A typical book about an American founding father doesn’t start at a gay piano bar and end in a sewage ditch. But then, Tom Paine isn’t your typical founding father. A firebrand rebel and a radical on the run, Paine alone claims a key role in the development of three modern democracies. In death, his story turns truly bizarre. Shunned as an infidel by every church, he had to be interred in an open field on a New York farm.
Ten years later, a former enemy converting to Paine’s cause dug up the bones and carried them back to Britain, where he planned to build a mausoleum in Paine’s honor. But he never got around to it. So what happened to the body of this founding father?
Well, it got lost. Paine’s missing bones, like saint’s relics, have been scattered for two centuries, and their travels are the trail of radical democracy itself. Paul Collins combines wry, present-day travelogue with an odyssey down the forgotten paths of history as he searches for the remains of Tom Paine and finds them hidden in, among other places, a Paris hotel, underneath a London tailor’s stool, and inside a roadside statue in New York.
Along the way he crosses paths with everyone from Walt Whitman and Charles Darwin to sex reformers and hellfire ministers—not to mention a suicidal gunman, a Ferrari dealer, and berserk feral monkeys.
In the end, Collins’s search for Paine’s body instead finds the soul of democracy—for it is the story of how Paine’s struggles have lived on through his eccentric and idealistic followers.