Some of the stories around the American Revolution almost have the ring of tall tale legend to them. One of these was that when John Paul Jones came under fire from the British on the High Seas, they demanded that he surrender. Outmanned and outgunned, he supposedly said: I have not yet begun to fight.
His life makes for interesting stories, but what happened to John Paul Jones after he died is just as interesting.
In a pickle
After the American Revolution, John Paul Jones served the Russians under Catherine the Great before returning to Paris to once again work with the Americans. Before he could take up his post – negotiating for the freedom of Americans taken prisoner by Algerian Pirates – he died face down in his bed from kidney failure.
At the time, France was in the midst of the revolution. Although the French king had yet to be deposed, he and the rest of the aristocracy weren’t very popular.
In this turbulent time, The American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris (no relation to me) didn’t want to draw attention with an elaborate public funeral. So he asked Jones’s landlord to bury him quietly for as little as possible.
But the commissary whom they applied to for a burial permit was a fan of Jones. So he offered to pay Jones’s funeral. For a charity funeral in revolutionary France, the commissary paid a princely sum: 462 francs. Approximately three times the cost of an average funeral.
With this fee, the commissary paid for an expensive lead coffin, and a large quantity of alcohol. The alcohol essentially pickled Jones’s body, just in case the Americans might ever want to come get it.
113 years later, the Americans finally decided to do just that.
The Bored Ambassador
Horace Porter was as close to American aristocracy as one came to in 1897. His grandfather had been a colonel in the American Revolution, and a founding member of the society of Cincinatti. His father had been a Governer of Pennsylvania.
Horace had an Ivy League education, followed by a distinguished military career. He served under Grant in the Civil war. Robert E. Lee borrowed his pencil to make notes on his terms of surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. He was invited by President Lincolon to attend the play at Ford’s theatre in the presidential box (Mary Todd Lincolon was his cousin), but he declined. (He did a lot of other astounding things, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t touch on them. Look him up!)
In 1897, president McKinley appointed him as America’s first full ambassador to France. As a foreigner in a strange country, he no doubt needed something to fill the hours in between state dinners, signing paperwork and reading dispatches. So when he realized John Paul Jones was buried in Paris, he decided to visit the grave. (Horace had been the driving force behind finishing Grant’s tomb – and presumably he knew firsthand that grant was buried there).
Except, there was no grave.
When Jones was buried, his few friends in predominantly catholic, Revolutionary France put him in a cemetery for Protestant foreigners. Then they failed to properly fill out the paperwork.
At the time, the land was the property of the crown. Sometime later, the French government sold the land. It became a vegetable garden, then a place for animal fighting matches. And a dumping ground. Now the cemetery had a grocery store, laundry and apartments on the land, as well as several wells.
All Horace Porter had to go on was information in a letter sent to Jones’s family. It took him six years to find the property. Then the owners wanted to charge him to dig for the body, figuring that the wealthy US government would pay. Eventually, Teddy Roosevelt stepped in, securing funds from congress.
Workers had to excavate the cemetery working underground – below the buildings. The work was hot and gruesome. Workers eventually uncovered five lead coffins. The third of which was the best made. This one proved to be Jones’s. When workers removed the lead, they discovered that the body was so well preserved that the face was still recognizable. Morticians made a positive ID by comparing the corpse to a life-sized bust of Jones. **
The Second Funeral
John Paul Jones died a sad, ignoble death. Most of his friends gave him the brush off. He died alone and few people went to the funeral.
By contrast, his second funeral would put the more recent funeral of Richard III to shame. France accorded him full military honors and an escort across the ocean to America. There multiple cities argued over the right to inter him. Eventually he was laid to rest in Annapolis, Maryland. There president Theodore Roosevelt eulogized him.
And at long last, a man who is considered by many to be one of the fathers of the U.S. navy was laid to rest at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.
And in a strange twist of karma, Gouverneur Morris also died ignobly – from internal injuries after trying to clear his urinary tract with a piece of whalebone. He’s buried in an easy to find grave at St. Ann’s church in the Bronx.
** you can actually see photos of his preserved body online if you Google them. It’s no more graphic than a photo of a mummy in a National Geographic article. But I won’t post them here, just in case there are kids, or people eating, or kids eating.