine's own farm. But like Marley's ghost, Paine's body was doomed to walk the earth. A well-meaning admirer dug up the corpse, planning to build a suitable monument for the prophet of freedom . . . and from there began travels unimaginable. Unimaginable, except to Paul Collins.
Inspired by a letter in a 19th-century English newspaper, Collins set out to track Paine's corpse, recording both journeys in The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine. The book follows Paine's body back and forth across the Atlantic, to London and to forgotten bits of English countryside, into the heart of Manhattan and out to rural New York state. Alongside this physical travel, Collins leads the reader through time, wandering with Paine's remains through the 19th century and even the 20th. It is a tale filled with odd philosophies, arcane beliefs, fervent quackery, honest intentions, elaborate hoaxes and out-and-out fraud.
The book is delightfully constructed and deliciously written. Collins delves into remarkable bits of historical minutiae but that minutiae is always fascinatingly bizarre, wonderfully entertaining, and complementary to Collins' quirky story. Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.