In 1793 he was arrested in France for treason. Before moving to France, Paine was an instrumental figure in the American Revolution as the author of Common Sense, writings used by George Washington to inspire the American troops.
Paine moved to Paris to become involved with the French Revolution, but the chaotic political climate turned against him and he was arrested and jailed for crimes against the country.
When he first arrived in Paris, Paine was heartily welcomed and granted honorary citizenship by leaders of the revolution who enjoyed his anti-royalty book The Rights of Man. However, before long he ran afoul of his new hosts because he favored the exile of King Louis XVI rather than his execution. Paine was strictly opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances and he vocally opposed the French revolutionaries who were sending hundreds to the guillotine.
He also began writing a provocative new book, The Age of Reason, which promoted the controversial notion that God did not influence the actions of people and that science and rationality would prevail over religion and superstition.
Although Paine realized that sentiment was turning against him in the autumn of 1793, he remained in France because he believed he was helping the people.
After he was arrested, Paine was taken to Luxembourg Prison. The jail was formerly a palace and was unlike any other jail. He was treated to a large room with two windows and was locked inside only at night. His meals were catered from outside and he was permitted servants although he did not take advantage of that particular luxury. While in prison, he continued to work on The Age of Reason.
Paine’s imprisonment in France caused an uproar in America and future President James Monroe used all of his diplomatic connections to get Paine released in November 1794.
Ironically, it wasn’t long before Paine came to be despised in the United States, as well. After The Age of Reason was published, he was called an anti-Christ and his reputation was ruined.
Thomas Paine died a poor man in 1809 in New York. After his death in New York City the newspapers read: He had lived long, did some good and much harm.
There is a story that says Paine was scheduled to be guillotined, but his wife intervened. This happened in July of 1794 in the midst of the Reign of Terror during which tens of thousands were executed. Robespierre’s belief was “Spare the guillotine, spoil the revolutionary.”
The Cafe de la Regence was a famous chess venue in Paris just beside the Louvre museum. During the Age of Enlightenment, many philosophers played chess and expounded on their new ideas about the game. The Cafe was opened in 1670 and was owned by an American.
In 1740 the Cafe de la Regence inherited the title of the chess Mecca where many famous chess players came to play. High class citizens could be found there at any time and many famous people played chess there including Ben Franklin, Rousseau, Robespierre, and Napoleon.
According to the story Paine’s wife supposedly frequented the Cafe de la Regence where Robespierre often played chess and defeated him in a game. Robespierre challenged her again and promised to grant any wish if she won again which she did and asked that her husband’s life be spared and as a result Paine was released from prison. This story seems improbable because it’s unlikely that women were even allowed in the Cafe at that time.
One source discounts the story claiming that Paine wasn't married at the time. His first wife died in 1760 and he and his second wife were legally separated prior to his move to America in 1774.
In that version Paine’s avoiding the guillotine is attributed to his fellow prisoners. Paine had two talents: speaking in favor of revolutions and making enemies. The American minister to France, Governeur Morris, had no love for Paine and after a few half-hearted attempts to secure his release gave up claiming he couldn’t do anything because Paine was an English citizen.
The story continues: In jail, Paine developed a severe fever, possibly typhus and for several days it seemed he might die. To aid his fever, the other prisoners asked the guards to keep the door open at night to let the air circulate more freely. The guards agreed and that's what saved Paine’s life.
The night before an execution, a guard would walk around the jail cells and mark an X in chalk on the door of the prisoner who was to be executed the next morning. Because Paine’s cell door was opened so wide that it lay flat against the wall, the man marked the X on the inside of the door. In the morning, the prisoners closed the door and the executioner walked right by. Three days later the Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre’s head in the guillotine. This does not sound plausible to me. How could one miss seeing the door was open even if it was at night?!
The official historical version is that soon after Paine’s arrest James Monroe was selected as the new American Ambassador to France and he was a huge fan of Paine and worked tirelessly for his release, which he secured in November.
Paine spent the next two years living with the Monroes and continuing to write on the Revolution.
The site US History states that Paine was freed in 1794 (after narrowly escaping execution) thanks to the efforts of Monroe and remained in France until 1802 when he returned to the US on an invitation from Thomas Jefferson.
Paine discovered that his contributions to the American Revolution had been all but eradicated due to his religious views. Derided by the public and abandoned by his friends, he died on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City. When Paine was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York his grave didn’t even get the low stone wall around it that he specified in his will.
There are similar stories of women defeating Robespierre at a game of chess and securing the release of a condemned man that don’t involve Thomas Paine at all.
One story goes that the lady was Jacqueline Armand, the fiance of a duke about to be guillotined. She cut off her hair so she could enter the Cafe de la Regence. When the seat in front of Robespierre became vacant, she took it, asking a special favor if she won, offering money if she lost. She won, and her lover went free.
Yet another story says it was the wife of the Marquis de Merin who defeated Robespierre. She was disguised as a man, wearing a wig. When she beat him, Robespierre reached for his wallet and asked how much he. She responded, "Yes, you lost the game, but all I claim is the life of an innocent man." She then handed Robespierre a release note for the Marquis, who had recently been condemned to death by guillotine. Robespierre admired her courage and signed the release note.
There is still another story that appeared in Fraser's Magazine in 1840. It says the condemned man was a young French officer, not Tomas Paine, and a young girl (no mention of fiancee or wife) came to the cafe attired in men's clothing. She checkmated Robespierre, then revealed she was a woman and demanded the life of the French officer. She left with a written order for his immediate release and with a passport to safely leave France.
Thomas Paine was quite an interesting fellow and his story continues even today. Some ten years after his death a journalist named William Cobbett dug up Paine's body and shipped it to England where he hoped to build a proper memorial. In England customs agent found the body, but let it pass.
Cobbett couldn't raise the money for the memorial so Paine remained in a trunk in his attic. After Cobbett's death, Paine's remains began disappearing as family members started selling body parts.
Legend has it that his bones were turned into buttons and in the 1930s, a woman in Brighton claimed to have his jawbone.
When in 2001 the Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative of New Rochelle planned to bring his remains back to yet another “final resting place” they struck a snag...it seems bits and pieces of his body are scattered all over the world.
Parts of Paine might still be in England, possibly in the form of those buttons. A rib might be in France and a man in Australia who claims to be a descendant says he has Paine's skull.
His mummified brain stem and a lock of hair is in possession of the farm’s historical association which says it is keeping in a secret location. The historical society was unsuccessful tracking down as many bones as possible for an eventual reinterment.
So, who, if anybody, escaped getting their head lopped off by defeating Robespierre in a chess game?