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The Man Who Dug Up John Paul Jones

Horace Porter in Civil War by Matthew Brady on SeacoastNHHISTORY MATTERS

110 years ago, deep in a forgotten Paris cemetery, Gen. Horace Porter came face-to-face with the corpse of a lost naval hero. The full story is dramatically and accurately told in a new book entitled The Admiral and the Ambassador. (click title to read more)


The stench was staggering, but the men with the picks and shovels kept digging. For weeks they had tunneled in the dim light and stagnant air beneath a rundown block of shops in the squalid northeast corner of Paris. They sloshed through inches of water, thick with giant wriggling red worms. They "mined" their way through shattered caskets, human skulls, scattered bones, and the rotted corpses of animals. Thick beams and stones held back the crumbling walls of "night soil," the accumulated muck and debris extracted for generations from the reeking neighborhood privies.


For Horace Porter, the excavation in the spring of 1905 was his last chance in a six-year search for the body of naval hero John Paul Jones. The American ambassador to France was confident that his research had brought him to the right spot. This was the forgotten cemetery of the church of Saint Louis, now covered over by a grocery store, a cheap hotel, a laundry, a granary, and a photography shop. But Porter's time and money were running out. The crew had reached the last of five underground shafts. In a few days, Porter's term as ambassador was up and the 68-year old Civil War veteran was headed home to New York.


horace porter and uncle sam cartoon


The ambassador arrives


Seacoast residents are forever reminded that Scottish-born captain John Paul Jones sailed the Portsmouth/Kittery-built warship Ranger from the Piscataqua River into Revolutionary War history. But it took a Los Angeles Times journalist to flesh out the final macabre chapter of Jones' posthumous biography. In his book, The Admiral and the Ambassador, author Scott Martelle explains how Jones, who was buried at an obscure Paris cemetery in 1792, ended up in an ornate marble sarcophagus at the US Naval Academy in 1913.


Martelle's main character, Gen. Horace Porter (1837-1921), was a West Point grad, distinguished Civil War veteran, and former personal secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant. Porter made his fortune in the railroad business and raised funds to build Grant's Tomb. He accepted the post of US Ambassador to France in 1897 under President William McKinley.  


A Francophile who could barely speak French, Porter and his often-sickly wife, Sophie, and their lively teenaged daughter, Elsie, rented a Paris mansion and became instant celebrities. The diplomat's primary job was to promote American business and trade. But he harbored a private obsession to find the burial site of Jones and deliver his remains to the United States, no matter the cost.



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