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The Two Burials of John Paul Jones

JPJ from Buell biography 1900THE DEATH OF JPJ

John Paul Jones would have hated his first funeral in 1792, but the second in 1906 was a top brass naval affair. President Teddy Roosevelt himself gave the eulogy. That was after the US government dug up the mummified remains of the Scott turned American naval hero. Here is the complete story in one of our most popular web pages.



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Dead and Buried, 1792

Only his servant, his chambermaid and a few loyal soldiers, officials and friends joined the funeral procession of the mostly forgotten naval hero of the American Revolution. The small group walked four miles on a sweaty July day in Paris two days after the Captain’s death. The capital city, meanwhile, was being torn apart by the French Revolution. The king was under siege and the death of the sickly John Paul Jones meant as little there as it did in America, and even less in Britain where he was despised as a traitor, or in Russia where he had disappointed the czar, and in Scotland where he was born. The self proclaimed "citizen of the world" was dead and all but forgotten at the age of 45.

Jones had come to his beloved Paris after a scandalous end to his Rear Admiralty in Russia. For the last two years of his life he languished there, attending social functions when invited, holding court among his few remaining followers at his apartment salon, and writing endless letters that often went unanswered. Catherine the Great, dictator of Russia finally told him to "go mind his own business." His sisters in Scotland indicated the same. His former friend Lafayette, a "pop star" of revolutionary Paris, ignored him. According to Jones' biographer Samuel Eliot Morison, the Chevalier's worst enemy was ultimately his own "colossal egotism." His tireless self-promotion and self-aggrandizing, in the end, simply became tiresome. He lived and died a very lonely man.

Even his longtime friend Gouverneur Morris, American Minister to France, skipped the funeral due to a pressing dinner engagement. Morris had frequently noted in his journal that the tiresome Jones had nothing to say of value in his final months. Two days earlier, on July 18, Morris and Col. Samuel Blackden, a visiting American businessman had stopped in to see the failing Rear Admiral in his third floor apartment on #42 Rue de Tournon. Jones had sent for Morris to oversee his last will and testament. Morris did so, then slipped away to attend another important dinner. When he returned hours later, Jones was dead, lying face down on his bed, his feet still on the floor as if he had died kneeling in prayer.

Not everyone with influence and power had given up on him. The French were intrigued by his ideas on improving their navy. Then in June 1792 American President George Washington and US Secretary Thomas Jefferson signed a commission making John Paul Jones an official citizen of the United States and appointing him American consul to Algeria. His assignment was to clean up the political mess along the Barbary Coast where American ships were being seized and their crews held for ransom at $2,000 per man. The piracy which Jones had long warned Congress to address was killing trade and becoming a crisis for the fledgling country which would pay millions of dollars in "protection" money in its founding years. Without a navy to force a confrontation, the new US leaders placed all their hopes in Jones' diplomatic skills. But by the time the messenger left Philadelphia with this exciting new offer, Jones was dead and buried.

(Note: Ironically the job of dealing with Algeria and the Barbary Coast pirate situation fell, soon after, to another Portsmouth, NH resident, George Washington's former secretary Tobias Lear, a man very unlike the wily and aggressive Jones. Lear became consul to Algeria under President Jefferson in 1803 and served nine years. )

He's Back! The Exhumation, 1905

Enter General Horace Porter, a man obsessed with the desire to locate the grave of John Paul Jones. Appointed American Ambassador to France in 1899, Porter's painstaking search lasted six years. He knew he was looking for a "leaden coffin." Jones did not die broke, but his investments (his heirs inherited over $30,000) took some time to collect. Gouverneurr Morris, afraid he would be liable for the funeral costs, ordered a cheap coffin. But a French admirer of Jones donated 462 francs, three times the price of an average funeral, to pay for a top-of-the-line coffin. Col. Blackden had confirmed that fact in a letter written in 1792 to Jones' heirs. The intention, Blackden wrote, was to preserve the body in case America decided to one day reclaim its war hero. But where was the he buried?

For years Porter was misled by a faulty copy of Jones' burial certificate. The original had been destroyed in a fire. A key phrase was missing. Jones, a Scot not known to be religious, had been buried "in the cemetery for foreign Protestants." Porter confirmed the site as the Saint Louis Cemetery, but a lot had changed in a century. The cemetery had become a fertile vegetable garden, then a dumping ground for the bodies of animals. Porter was horrified by the filthy "Combat" street area, named, he suggests, for brutal staged fights between cocks, dogs, bulls and other animals to entertain local gamblers.

By the early 1900s the cemetery had been covered over by a grocery store, a laundry, an apartment house and sheds with cess pools and wells just below ground. Porter approached owners requesting permission to dig, but when they discovered the wealthy US government was footing the bill, real estate prices shot up. Porter was forced to back off and wait an agonizing two years until he could negotiate cheaper access to the defunct Protestant cemetery. Porter also worried that the contents of the cemetery had been moved, as the law and decency prescribed.

Enter President "Teddy" Roosevelt. The media-savvy rough Rough Rider, a former Secretary of the Navy, was intrigued by the life of John Paul Jones. The public relations potential of finding the long lost "Father of the American Navy" was too good to pass up. Roosevelt got Congress to appropriate $35,000 for Porter and the dig was back on.

Digging up Jones was an odious task -- wet, dark, with stultifying air, fetid water and giant red worms. The earth was so loose that Parisian workers built elaborate underground shafts, five in all, supported by thick timbers. Skeletons lay everywhere, sometimes two and three on top of each other, their wooden coffins long rotted to dust. Porter found only five lead coffins in all. The third, a mummy-shaped tomb, was better designed and constructed than the rest, but bore no inscription. Porter and his attendants discovered it on April 8, 1905. When they tried to unwrap it, the stench was so overpowering that the crew was forced to dig an air shaft for ventilation before they could resume. Peeling back the metal layers they caught the strong scent of alcohol and saw the still recognizable face of John Paul Jones.

Paul Jones mostly naked body was wrapped in a winding shirt. The flesh was still on his face and when the white linen cap containing his hair was removed, it curled down onto his shoulders. As Porter expected, since Jones’ worldly goods had been sold off at auction a month after his death, he was buried without uniform, medals or weapons.

Horace Porter was overjoyed. His search had yielded, not just bones, but the flesh and tissue of the famous Chevalier himself. A professional autopsy on the 114-year old corpse by three Paris doctors appeared to corroborate historical accounts that Jones was suffering from kidney failure and perhaps bronchitis. Further proof came when researchers compared the corpse with the dimensions of the famous bust of Jones sculpted from life by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Everything matched – with allowance for the shrinking mummified body -- and the discovery has yet to be disproved. It was time to celebrate -- respectfully, of course.

With Full Military Honors, 1906

Fredericksburg, Washington, Philadelphia and other American cities wanted him, but Annapolis, Maryland won hands down. Jones was soon to join life at Annapolis where naval cadets still say – everybody works around here except john Paul Jones. But first the coffin was draped in an American flag and given a formal farewell in the streets of Paris. It had been France, after all, that took John Paul Jones seriously. France had welcomed Jones when he left Portsmouth, New Hampshire in November 1777 with 140 men from the Piscataqua region. Jones had dallied in Paris with Benjamin Franklin, socialized with other Masons, and had his likeness sculpted after his two famous raids on the British Isles. It had been France in 1778 that first saluted the Ranger's Grand Union flag as it passed the city of Brest – some say the earliest recognition of the American flag by a foreign power. And Jones had retreated again to Paris for his dying year.

After a grand procession through Paris, the coffin went first by train to Cherbourg, then by torpedo boat to the USS Brooklyn. The transatlantic crossing took 13 days and French ships joined the USS Maine and others making a total fleet of 11 military vessels.

Jones' coffin sat nearly a year at Annapolis until the next grand ceremony was held on April 24, 1906. Horace Porter told a crowd of 1,000 dignitaries the story of his discovery. The Governor of Maryland talked about the importance of Maryland. And President Theodore Roosevelt talked about his plans to build a giant fleet of Navy ships. In typical Roosevelt manner, the President announced that anyone who did not agree with his plans to increase the size of the US naval fleet, had no right to attend the funeral of John Paul Jones.

Biographer Morison noted wryly that, just as Congress had procrastinated over the creation of the first Navy, so they procrastinated over where to house the remains of Paul Jones. Roosevelt had built his great fleet, toured the world, built the Panama Canal, been replaced in office and World War I was looming before John Paul Jones got what he always wanted -- permanent honor and attention. In 1913 his coffin was finally placed in an ornate sepulchre beneath the chapel at Annapolis. The long strange trip was over.


Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. Revised. Originally published on in 1997. All rights reserved.

Key Sources: (1) John Paul Jones, US Official Commemorative Book (11,000 limited edition), US Government Printing Office 1907; (2) John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little Brown & Co., 1959

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