J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Hangings of Thomas Paine

In 1791 and early 1792, Thomas Paine published the two parts of The Rights of Man, supporting the principles of the French Revolution and proposing radical reforms for British society. The book inspired a lot of reform societies, and also a lot of backlash. The government convicted him, in absentia, for sedition.

By the end of 1792 Paine had become a public enemy for some British. From John Mayhall’s Annals and History of Leeds (1860):
At Leeds the effigy of Tom Paine, (holding a pair of stays in one hand, and his Rights of Man in the other) was carried through the streets with a halter round his neck, and (having been well whipped and hanged at the market cross) thrown into a large bonfire, amidst the shouts of the surrounding multitude.
A letter to Notes and Queries in 1896 added:
Leeds was not by any means alone in burning Paine’s effigy, for the Bury Post, of Bury St. Edmunds, recorded on 9 January, 1793, that “On Saturday last [5 January] the effigy of T. Paine was carried round Swaffham, hung on a gibbet, and committed to the flames.”
And on 7 January, in the small West Yorkshire village of Ripponden, the lawyer John Howarth recorded paying people “who carried about Tom Payne’s Effigy and shot at it, 10s.6d.” I’m guessing those demonstrations of conspicuous piety and patriotism were part of Twelfth Night rituals.

The British cartoon above, titled “The End of Pain,” is dated to the same year. And that’s not all. In Spen Valley, Past and Present (1893), Frank Peel wrote:
Benjamin Popplewell, one of the founders of Stubbins Mill, Heckmondwike, had always belonged to the progressive party until scared by the excesses which followed the first French Revolution, he seems, like the great Edmund Burke and many lesser lights, to have fairly lost his head, and when the American Colonies revolted and Paine’s “Rights of Man” began to be circulated among the working classes, he joined one of the “Church and King” Clubs which were established about this time in various parts of the country by those who were anxious to prevent the spread of revolutionary doctrines. . . .

Popplewell, in order to show his detestation of the principles inculcated by Paine, got up what would now be considered a very laughable farce, in which he was himself the chief actor. Personating the arch-agitator, he was “discovered” reading the “Rights of Man” among the coal-pit hills of White Lee. He was seized, his face covered with a frightful mask, supposed to be a counterfeit presentment of the face of the writer of the hated book. It had a ring through the nose, and with a rope tied to the ring the representative of the arch sedition-monger was led into the market-place.

Locomotion then being no longer required, the mask was deftly removed to a straw effigy of Paine covered from view in a cart. This figure was then propped against the stone foundation of the old lamp post which stood where the fountain now is, and shot amidst tremendous hootings and cries of “Church and King” and “Down with Tom Paine.”
And yet more from the same book:
Mr. Thomas Cockhill’s envy being probably aroused by Mr. Popplewell’s curious anti-Tom Paine demonstration, got up one of a similar character at Littletown. Instead, however, of having a live man to represent Paine he had one roughly made of wood. This figure was dressed up and placed on a waggon, and with it they made a circuit of the village amid tremendous uproar.

Arrived at Littletown Green, preparations were made to burn the effigy, when Joe Yates, one of Cockhill’s workmen, earnestly begged to “have a round with it” before it was committed to the flames. Permission being given, Joe, who was a powerful fellow, stripped off his jacket, and mounting the waggon commenced a terrific onslaught on “Tom Paine.” Striking him a sledge hammer blow full in the face he knocked him against the sides of the waggon and then falling on him as he lay prone he pounded his wooden face with maniacal fury until his hands streamed with blood, and both he and the figure presented a most sanguinary aspect, his martial fire being kept at white heat by the joking cries of the spectators “Give it him Joe!” “Kill him lad!”

“I’ll shiver him!” responded Joe, and “Shiver him” he was called all the rest of his life.
I don’t think Paine ever returned to Britain after that year, living the rest of his life in France and the U.S. of A. And with countrymen like that, it’s not hard to see why.

3 comments:

Chaucerian said...

All right, I'll bite -- what was the significance of the "pair of stays" in Paine's hand? One hesitates to imagine (I can only think of slurs on womanhood) --

J. L. Bell said...

That refers to Paine’s early work as a staymaker. Some interpreters later took it to be a comment on his views about women’s rights, but it was more likely a comment on his class origin.

J. L. Bell said...

A couple of things struck me about the descriptions of these ritual slayings. Two of them involved shooting at the effigy, though firing squads weren't yet standard. That might say something about the availability of firearms in late-eighteenth-century Britain, as well as the appeal to crowds of making loud noises.

Secondly, Paine's political platform obviously had more to offer the Joe "Shiver him" Yateses of Britain than the Thomas Cockhills. Yet Yates was bloodying his hands pounding on the wooden Paine. Talk about working against your own economic interests!