Far from Las Vegas, coronavirus and Thomas Paine legacy in New Rochelle

coronavirus and Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine Cottage Museum, New Rochelle, N.Y.

New Rochelle, N.Y., a leafy New York City suburb where I have relatives, is in the news as a U.S. hotspot for cornoavirus. The New York State National Guard today started enforcing a one-mile-in-radius “containment zone” around a synagogue on North Avenue where a member came down with the illness that then infected any number of contacts. Residents can come and go as they like, although large gatherings are prohibited.

As it happens, within that zone a few blocks down North Avenue sits one of the strangest and most bogus shrines to political action in America that I know of–strange and bogus mainly because nothing political ever happened there. Before becoming New To Las Vegas, I wrote about this for another blog in 2013, from which this account is drawn. Cornoavirus gives me a fresh hook to resurrect the curious tale.

I am referring to what is now called the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum. The structure is perhaps the last tangible vestige of Paine (1737-1809), the English philosopher and revolutionary who came to America in late 1774 and within 14 months published “Common Sense.” That was the best-selling manifesto for freedom so persuasive and fiery the Second Continental Congress borrowed large chunks of its logic when fashioning the Declaration of Independence just a few months later.

Why am I so down on this tribute to a man listed among the country’s Founding Fathers? Keep reading to see some reasons.

     –Paine didn’t write “Common Sense” at his cottage-now-museum, which he did once own.  He authored the work in Philadelphia, 100 miles to the south.  Nor did he write at the cottage his other most-famous works, which included “The Age of Reason,”  “Rights of Man” and “Agrarian Justice.”

     –Because he also was fomenting the later revolution in France–where he almost lost his own head–Paine lived in the cottage for only four years, a residency that didn’t even start until more than a quarter-century after he wrote “Common Sense.” So the cottage was basically a retirement pad. And a part-time one at best. In his later years Paine also maintained a home in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which is where he died in 1809.

     –The current location of the cottage has little historical accuracy. At the time Paine lived in it, the house, rebuilt after a fire, was located a quarter-mile away up a hill. It was moved to its present location in 1908–99 years after Paine’s death–so real-estate developers could start developing the area including much of Paine’s old spread with stately homes that still exist (including one in which the Patient Zero coronavirus victim lives).

     –The “museum” contents of the cottage include relatively few historical items with any real connection to Paine, including two chairs he sat in and a Franklin stove given to him by its inventor, Benjamin Franklin, who was also his patron.  The holdings are largely period nick-knacks.

     –A marker installed in 1952 accurately notes the spot along North Avenue where Paine was buried a few yards from where the cottage now stands. But what the marker’s inscription doesn’t say is that 10 years after Paine’s death, a crazy London journalist in 1819 secretly dug up his bones and shipped them back to England, where they were eventually lost to history. Nearly two centuries later, in 2009, the heist made a Time Magazine list of “Top 10 Famous Stolen Body Parts,” along with Geronimo’s skull and Napoleon’s, uh, junk.

     –When I visited in 2013, the two-story cottage itself was a little ratty, no doubt due to strained financial resources of its owner, the Huguenot & New Rochelle Historical Society (Huguenots were French Protestants who left France in the face of religious persecution; they founded New Rochelle in 1688.) The facility then was only open limited hours a few days a week. It  now is only open for visitors on prior request, and apparently shut until the coronavirus panic subsides.

coronavirus and Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (by Auguste Millière)

The Paine Cottage Museum sits on the western edge of the roughly rectangular, 277-acre parcel (most of it within the coronavirus containment zone) that the New York Legislature gave Paine in 1784–nearly a decade after writing “Common Sense”–in recognition of his service to the Revolution. Given Paine’s fame as a exponent of individual freedom, the circumstances have to be regarded as a little questionable: The land and the cottage had been seized years earlier from one Frederick DeVeaux, a supporter of King George III. I find the real estate connection utterly underwhelming, even with a nearby marble monument to Paine along North Avenue erected in 1839 topped by a bronze bust added in 1905.

But that same marketplace of ideas nurtured by Paine produced for the longest time in New Rochelle what I regard as a delicious irony: competing Paine nonprofits hurling invective at each other, in the fashion of the Great Man himself.

About 90 yards from the Cottage along North Avenue on the other side of the monument sits a grand edifice that was once the Thomas Paine Museum. For decades it was run by the rival Thomas Paine National Historical Association, founded in 1884. The stone building, erected in 1925 amid much fanfare (inventor Thomas A. Edison wielded the groundbreaking shovel), once held genuine Paine artifacts and was a respected resource for serious Paine scholars.

The two nonprofits long hated each other, routinely trading accusations. One year, the Huguenots with their cottage gave a “Spirit of Thomas Paine” award to Dick Morris, the Democrat-turned-Republican political operative and pundit. The Paine Museum, which used to issue its own annual award, promptly cranked out a press release mocking its rival’s understanding of Paine’s political philosophy, which included encouragement of progressive taxation and disparagement of organized religion, not exactly mainstays of contemporary Republican thought. “The Huguenots should look after the history of the Huguenots,” the snarky statement said.

When I visited the cottage in 2013, its director, John R. Wright, accused the Paine Museum of fundraising by trying to fool people into thinking it owned the college. “It is absolutely misrepresenting itself,” he told me.

But the Paine Museum now has been shut for more than a decade following scandalous allegations it sold off key holdings and cut too sweet a deal for its director. Under pressure from state charitable regulators, much of its contents has been transferred to the library at nearby Iona College (just outside the containment zone). One New York history blog said recently the Paine Museum building is “headed for sale and destruction.”

In “Common Sense,” Paine wrote, “Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.” As it turns out, that’s not a bad description for the panic–political as well as medical–surrounding coronavirus, in New Rochelle and elsewhere.

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