A most impressive site at the United States Naval Academy is the crypt holding the body of America’s great Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones. Visited by thousands of people each year, it is an icon of both the Naval Academy and the United States Navy. How that crypt came to be is an interesting story.
Jones died alone and almost forgotten in Paris in 1792, where he was buried in an obscure cemetery that was later paved over. When in the early 1900’s President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to celebrate the emergence of the United States as a world-class naval power, he decided that the country should pay due honor to its first great naval hero.
The first step was to find the body. It took the American ambassador to France, Gen. Horace Porter, several months and much money to find Jones’ remains, which were finally located beneath a laundry on the outskirts of the city.
Once a careful comparison of the remarkably well-preserved corpse with a bust done of Jones by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1780 confirmed that the body was that of Jones, Roosevelt decided to return it to the United States with appropriate pomp and to demonstrate that the U.S. was fast becoming the world’s premiere naval power, as Jones had once predicted it would. Four cruisers brought the body to American waters where they were joined by eleven of the Navy’s finest battleships. This combined force steamed into Chesapeake Bay, where the body was unloaded and sent to Annapolis. Commemorative exercises were held there on 24 April 1906, with speeches by numerous dignitaries, including Roosevelt.
Then the process stalled. Congress was slow to appropriate money for a permanent resting place so the body remained on trestles in Bancroft Hall for seven years and irreverent midshipman were soon singing a parody of the popular song “Everybody Works but Father”:
Everybody works but John Paul Jones!
He lies around all day,
Body pickled in alcohol
On a permanent jag, they say.
Middies stand around him
Doing honor to his bones;
Everybody works in “Crabtown”
But John Paul Jones!
Not until 26 January 1913 was Jones’ body moved into its permanent resting place, the marble sarcophagus designed by Sylvain Salières and modeled after the tomb of Napoleon in the Invalides. It took a long time, but everyone must agree, they got it right in the end.