The last voyage of John Paul Jones

December 18, 1996|By Donald R. Morris

THE INTERNET'S Searoom continues to generate fascinating threads, a recent one on the return of Horatio Nelson's body to England after his death at Trafalgar.

Those who died at sea were customarily buried at sea, but Nelson had expressed a desire to be returned to England. He was consequently stuffed in a barrel, which was filled with rum; the barrel was lashed to the foot of the mainmast and a Marine sentry set on guard.

Trafalgar was followed by a frightful storm, and it was some time before HMS Victory reached England; on arrival it was found sailors had tapped the barrel and drained most of the rum -- known to this day in the fleet as ''Nelson's blood.'' (One wonders what happened to the marine sentries.)

Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who had commanded a ship under Nelson at Trafalgar, died off Minorca in 1810, and was also returned to the United Kingdom in a rum cask.

Someone wanted to know, hadn't John Paul Jones been returned to America in similar fashion? I was happy to answer; 40 years ago I'd written an article about that for Readers' Digest, which paid me a large sum -- and never ran the article.

After his immortal victory in Bonhomme Richard over HMS Serapis, the United States had no further use for Jones. He entered Russian service under Catherine the Great and defeated a Turkish fleet in the Black Sea, but then ran afoul of jealous courtiers, and had to flee Russia in the middle of the night to escape charges of raping an 11-year-old girl. He was more welcome in Paris; France had knighted him as a Chevalier (and later named a destroyer for him), but the French Revolution was well under way, and there was no work for him there either.

On 18 July, 1792, he dropped dead across his bed of what was then known as ''dropsy;'' he was only 45. Gouverneur Morris, head of the American legation (fearing he'd be stuck with the bill), ordered his landlord to bury him as quickly and cheaply as possible.

A pauper's grave

The French official responsible for burying foreign Protestants was stunned; it was inconceivable to him that America would leave its greatest naval hero to rot in a pauper's grave. He laid out 462 francs to have him packed in straw in a lead casket, which was filled with alcohol and sealed, and Jones was laid to rest in the St. Louis Cemetery for foreign Protestants (Gouverneur Morris didn't attend; he was hosting a dinner party that evening). No engraved name plate was attached; thanks to the turmoil in the city, all the silversmiths had prudently shuttered their shops.

Six months later the cemetery, in a poor part of town, was officially closed, and tenement houses subsequently were erected over the site. And there the matter -- and Jones -- rested for 110 years; his grave was regarded as ''lost.'' No one had any idea where it was.

In 1899 Gen. Horace Porter (who, incidentally, invented the ticket-punch) came to Paris as ambasador, and decided to see if he could find John Paul Jones -- at his own expense. Paris was filled with abandoned cemeteries; it took two years working through archives and libraries to determine that the St. Louis Cemetery was the only place Jones could have been buried, and then to work out just where it had been.

When he was ready to excavate (in a neighborhood Porter tactfully described as ''uninviting''), word leaked out, and the tenants and landlords jacked their prices; Porter was forced to wait two more years until the flap died down; he was then able to buy up the rights quietly.

They sank shafts and dug tunnels and found only five lead caskets among the hundreds of graves. (They also found a mass grave with the skeletons of the Swiss Guards killed defending the Tuileries three weeks after Jones died.) Four of the caskets were eliminated. They either had name plates, or, in one case, contained a body far too large to have been Jones.

The fifth casket bore no plate; it was taken to the School of Medicine, and a panel of doctors and anthropologists opened it. They were stunned; the body was perfectly preserved and life-like; the hair neatly coiled in a linen cap; even the fingers could be moved -- only the nose had been bent over by the pressure of the lid. The body was clothed only in a fine linen shirt, and the hair-cap was monogrammed with a letter that read ''J'' upright and ''P'' inverted.

Calipered Bertillon measurements (the ''fingerprint'' system of the time) matched exactly measurements from the famous Houdon bust. (Houdon was known for the pains he took getting his sculpted measurements accurate.) A police match of the measurements with their files eliminated all the 10,000 records they held. The height, 5 feet, 7 inches, matched Jones' exactly. The corpse bore no scars; Jones had never been wounded in action.

An autopsy (the internal organs were perfectly preserved) confirmed the deceased had died of interstitial nephritis -- Bright's disease, accounting exactly for the ''dropsy'' symptoms Jones had complained of at his death.

John Paul Jones had been found. He was carefully repacked in the original casket, which was enclosed in new silver-mounted one, and all Paris turned out as an elaborate military funeral cortege brought him to the train for Cherbourg, where USS Brooklyn and escorting cruisers were waiting to bring him home.

On April 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt presided over a ceremony at the Naval Academy to receive the casket, which afterward was put on sawhorses in the basement of Bancroft Hall. It stayed there seven years, until the new Academy chapel, with a magnificent marble crypt and sarcophagus, was completed. On January 26, 1913, the body of John Paul Jones finally came to rest.

Donald R. Morris syndicates a column from Houston.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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