Finding The Lost Grave of John Paul Jones:
In 1792, the story of the lost legacy of John Paul Jones began. John Paul Jones died on July 18 at the age of 45 years old from acute inflammation of the kidney. He lived and died in Paris as a forgotten man. Although he once was a naval hero of the American Revolution, a confirmed admiral in the Russian navy, and later dubbed the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” he sadly fell into obscurity. He lived out his final days with a few loyal friends, a servant, and his chambermaid, as he died a lonely man.
Less than two weeks after his 45th birthday; he was found in his Paris apartment, lying face down on his bed, with his feet on the floor. Although not a religious man, the position of the body led to speculation that he was attempting to kneel, as he took his last breath. In retrospect, Jones’ final years were filled with frustration, sickness, and solitude amid the chaos of the French Revolution; he died far from the country that he had fought so valiantly to free.
Anticipating that American authorities would transport their legendary naval hero back to the U.S., the French laid his body to rest in a lead coffin that was filled with alcohol and sealed to preserve the remains. Within three weeks of the funeral, armed Revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis XVI and his family were being held. Many of the 600 Swiss Guard died defending the king. Their dead bodies were tossed into a mass grave next to Jones’ burial site. In the chaos, madness, and fanatical beheadings of the French Revolution; John Paul Jones died swiftly, quietly, and without fanfare.
To further complicate finding his final resting place, came the sale to a private developer of the Saint Louis Cemetery property. The new owners regraded and covered over the graveyard which made way for urban redevelopment. The former cemetery site was covered and hidden forever by city life.
Decades passed, then one man; who possessed an extraordinary degree of intestinal fortitude, an undying duty to persistence, and a dedication to his own personal need, rediscovered the site. How? It was through his tireless investigation and discovery that he uncovered the resting place of John Paul Jones. Who was this incredible man who solved the mystery of the lost grave of John Paul Jones?
One Man’s Quest to Find– John Paul Jones:
Just over a century later, in 1897, Horace Porter;a Civil War Medal of Honor winner, a former member of U.S. Grant’s staff, and the current Ambassador to France arrived in Paris. Here he began to ask questions regarding the lost grave of John Paul Jones. Two years later, he began a search that would consume six years and a great deal of his own money. He along with a number of Americans were distraught that the remains of their early naval hero was buried on foreign soil. Horace Porter’s motivation for taking on the task of finding Jones was personal. In addition, Porter feared that Jones’ heroism would be forgotten, and that his memory would be relegated to fiction.
Porter is the same man who personally undertook the massive task of fund raising, constructing, and co-designing Grant’s Tomb in 1892, as well as, seeing its historic dedication along the Hudson River in New York’s Riverside Park in 1897.
Finding John Paul Jones’ burial site; gaining access to the grave, and proving the recovered remains were those of John Paul Jones was a challenge for the most sophisticated forensic investigators of the day. The task began, as Porter reviewed hundreds of records to find evidence of a burial site and cemetery. It was rumored at the time that a Protestant cemetery was used, After exhaustive research; the mystery was solved, when Porter discovered the minutes of Jones’ funeral oration. The contents of the minutes confirmed that he was buried at a different site–the Saint Louis Cemetery in Paris. Further investigation found that the land hand been sold in 1796, and the location of the graves rested about eight feet below ground level, beneath a courtyard, shacks, and buildings.
A Risky Excavation Below a City Street:
To proceed with excavation at the former site of the Saint Louis Cemetery, Porter had many hoops to jump; political, economic, as well as technical challenges. Exorbitant amounts of money were needed to gain the rights to tunnel under the site, in addition, the miners’ working conditions of noxious odors and poor ventilation were a concern. Finally in 1905, he started the excavation, after Porter had obtain an agreement to tunnel for a period of no more than three months.
The first shaft found the remains of many skeletons of destitute individuals buried in inexpensive wooden coffins that had long since rotted away. As the excavation continued, a mass grave of skeletons piled helter-skelter was discovered. This was apparently the trench where the bodies of the Swiss Guards had been dumped.
On March 31st, a third and final lead coffin was found. The decision was made to open this coffin, the others had identifying markings. A preliminary examination determined that the uncovered corpse was 5 feet 7 inches, the exact height of the former admiral. The remains were taken to the Paris School of Medicine for examination.
For six days and in the presence of a dozen French and American officials, they attempted to identify the body. Head and facial measurements were compared to a three quarter size bust by famed French sculpture Jean Antoine Houdon. The measurements and facial features of the corpse were consistent with the features displayed on the bust. An autopsy further revealed the left lung displayed signs of pneumonia of which Jones had been diagnosed in late 1788. Indications of kidney disease were found to be consistent with symptoms he displayed just prior to his death. Formal documents were signed by all in attendance that attested to the finding: that the exhumed body was that of John Paul Jones.
Our Hero’s Last Voyage
Notified of the panel’s findings, President Theodore Roosevelt immediately dispatched a squadron of four cruisers to escort the casket of the admiral home. The American squadron left Cherbourg, France on July 8th flying the American ensign at the fore and the French ensign at the main. Arriving at Chesapeake Bay on July 22nd, the squadron was joined by seven battleships to convoy the final leg of the journey to Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Naval Academy. As the Brooklyn passed with his remains, four of the battle wagons fired a 15 gun salute.
On April 24th 1906, John Paul Jones was ceremoniously honored by President “Teddy” Roosevelt, with Horace Porter, at the Naval Academy. John Paul’s final interment was designated in an elaborate crypt beneath the transept of the Naval Academy Chapel on January 26th 1903.
John Paul Jones was interred with military honors that befitted his status as the spiritual “Father of the U.S. Navy.” America and its naval hero were reunited after one hundred and fourteen (114) years and two burials with his final resting place at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
This great American, Horace Porter, made it all possible. Like so many unhearlded Americans who gave their life and limb for mother country, they go nameless. Horace Porter played a role in perpetuating the legacy of U.S. Grant and John Paul Jones.
I wrote this article to pay homage to Horace Porter and John Paul Jones for their service, as well as, their role in protecting and defending the freedoms of all Americans.
Horace Porter was U.S. Ambassador to France from 1897 to 1905, he was responsible for finding and for paying to recover the body of John Paul Jones. He lived as he died; a true man among men.