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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.





Paris site where body of Paul JOnes was discovered in 1905

Buried in paperwork


But where was the body? After serving as an admiral in the Russian Navy (he had been only a captain in America) Jones moved into a Paris hotel. He died there, alone in his room, of kidney inflammation on July 18, 1792. Jean-Baptiste Beaupoil, a former aid to the Marquis de Lafayette, paid to have the body encased in lead, rather than tossed into a pauper's grave. Someday, Beaupoil hoped, the Americans would return for their forgotten hero.


Records indicated that the body had been wrapped in a linen shirt, packed in straw, and the coffin filled with alcohol as a preservative. Unable to be buried in consecrated Catholic soil, Jones was transported in a small procession through the streets of Paris to the only churchyard accepting Protestant dead.  But within weeks of Jones' internment, the French Revolution exploded, and the church property was soon sold off for development. Jones' mortal remains, Porter feared, could have been exhumed and piled with the bones of millions in the sprawling city catacombs.   


Others had tried, and failed. Jones' sister gave up the search for her brother, who never married, and left no heirs. So did John Henry Sherburne of Portsmouth, NH, a nephew of Gov. John Langdon and author of the first biography of Jones in 1825. Sherburne made to unsuccessful trips to Europe to find Jones.


Author Scott Martelle unpacks the historical detective story as well as the evolution of the heroic myths and misinformation that hover around the life of Jones to this day. The 1898 success of the American fleet in the 1898 Spanish American War under George Dewey (whose first wife was from Portsmouth) helped revive interest in the search for Jones. Despite Ambassador Horace Porter's efforts to search secretly at his own expense, newspaper reports continued to spark public interest, often with false information. For the next few years, Porter put the search on hold. The ambassador was distracted by the Paris Exposition of 1900, the death of the French president, the assassination of President McKinley, and the passing of his beloved wife Sophie.  


Former St Louis Cemetery in Paris in 1905 

The last hurrah


McKinley's death pushed vice-president Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency. A scholar and author of naval history, Roosevelt urged Porter in 1903 to rekindle his efforts to find the grave of the newly branded "Father of the American Navy." Roosevelt, a public relations master, knew full well that the discovery would be a media boost for his plans to expand the scope and size of the U.S. Navy.


Although despondent from the loss of his wife, Porter soldiered on. The ambassador informed the president that he had found the site of the old Protestant church at the corner of Rue de la Grange-aux-Belles and Rue des Ecluses-Saint Martin. There was "vast interest" among the neighborhood tenants and property owners, Porter said, who expected a fat payday from Uncle Sam. With the aid of the French government, Porter convinced them to allow an excavation largely out of patriotism. He estimated the exhumation would cost $35,000. When Congress stalled, Porter started the dig with his own funds.


The volume of human remains proved that Porter's research was accurate. The old cemetery, closed six months after Jones' burial, was still there. A few caskets made of lead were discovered, some with identifying nameplates. But none contained the "Chevalier" Paul Jones, once the toast of Paris, who had partied with Benjamin Franklin, King Louis XVI ,and Marie Antoinette. Then on April 7, 1905, sixteen feet beneath the streets of Paris, an unmarked lead coffin, ideally fitted to the lost hero's 5'7" frame, was uncovered. Horace Porter was on hand as workmen removed the solder seal and pried open metal casket.


The dry straw, still smelling of alcohol, contained a cadaver so well-preserved that the man's moist skin was still pliable. One eye was open. The stubble was still visible on his face. His long graying hair was curled in a bun and he wore only a white linen shirt and was wrapped in a sheet. There were no identifying artifacts and no nameplate. 


Exposed to the air for the first time in over a century, the body began drying, the face withering into a leather mask. Porter had the coffin resealed, and it was moved secretly by horse cart to the Ecole des Medecene. Stripped and laid on an observation table, the cadaver's crossed arms were unfolded by medical experts and its sunken muscles probed. Jones had never been wounded, and there were no scars. The shriveled face appeared to match the bust of Jones. sculpted from life in Paris by Augustus Houdon, who was famous for his striking likenesses of Ben Franklin, Voltaire, and George Washington. Doctors poked into the preserved inner organs--lungs, heart, and spleen, taking samples. The small, hard, diseased kidneys and consumptive lungs perfectly matched the historical accounts of Jones' symptoms during his failing days.


Horace Porter was satisfied. "There is absolutely no room for doubt," Porter later told a reporter who questioned the identity of the body extracted from the forgotten cemetery.


Discovery of John Paul Jones coffin under Paris sstreet in 1905


The mythical man


His hair combed, his body anointed in glycerin, Jones was wrapped in a clean linen shirt. The body, packed with fresh sawdust, was sealed back in its lead container. A small glass window allowed onlookers a peek at the ghoulish face, now settled into a heavy 6'10" casket made of oak. A church service and speeches followed. Paraded through the streets of Paris once more, this time with crowds and military honors, the remains were then loaded onto an American warship. Horace Porter declined to accompany the body as a squadron of battleships slowly ferried the captain of the Ranger back to the United States. Porter had done his job. He too was going home.


President Roosevelt and the media had a lot to say about John Paul Jones. Not all of it was true. Contemporary accounts indicate that Jones was a complex and difficult man. He could be petty, jealous, deceptive, and cruel. He was an infamous womanizer. He threatened and killed a number of his crewmen, always, he claimed, in self defense. He earned his fortune in the slave trade, but gave it up in disgust. His victory against the British on the Bonhomme Richard was the bloodiest in naval history.  


Jones was not an American citizen. Whether he deserves the title "Father of the American Navy" has long been debated. But he was a brilliant tactician, a bold captain, a superb sailor, and an influential figure in the American War for Independence.

Most of the false stories about his life, author Scott Martelle points out, were invented while Jones lay buried in Paris. His legend grew to bolster the image of America and the struggling 19th century U.S. Navy. In death, Jones was elevated into the pantheon of the Founding Fathers and the nation's first naval heroes.


Entombed at the NavalAcademy at Annapolis, his words etched in stone, the mummified remains of John Paul Jones became a holy relic. The mortal man was far different from the legend now housed in an ornate sarcophagus, crafted from 21 tons of marble. And that is what makes John Paul Jones so fascinating and his life worth exploring. To be honest, we haven't truly found him yet.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: For information on the JohnPaulJonesHouseMuseum at 43 Middle Street, Portsmouth, NH call 603-436-8433. Scott Martelle's book The Admiral and the Ambassador is available in hardcover and digital formats from Chicago Review Press.

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders. 

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