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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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Several years later, art historians Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle published the most thorough attack yet on Porter's methods. They revealed that one of the two life busts of Jones by Jean Antoine Houdon that the French scientists had used for comparison with the corpse was not a portrait of Jones at all. As for the other, indisputably genuine bust, Porter's team had made much of the fact that its dimensions almost precisely fit the corpse's—perhaps too much, since Houdon was an artist, not an anatomist, and would not necessarily have strived for an exact match. Moreover, Hart and Biddle questioned the accuracy of the biography of Jones from which Porter had drawn his physical descriptions.

When journalists showed up at Porter's doorstep asking for a response—he had returned by then to New York City—he at first refused to comment, then gave a terse rebuttal to Hart and Biddle's points. Meanwhile, another writer suggested sarcastically that the tomb of the “unknown French gentleman” in Annapolis should bear the following inscription, in parody of Shakespeare’s famous epitaph:

Good friend, for Porter's sake, forbear
To doubt the dust inclosed here.
Blest be the man that got these bones,
And curst be he that says "'tain't Jones."

One afternoon not long ago, I made my way through the streets of Paris toward rue Grange aux Belles. I knew that the rue de Tournon house where Jones had died was still intact, but I had no idea what I would find at the spot where he spent the next hundred years.

The first signs were encouraging. The little street still rises in a lazy uphill curve, reminiscent of the country road it had been in 1792. And as in 1905, the quarter remains unfashionable, with office-supply shops, cheap jazz bars and florists specializing in plastic funeral wreaths. My hopes lifted even higher as I recognized the somber gray bulk of the 17th-century Hôpital St.-Louis on my right.

Then I rounded the curve and saw the site of numbers 43, 45 and 47. The corner bar across the street was still intact, exactly as I’d glimpsed it in some of Porter’s photographs—but the laundry, curiosity shop and wagon shed were gone, obliterated by a 12-story apartment building with an underground garage.

So if Horace Porter did get the wrong man, there is not much hope now that the right one could ever be found. The question is: How much faith should we have in his research, and in the forensic science of a century ago?

In 2004, Nikki Rogers, a physical anthropologist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, published a scholarly article on the identification techniques Porter's medical experts used. "As a scientist, I had to be open to the possibility that they were wrong," she says. But in her judgment, this part of the team's work still holds up. For instance, based on microscopically enlarged photos of the corpse's organ tissues, the scientists were correct in identifying kidney failure as a probable cause of death. That diagnosis squares with descriptions of Jones' final illness, as well as with the recurring tropical fever that he contracted in his youth.

And some of Porter's methods, such as superimposing a photo of the cadaver's head over one of the Houdon busts—were ahead of their time. "I've documented that this was the first use of photo-facial superimposition," Rogers says of a technique still widely practiced today. "There's not one misstep in the case," she maintains. "Everything matches."

Yet Porter’s surviving papers, most of which are in the Library of Congress, reveal some disturbing contradictions. For instance, in 1899, before excavations began, he proclaimed: "There is absolute proof that John Paul Jones was buried in a leaden coffin which undoubtedly bears a plate with his name." But in 1911 he told an interviewer: "I really did not expect to find any name plate, certainly not an engraved one, on John Paul Jones’ coffin."

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