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Home Is the Sailor

One hundred years ago this month, John Paul Jones was welcomed home with great fanfare at the U.S. Naval Academy. But was the body really his?

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Porter was determined to dig for the body at once, but one of his researchers conspired with local property owners to milk the rich American for all he was worth. "Fabulous prices" were demanded for the excavation rights, Porter wrote, and he ultimately had to "drop the matter entirely for a couple of years, to let the excitement subside."

Meanwhile, new impetus for the search was coming from the other side of the Atlantic, where Theodore Roosevelt had become president upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. T.R. was not just a lifelong naval history buff—he’d written his first book on the War of 1812 at sea—but had served as assistant secretary of the Navy and was an enthusiastic booster of the modern U.S. Navy, then basking in victories in the Spanish-American War. He immediately saw the propaganda value in a Jones resurrection, and let Porter know that if he wished to resume his quest, the federal government would pick up the bill.

Digging at the rue Grange aux Belles finally began in February 1905. Since the buildings there were not to be demolished, laborers had to dig shafts by hand, shoring them up with timbers as they went and hauling dirt to the surface with buckets and ropes. Almost immediately, they found what was left of the cemetery: reeking, viscous black soil studded with thousands of human bones—and sickeningly alive with enormous red worms. The men worked quickly. Photographs kept by Porter show piles of earth and cobblestones rising next to the laundry and the bric-a-brac shop and, down in the tunnels, skulls jumbled underfoot among heaps of bricks.

The workmen were looking for a leaden coffin: an old letter from an American acquaintance of Jones' who had been in Paris when the captain died said Jones had been buried in one, to preserve his remains in case America ever wished to reclaim them. After two and a half weeks of digging, they unearthed such a coffin, and newspapers reported that Jones had been found—until, the next day, a corroded nameplate on the casket revealed that it contained someone else. Over the next several weeks, other lead coffins would turn up, each bearing an unJonesian name or containing a skeleton of the wrong dimensions.

But, on the last day of March, a lead casket with no nameplate—and of superior workmanship—was found. It was opened in Porter's presence a week later to reveal a body in exceptional condition, apparently because the coffin had been filled with alcohol as a preservative before burial. The corpse was that of a middle-aged man, dressed in a simple linen cap, ruffled shirt and shroud, with his waist-length dark hair gathered up at the neck. In photographs at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., even the stubble on his chin is visible. One eye appears half open, as if in an eternal wink.

Under cover of darkness, the cadaver was transported to Paris’s École de Médicine, where the city’s most eminent anthropologists could examine it. They took measurements, performed dissections and, as Porter, his aides and family hovered anxiously, compared the body with known portraits and descriptions of Jones. (Sixty years later, the ambassador's great-nephew recalled, with a shudder, being urged to hold the corpse’s "soft and pliable" hand.) At last, the scientists proclaimed their unanimous judgment: it was indeed the object of their quest. The linen cap even bore a monogram that looked like a "J" when held upright, and a "P" when upside down.

Ambassador Porter telegraphed Washington: "My six years' search for remains of Paul Jones has resulted in success."

But how could the body of America's greatest naval hero—a man who enjoyed worldwide fame in his own lifetime—have vanished for more than a century?

That chapter of the story begins in a very different quarter of Paris, along a fashionable Left Bank street called the rue de Tournon. The place today looks much as it must have in the summer of 1792: a row of sandstone facades, neat and formal as an 18th-century engraving, sloping gently toward the Luxembourg Palace. In a third-floor apartment toward the middle of the block, above what is now a rare-book shop, is the room where John Paul Jones died.

His career had taken several turns in the decade since America had won its independence from Britain. When the Revolutionary War ended and the Continental Navy disbanded, Jones found himself turned ashore without a command—an intolerable situation for a born sailor who loved, above all political allegiances, the mingled aromas of salt air and cannon smoke. Moreover, the Scottish-born captain had spent only a few years of his life in America ("the country of my fond election," as he called it) and always felt more at home in Europe. So Jones—rather to the embarrassment of some admirers—turned from serving the New World's fledgling republic to serving the Old World's most hardened despotism: he enlisted as rear admiral under Catherine the Great of Russia in her war against the Ottoman Turks. Within a year and a half, though, he left Russia precipitously, after having been implicated in a sexual scandal involving a 12-year-old girl (not the first time his libido had gotten him into trouble ashore). By 1790, Jones was in Paris, hoping that the Colonies' old ally Louis XVI—or perhaps the newly inaugurated President Washington, to whom he also sent an entreating letter—would favor him with a military command.

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