January 26th, 1913
The body of John Paul Jones is interred at the U. S. Naval Academy.
Almost a full century ago, the body of John Paul Jones, recently discovered in a Parisian cemetery, reached its final resting place in an ornate crypt on the campus of the U. S. Naval Academy. Fifty years after the discovery of his remains, the July 1955 issue of Proceedings printed a an article about the search for and identification of Jones’ body, written by a freelance writer, Dorothy Tooker. In her article, Tooker told the story of restoring the American naval hero to his rightful tomb, from the challenges of finding his body in Paris, to the task of identifying his remains after they had been discovered in an unmarked coffin. For John Paul Jones, whose mystery endured almost 113 years after his death, this story of his return to the United States makes a fitting end.
The breeze blew cold through the tunnel, and the smell of damp from its earthen walls permeated the men’s nostrils. At the bend in the passageway the grave gentlemen in derby hats halted while workmen dragged an old leaden coffin into the passageway. It was outmoded, tapered at the foot with a widened, rounded projection at the head, and encrusted with dirt and mold from long burial.
Awkwardly, but with reverence, one of the laborers lighted a half dozen candles and placed them at the head of the coffin, and the workmen quickly pried up the lid. The flickering light of the candles touched fitfully the sealed box, the shored-up walls, and the handsome, anxious face of the leader of the group. As the coffin lid was lifted off he eagerly stepped forward, and with the help of another man removed the linen winding sheet from the head and chest of the corpse within. There was a moment of suspense before the well-preserved face was exposed. Instinctively, every man leaned close. In the flare of the wavering candle light they silently compared the dead face to that inscribed in a medal held near the coffin. Then, to a man, they suddenly straightened up and exclaimed in awe and satisfaction, “Paul Jones!”
“And all those who had gathered about the coffin removed their hats, feeling that they were standing in the presence of the illustrious dead—the object of the long search.” So wrote General Horace Porter, United States Ambassador to France, who had devoted six years to locating and returning to America her first naval hero. The quest started quietly enough in June, 1899, when Horace Porter began pouring over old records. It was common knowledge that John Paul Jones had died in Paris on July 18, 1792, but his death and burial certificates were burned during revolutionary disturbances. An incorrect transcript caused Porter a great deal of useless investigation, but eventually a correct copy was found in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Made in 1859 by one Charles Read, it was included in an article he had published in the magazine Correspondance Litterare. Through this it was determined that Jones was buried in the old cemetery for foreign Protestants. Read expressed the opinion that this was the then-abandoned cemetery of St. Louis located on a street called L’Hôpital St. Louis, later changed to Grange-aux-Belles. St. Martin’s cemetery had also been used for foreign Protestants, but was closed in 1762, after which no burials were made there, a fact laboriously ascertained by Porter because of the suspicious adjective “anciens” in the description of Jones’s resting place. In 1762 St. Louis was opened, and became the established graveyard until closed in 1793. Some interments, however, were made after that date. Some months and several hundred publications later, Porter verified the fact that at the time of Jones’s death, St. Louis was the only place of burial for foreign Protestants in the city of Paris.
Somewhere in this mountain of records and documents General Porter discovered a letter stating that Jones’s funeral expenses, 462 francs, had been paid by M. Simonneau, commissary of the section. “This,” wrote Porter, “brought to light the mortifying fact that the hero who had once been the idol of the American people had been buried by charity, and that the payment of his funeral expenses was the timely and generous act of a foreign admirer.” That the interment was deemed important and of only a temporary nature was suggested in a letter from Jones’s friend Colonel Blackenden: “His body was put in a leaden coffin on the 20th, that, in case the United States, which he had so essentially served and with so much honor, should claim his remains, they might more easily be removed.”
M . Paul Henri Marron, pastor of the Church of St. Louis, had delivered Jones’s funeral oration, but when his church record book was located, four pages covering the time in question were missing. They were traced to the collection of M. Coquerel, a deceased gentleman whose heirs had disposed of his collection. These pages had been purchased by the Society of the History of Protestantism in whose archives they were finally located. Through them General Porter was assured that M. Marron buried his parishioners in the St. Louis cemetery, and because Jones’s burial was not especially noted it seemed safe to assume that there had been no irregularities, and that he was probably buried in St. Louis.
Although this cemetery was legally closed in January 1793, it was next necessary to determine whether any disinterments had occurred. Records registered no removals of bodies before 1803 or after 1830, data for the intervening years having been destroyed. A search through voluminous city records revealed that during those three decades no bodies had been received from that cemetery. General Porter then concluded that, barring grave robbery, the remains of John Paul Jones lay in the cemetery of St. Louis.
During the century following Jones’s death, the cemetery of St. Louis had been graded up some two yards. Above, was a fifteen-foot dump pile in which dead dogs and horses had been buried, surmounted by several cheap buildings. Word of General Porter’s investigations leaked out, and before he could make arrangements for excavations, a great land boom occurred. So preposterous were the terms offered that Porter withdrew for over two years. At the end of that time he succeeded in obtaining reasonable options and wired Theodore Roosevelt, then President, of the offers. With characteristic enthusiasm Roosevelt asked the Congress to appropriate $35,000 to finance Porter’s project. Typically, Congress immediately adjourned. Fearing that the options might not be renewed later, and the opportunity might be lost forever, Porter continued at his own expense.
Excavations were started on Friday, February 3, 1905. At the time of Jones’s death only those of means or importance were buried in metal caskets, and through the years wooden boxes had disintegrated; so it was not until February 1st that the first intact coffin was unearthed. It was leaden, and its copper name plate crumbled as it was brought to light. Having given instructions to be summoned at the discovery of a lead coffin, General Porter hurried to the cemetery whence he took the fragmented name plate to a firm of engraving experts. While excavations continued, it was deciphered and read, “M. E. Anglois, 20 de Mai 1890 Ans.” The second lead coffin was found on March 25th, and was complete with a legible name plate reading “Richard Hay, Esq., died in Paris the 26th day of January 1785.” It was on March 31st that the mummy coffin without a name plate was discovered, and seven days later that it was opened inside the tunnel. The middle of its lid had been pierced by a pick, and the aperture was caked with black, hard dirt. The name plate had either been stolen, perhaps as a souvenir by the man whose pick had broken the lid, or was lacking because of the scarcity of engravers at the height of violence of the French Revolution during which Jones died. The coffin was located in a section near a wall, known to have been reserved for important people. Two more leaden coffins were found on April 11th and 18th, the first engraved with “Cygit Georges Maidison . . . ,” the second with no inscription, but bearing the remains of a man over six feet—much taller than Jones. In all, 80 feet of shafts, 800 feet of galleries, and 600 feet of soundings were made. At the end of the investigations, all were filled in and the bodies of all but John Paul Jones reinterred.
The night following the tentative, subterranean identification of John Paul Jones, the body was quietly moved to the autopsy room of the famous Paris School of Medicine where it was minutely examined by three of Paris’s most famous scientists, Drs. Louis Capitan, Georges Papillault, and Georges Hervé, all of the Paris School of Anthropology. There on the autopsy table, 113 years after Jones’s death, was performed one of the strangest post-mortems and trickiest pieces of detective work in the annals of medicine.
It was quick work to verify that the approximate age and hair coloring of the corpse were the same as Jones’s. In addition, the brown hair, just over thirty inches long and covered with a cloth bag, had been arranged in an intricate style exactly duplicated on the latest sculptured bust of the Admiral. The height of the corpse, lying down, was 171 cm.; that of Jones, standing, 170 cm. A sculptured bust by Houdon representing him in uniform was carefully compared with the corpse and the similarity was strikingly proved by photographs still extant as well as by testimony of witnesses. Of the bust, Dr. Papillault said, “The head is energetic and the pose that of one commanding. It is plain that the artist is copying life. . . . Every wrinkle of the skin is reproduced. You feel that it is a likeness.” He then compared anthropological measurements of the bust and corpse, all of which were startlingly like, several actually coinciding. Through statistics based on other extensive research, Dr. Papillault demonstrated that the probability of obtaining such results at random was almost impossible. As a clincher, he pointed out the odd shape of the ear lobe present on both bust and corpse. The fact that the corpse wore only a linen shirt under the shroud corresponded with Buell’s statement that Jones “was buried in a shroud, without uniform or trappings of any kind.”
All externals tending to confirm the hope that the body was that of John Paul Jones, an autopsy was performed. The official certificate of burial stated that Jones died of dropsy of the chest. The fluid (or dropsy) present was due to chronic kidney trouble, easily diagnosed by doctors from symptoms described by Colonel Blackenden in his August 9, 1792, letter to Jones’s sister. Of his terminal illness, Blackenden said he “was not in good health for about a year, but had not been so unwell as to keep house. For two months past he began to lose his appetite, to grow yellow and show signs of the jaundice. For this he took medicine, and seemed to grow better; but about ten days before his death his legs began to swell, which increased upwards, so that two days before his exit he could not button his waistcoat, and had great difficulty in breathing.” In addition, he was troubled with a heavy cough.
Those, then, were the Admiral’s symptoms. The following is quoted from Dr. Capitan’s autopsy report of the unknown corpse from St. Louis cemetery. “The impression derived from this autopsy was, first, the astonishing preservation of the viscera, which had enabled one to make so very clear an autopsy 113 years after the death of the subject. . . . The only (lung) lesions one could locate were small rounded masses . . . which correspond to small patches of bronchopneumonia. This fact agrees well with what we know of the disease of Paul Jones, who, after his sojourn in Russia, coughed a great deal and to such an extent that he could not speak at the session of the National Assembly where he was received. . . . As to the kidneys, the sections presented the appearance, very clearly, of chronic interstitial nephritis. . . . This verification was of the highest importance. It gave the key to the various pathological symptoms presented by Paul Jones at the close of life—emaciation and consumptive condition, and especially a considerable swelling, which from the feet gained completely the nether limbs, then the abdomen. . . . All the affections are often observed at the close of chronic interstitial nephritis. It can therefore be said that we possess microscopic proof that Paul Jones died of a chronic renal (kidney) affection, of which he had shown symptoms toward the close of his life. In a word . . . I reach this very clear and well-grounded conclusion, namely, that the corpse of which we have made a study is that of Paul Jones.”
The final verdict was rendered with due joy and solemnity. The corpse was pronounced to be that of John Paul Jones. Happily, General Porter wrote, “Twelve French or American persons took part in the identification, and after six days passed in the application of every conceivable test, their affirmative verdict was positive and unanimous and was formally certified to under the official seals of their respective departments, as may be seen from their reports filed with the Government, both in Washington and in Paris.”
The result of the discovery was quick and spectacular. A squadron of four warships under Rear Admiral C. D. Sigsbee, USN, was dispatched to convey the Admiral on his final cruise. On July 6, 1905, the anniversary of Jones’s birthday, a ceremony was held in Paris, where General Porter delivered the body to the government of the United States. After a solemn procession down the Champs-Elysées, the body, restored to its original coffin, and encased in a second, was taken aboard the Brooklyn, flagship of the squadron.
Back in America, John Paul Jones was appropriately laid to rest at the United States Naval Academy. The remains were first placed in a brick vault, later transferred to a Bancroft Hall location, and finally in 1913 Jones reached his final resting place in the impressive crypt beneath the Naval Academy chapel. There tens of thousands of Naval Academy visitors have viewed the great sarcophagus which is most assuredly one of America’s leading shrines.