Who's inside academy tomb?

Revolution hero's remains questioned

April 23, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

A hundred years ago tomorrow, President Theodore Roosevelt, along with a host of Cabinet members, congressmen and officials from the French and American navies, hosted one of the grandest events Annapolis has ever seen: the state funeral of John Paul Jones.

Thousands filled the streets, eager for a good seat near the U.S. Naval Academy armory, where amid somber music, dignitary after dignitary paid tribute to Jones' heroism.

Ever since, Jones - considered the father of the American Navy and a Revolutionary War hero - has been entombed at the military college. His remains are guarded to this day by midshipmen in the basement of the chapel, the first stop for many of the 1 million tourists who visit the campus each year.

But Adam Goodheart, interim director of American Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, has posed a troubling question for the academy: Does the crypt really hold Jones' embalmed body, or were his remains left behind in a desecrated Parisian cemetery, perhaps even used to fertilize a garden?

In this month's issue of Smithsonian magazine, Goodheart explores the history of how the body was found and declared to be that of the legendary sailor who, when asked to surrender during a sea battle, cried, "I have not yet begun to fight!" In that 1779 battle, he went on to capture the larger British frigate.

"The great man's remains had only recently been returned to these shores, rescued from an unmarked grave in a foreign land - a discovery that was hailed, on two continents, as a triumph," Goodheart wrote. "Yet even at the time, there were whispers that the cadaver brought home in glory might be the wrong one. The whispers have never been completely silenced."

Given that several of Jones' family members are buried in the U.S. and that the academy has a lock of hair alleged to be his, Goodheart asks: Why not perform a DNA test?

Academy officials, pointing to extensive work by a team of French anthropologists conducted when the body was found 100 years ago, have rebuffed Goodheart's suggestion.

"We have no plans to disturb the remains of John Paul Jones by conducting DNA testing," said Deborah Goode, academy spokeswoman. "Speculation alone is not a reasonable cause for us to disturb the dignity and sanctity of the sarcophagus."

Last year, the academy completed a $920,000 renovation project on the tomb, cleaning and polishing the surfaces of the crypt and installing a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for better preservation.

Exhuming bodies at disputed gravesites has become more common in the age of DNA testing, including the high-profile cases of outlaw Jesse James in 1995 and legal wrangling over digging up the bodies of American West explorer Meriwether Lewis, Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and Billy the Kid.

Jones' legend prompted the initial search for his body. Raised in poverty in Scotland, he won renown for taking the Revolutionary War to British shores, repeatedly scoring victories with smaller ships. His ambitions still unmet, he went on to serve as rear admiral in the Russian navy but left in disgrace amid allegations that he raped a 12-year-old girl. Jones retired to Paris, where he died in 1792 at the age of 45.

According to Goodheart's account, the search for Jones spanned half a decade and was conducted by Gen. Horace Porter, a Civil War hero and the American ambassador to France. Bolstered by Roosevelt, a longtime supporter of the Navy, Porter hired researchers who located the gravesite in northeastern Paris. It had long since closed, and several shops and houses were built on it.

Delayed a few years by Frenchmen eager to "milk the rich American for all he was worth," Goodheart wrote, a team finally dug up the gravesite in February 1905 and found five lead coffins, one of which was said to hold Jones. Upon examining them, only two lacked nameplates. One of the men inside was far too tall, but the second measured close to Jones' supposed height of 5-foot-7.

French anthropologists examined the cadaver, performed an autopsy and compared the body's features to existing portraits and sculptures completed before Jones died of kidney failure. After the examinations, the body was declared to be Jones'.

Goodheart said in an interview that he is "agnostic" on the question of whether the crypt holds Jones. He was struck in his research by Porter's zeal to find the body and some contradictions in statements he made about how his expectations compared with the results of the excavation. There was a lot of political pressure, as well, and after the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt might have seen the propaganda value in finding Jones' body and bringing it home to great fanfare.

"The single most startling thing I discovered about it was the fact that the secretary of the Navy was not satisfied and wanted to do an independent investigation, and that was quashed for political reasons," Goodheart said.

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