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?

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

Moreover, Porter appears to have relied, at least partly, on some seriously flawed evidence. While Hart and Biddle questioned the Jones biography that he used, the great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later showed it to be little more than a soufflé of "fictions and forgeries." Porter's researchers trusted it on such crucial facts as Jones' physical stature; Morison noted that "the description of Jones himself, especially his height of 5 ft. 7 inches, [was] a pure invention."

As for the weight Rogers accords the Houdon bust, art historians say that no one should assume—as Porter did—that its measurements ought to match those of Jones' actual head. "Sculptors, especially great ones, don't usually obey the actual proportions," says Nicholas Penny, a senior curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art and an authority on Houdon. He suggests that even though Houdon was known to take measurements, and sometimes even life masks, of his portrait subjects (a central point in Rogers' argument), it may have been an element of showmanship as much as anything else.

Porter's documentary research, pinpointing the place and circumstances of Jones' burial, has been reconfirmed by later biographers. And Smithsonian physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, an expert on historic burials, notes that "it isn't common at all" to find 18th-century remains sealed in a lead coffin filled with alcohol: "I can imagine them doing something like that for a very prestigious individual, if they thought they might be transporting him to his original home."

Yet it bears pointing out that a cemetery set aside for foreign Protestants in Paris—which was, after all, Europe's most cosmopolitan capital in the 18th century—could have contained many such individuals. And while Porter, in his written accounts, insisted that his workmen dug and probed for lead coffins so thoroughly that they could not possibly have missed any, there is no independent proof that they did not. Certainly, the fact that the cemetery lay beneath a built-up city block suggests that they could not easily have explored it completely. Moreover, Rogers acknowledges that it is unfortunate that Porter seems to have made no photographs or sketches of important pieces of evidence, such as the supposed monogram on the linen cap.

One last possible means of proof has not been pursued—and perhaps never will be.

In a dingy display case in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, a stone’s throw from Jones' crypt, sits a gold-framed miniature portrait of the man painted circa 1780 by an admiring Frenchwoman. On its reverse side, surrounding the entwined initials "JPJ," is a plaited brown circlet: a lock of Jones' hair. If the sarcophagus were ever opened, could the DNA of the hair be compared with the DNA of the corpse?

"It's a fascinating thought," says James Cheevers, the museum's senior curator, when I suggest this. Still, he's not optimistic that such testing will come to pass, especially given Jones' status among academy alumni: "I'm sure the superintendent of the Naval Academy wouldn't extend that permission without going to the highest levels of the Navy, and perhaps even beyond, considering the reverence involved."

Nikki Rogers, however, lights up at the suggestion. "I'd love to find out," she says. "But then again, he deserves his rest. He’s been through a lot."

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus