In a softly lit crypt beneath the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy, a massive sarcophagus of veined marble rests on the backs of four bronze dolphins. At a respectful distance from the tomb, two midshipmen with gleaming swords stand vigil over a body and a mystery nearly as old as our country itself.
One hundred years ago, on April 24, 1906, amid pomp and fanfare the likes of which Annapolis had never seen, an American president laid to rest a national hero who had died more than a century before. 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. 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.
The stillness of the crypt is broken by the voice of a tour guide in Colonial costume. "John Paul Jones was truly a hero," she says. "He never lost a battle—came close, but he never lost." She tells the story of how he received the first salute offered by a foreign power to an American naval vessel, and how, in 1779, at the helm of the Bonhomme Richard, he captured the British frigate HMS Serapis even as his own ship sank beneath him—uttering the defiant cry, "I have not yet begun to fight!" She mentions his legendary good looks, his popularity with the ladies. "Jones died a relatively young man, at the age of 45," she says as she leads her group toward the exit.
She doesn't mention that a significant chapter of Jones' story began only with his death, and that it was more eventful than many people's lives.
In the spring of 1905, in a cramped, fetid tunnel beneath a working-class neighborhood of Paris, a group of men gathered around a battered coffin. Several of them were well dressed, in dark frock coats and bowler hats; others, in grimy, patched clothing, held picks and shovels. By the light of candles flickering around the head of the coffin, the men watched as its heavy lid was carefully removed. A sharp alcoholic odor arose, and the candlelight illuminated cloth and straw. Clearing away the wrapping, the men stared into the face of the corpse. "Paul Jones!" someone exclaimed, and all present solemnly removed their hats.
It was an especially satisfying moment for one of those frock-coated gentlemen: Gen. Horace Porter, the United States ambassador to France, for whom the discovery was the culmination of a tireless six-year quest.
Porter, too, was an American war hero. He had won the Medal of Honor at Chickamauga in 1863 and become one of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite aides-de-camp, even standing at the Union commander’s side when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. When—after arriving in Paris in 1897—Porter learned that Jones' body had lain for more than a century in a forgotten grave somewhere beneath the city, he embarked on finding it in 1899 with the stamina of a veteran campaigner.
Over the years, other Americans had come to Paris in search of Jones, but had been thwarted by a lack of documents. The French records of his death and burial in 1792 had been destroyed in a fire; one searcher, in the 1850s, regretfully concluded that the hero’s bones had probably ended up in the vast Paris catacombs, lost forever among millions of anonymous skeletons. But through persistence and luck, Porter found an article with a transcript of the burial record. The article attested that Jones had been interred in the Cimetière St.-Louis, a small graveyard reserved for foreign-born Protestants.
But the cemetery itself seemed to have vanished. Finally, researchers hired by Porter unearthed old maps that located it along the rue Grange aux Belles in northeastern Paris. When Porter first visited the spot, he was appalled. The graveyard had apparently been closed shortly after Jones' burial, filled in, and built upon. The naval hero now lay somewhere beneath a laundry, a bric-a-brac shop, several ramshackle houses and a shed for the wagons of grain merchants. Amid these structures was a small, rubbish-strewn courtyard.
"Here," the ambassador later recalled, "was presented the spectacle of a hero whose fame once covered two continents...relegated to oblivion in a squalid quarter of a distant city, buried in ground once consecrated, but since desecrated by having been used at times as a garden, with the moldering bodies of the dead fertilizing its market vegetables, by having been covered later by a common dump pile, where dogs and horses had been buried, and the soil was still soaked with polluted water from undrained laundries, and, as a culmination of degradation, by having been occupied by a contractor for removing night soil."