Lot 275

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Thomas Paine ALS Confirming Christmas Eve Attack Likely Based On Anti-Christianity, “The account you heard of a man firing into my house is true”

THOMAS PAINE, Autograph Letter Signed, to [Thomas Clio Rickman], July 12, 1806, New York. 1p, 7.5ʺ x 10ʺ. Removed from frame to verify condition. Mat and frame measuring 18.25ʺ x 27.25ʺ available separately, but will incur additional shipping charges. From the Collection of Charles E. Sigety, though not sold in the Christie's Auction of his collection, as this was one of a few items that were special and retained by the family. The letter has usual folds and some minor reinforcement, especially to where the seal was removed. Faint collector's notes at bottom third of letter and dated 1819, affecting nothing in this boldly written, signed letter and mentioned only for accuracy. The address is also in Paine’s unmistakable hand capturing another large “Thomas”, thus half of his signature. A similar 1806 ALS, much shorter and with no content, sold at RR Auction in 2016 for over $30,000!

In this letter to the Quaker publisher Thomas “Clio” Rickman, a friend in London, England, Thomas Paine confirms that someone shot into his house in New Rochelle, New York. He also sends greetings from other British residents in the area. In his biography of Paine, published thirteen years later, Rickman wrote, “The particulars of Mr. Paine’s being shot at while sitting by his fire-side at Bordentown is given in his own letters in the appendix.... I find a letter in reply to one of mine, in which he writes, ‘the account you heard of a man’s firing into my house is true—the grand jury found the bill against him, and he lies over for trial,’” which confirms that Rickman was the recipient of this letter.

In full, "My dear friend / I write to acknowledge the receipt of a letter from you by Mr Constable. I wish you could come to America. Mr William Carver formerly of Lewes, now of New-York, desires his kind remembrance to you, as does Mr Lovet who has done well for himself since he has been here. The account you heard of a man firing into my house is true. The grand Jury found the bill against him and he lies over for trial. Do not publish this letter nor make any facsimile. I remain with affection to you, your wife and family. / your friend / Thomas Paine / New York July 12, ’06".

Paine reported receiving Rickman’s letter from “Mr. Constable.” Brothers Daniel Constable (1775-1835) and William Constable (1783-1806), originally from Horley, Surrey, England, became drapers in Brighton in southern England. There, they met Rickman. In 1806, the Constable brothers sold their shop and took a two-month voyage to New York, where with an introduction from Rickman, they visited Paine and delivered this letter. The Constable brothers traveled by foot across New York to Niagara Falls, where William, an artist, made sketches of the Falls. They eventually reached New Orleans before returning to New York, traveling more than 7,000 miles over two years. When they returned to England, William Constable converted his sketches into watercolors and exhibited them. He later became a prominent engineer, photographer, and inventor. In 1841, he opened a portrait studio in Brighton, and Prince Albert’s decision to have Constable make his first photograph established the studio’s reputation for photographing European nobility.

In this letter, Paine sends greetings from William Carver (1756-182?), an author and farrier with whom Paine lived for several months several times between 1803 and 1806. Carver was born in Lewes, Sussex, England. Carver had by industry accumulated $5,000 in the United States but lost it putting confidence in his oldest son. He later told Thomas Jefferson that Paine was indebted to him for $300, and the debt “broke up our friendship.” In a letter responding to Carver’s request for payment, Paine wrote in November 1806, “I did not think, carver, you were such an unprincipled false hearted man as I find you to be; but I am glad I have found it out time enough to dispossess you of all trust I reposed in you when I made my will.” In 1816, Carver published Select Pieces, in Prose & Verse, on Different Subjects: Containing Epitaphs and a Letter to Thomas Paine, Sent to Him Whiles on His Dying Bed, and in 1821 suggested to a Philadelphia publisher that he compile a new biography of Paine.

In this letter, Paine also mentions a “Mr. Lovet.” John Lovett (1756-1809) was born in London. He married Jane Johnson (1760-1807) in 1784, and they had ten children. He operated the City Hotel in New York from 1799 to 1807, and Paine stayed at the hotel for short periods several times.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson invited Thomas Paine to return to the United States and even suggested that he would give him a federal job if one were suitable for him. Paine landed in Baltimore at the end of October 1802, and Margaret Brazier Bonneville (1767-1846) and her three sons arrived a few days later. Bonneville and her husband Nicholas Bonneville (1760-1828) had hosted Paine in their home beginning in 1797. When her husband was arrested in 1802, she and her three children accompanied Paine to the United States. She sometimes lived with him in New York and cared for him in his ill health, while he helped provide for her and for her sons’ education. Paine provided for Margaret Bonneville, Nicholas Bonneville, and their children in his will.

Many Americans considered Paine’s attacks on traditional Christianity in The Age of Reason unforgivable. English pamphleteer William Cobbett’s description of Paine gave voice to the feelings of many: How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not, nor does it much signify. He has done all the mischief he can do in this world; and whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence. Whenever or wherever he breathes his last, he will excite neither sorrow nor compassion; no friendly hand will close his eyes, not a groan will be uttered, not a tear will be shed. Like Judas, he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural, and blasphemous by the single monosyllable of Paine.

Paine settled on his farm in New Rochelle, which had increased in value, though the main house had been destroyed by fire in 1790. According to a contemporary, though critical biography, in the spring of 1804, Paine returned from New York City to his farm in New Rochelle, taking with him the two younger Bonneville children and leaving Margaret Bonneville in the city. He hired Christopher Derick, “an old man,” to work for him but he discharged him later in the year.

On Christmas evening of 1805, a person fired a musket at the house where Thomas Paine was living in New Rochelle, New York. His two servants were away visiting acquaintances, and only a neighbor boy was present with Paine at the time of the attack.

An initial newspaper report, published in the New York Commercial Advertiser on January 31, 1806, declared that the ball entered through the window, “narrowly missed Paine, and lodged in the opposite wall.” Authorities arrested the attacker the following day. This report was widely recopied in newspapers throughout the nation.

On February 12, the Commercial Advertiser printed a letter from “A New-Rochelle Subscriber.” The correspondent insisted that Paine had only one servant, a mulatto woman, who was away when a gun was discharged under or near the window but that the wadding of paper entered into the board or siding of the house but did not injure the plaster inside, and that ten or twelve days later, a man who had lived with Paine during the summer was arrested on the oath of Paine as the person suspected.

James Cheetham’s hostile 1809 biography attributed the attack to Christopher Derick, “who could neither forget nor forgive the ill-usage he had received from Paine,” but placed it on “Christmas-eve, 1804,” when Derick allegedly borrowed a musket and went to Paine’s cottage. There, Paine was sitting near an exposed window with a lighted candle in his room. Derick fired the musket at Paine, but the contents struck the bottom of the window frame and dropped between the plaster and weather-boards of the wooden house, to the foundation. Derick was later apprehended and tried for the offense but acquitted. According to a neighbor with whom Derick boarded, he said after Paine’s death that he was “sorry the musket did not do execution, but without mentioning that he fired it at Paine.”

Rickman’s 1819 biography reprints a letter from Paine (mis)dated January 16, 1805, to an “Esteemed Friend,” in which he describes this incident:
What you heard of a gun being fired into the room is true; Robert and Rachel were both gone out to keep christmas eve, and about eight o’clock at night the gun was fired; I run immediately out, one of Mr. Dean’s boys with me, but the person that had done it was gone; I directly suspected who it was, and hallooed him by name, that he was discovered. I did this that the party might know I was on the watch. I cannot find any ball, but whatever the gun was charged with passed through about three or four inches below the window, making a hole large enough for a finger to go through; the muzzle must have been very near, as the place is black with powder, and the glass of the window is shattered to pieces. Mr. Shule after examining the place, and getting what information could be had, issued a warrant to take up Derrick, and after examination committed him. He is now on bail (five hundred dollars) to take his trial at the supreme court in May next.... Derrick borrowed the gun under pretence of giving Mrs. Bayeaux a christmas gun. He was with Purdy about two hours before the attack on the house was made, and he came from thence to Dean’s half drunk, and brought with him a bottle of rum, and Purdy was with him when he was taken up.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born intellectual, inventor, and radical pamphleteer who influenced both the American and French Revolutions. He lived and worked in England until 1774, when he migrated to Philadelphia, joining the radical artisan community there. His powerful pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), was the best-selling original work published in eighteenth-century America and had a pronounced impact on the Revolution by making the case for complete independence from Great Britain. He also published a pamphlet series, The American Crisis (thirteen in 1776-1777; three more to 1783), which helped inspire American revolutionaries. General Washington even ordered the first number to be read aloud to his men. Paine later moved to France, published the liberal Enlightenment treatise Rights of Man (1791), and won election to the French National Assembly in 1792. A Girondin, he was arrested in 1793 and narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. While in prison, he continued to work on The Age of Reason (1794-1807). Paine believed that the American ambassador to France, Federalist Gouverneur Morris, somehow engineered his arrest. Diplomat James Monroe arranged for Paine’s release in November 1794, and Paine turned against George Washington and wrote a scathing public letter to Washington in 1796. Paine remained in France until 1802, when, at President Jefferson’s invitation, he returned to New York.

Thomas “Clio” Rickman (1760-1834) was born in Lewes, Sussex, into a Quaker family. He first met Thomas Paine, when Paine lived in Lewes between 1768 and 1774, and both were members of the Headstrong Club, a debating society in Lewes. Because Rickman married outside the Quaker faith, he was disowned by the Society of Friends. He moved to London and began business as a bookseller in 1783. Paine lived with Rickman in 1791 when he was composing The Rights of Man. In 1819, Rickman published his Life of Thomas Paine.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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