The are many interesting facets of Thomas Paine’s life, but one that has often gone unmentioned by many other scholars was his capacity to elude an early death. On no less than seven occasions, the eminent writer’s life was almost cut short.
On one occasion, fate narrowly saved Paine from a fatal disaster in privateering – where crews of independently-owned warships loot commercial vessels that sailed under the flag of enemy countries. The daring young man nearly boarded the Terrible, a privateer commanded by Captain William Death, for a stint in the English Channel. Soon after the ship launched, it was obliterated in a three-hour battle by the Vengeance, a French privateer. Only 17 of the ship’s original crew survived, and more than 150 – including all of its officers and Captain Death himself – perished. Paine’s life was spared only because his father convinced him not to embark on a voyage.
In another close brush with death, Paine contracted typhoid fever during his first voyage to America in 1774. Several of his fellow crewmen did not make it through the journey, and Paine became so sick and disheveled that he had to be carried in a blanket from the docks of Philadelphia by John Kearsley, Benjamin Franklin’s doctor. His health recovered only after an agonizing six weeks at Kearley’s residence.
In yet another surprising twist of fate, Paine avoided an attempted homicide by Christopher Derrick, a former tenant.
Derrick, who had feuded with Paine over financial matters, approached Paine’s home in New Rochelle, New York in a drunken stupor on Christmas Eve, 1805. After making his way through the snow, he positioned himself by the window, where he could make out the likeness of Paine through a window. He took aim at the unsuspecting writer with his musket, then fired directly at him. The event rattled the elderly writer, who immediately ran out of the house with the neighbor’s boy. “I directly suspected who it was,” he wrote to a friend, “and hallowed to him by name,” such that “the party who fired might know I was on the watch.”
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, reveals what became of Derrick, Paine’s would-be assassin, as well as four other distinct situations where Paine escaped death through chance. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!