It is possible that the axiom “all good things come to those who wait” could not be more applicable to any historic Navy figure than John Paul Jones, a Scotland-born Sailor who rose to fame as a captain in the Continental Navy of the United States, widely considered one of the founders of the U.S. Navy.
After languishing for 113 years in a virtually unmarked grave paved over by a Paris laundry, this legendary naval leader was found, reclaimed by the U.S., and now lays in an ornate sarcophagus styled after French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
C’est la vie!
Jones’ crypt is not as large as the famed French emperor, but they share the same center-placed sarcophagus surrounded on the perimeter by marble columns.
Designed by Beaux Arts architect Whitney Warren, the French sculptor Sylvain Salieres crafted the sarcophagus and columns out of black and white Great Pyrenees marble. The top is garnished with garlands of bronze sea plants, while the sarcophagus itself is held aloft on the backs of four bronze dolphins.
Surrounding the sarcophagus, etched in the marble floor and then inset in brass, are the names of the Continental Navy ships commanded by Jones during the American Revolution: Providence, Alfred, Ranger, Bonhomme Richard, Serapis, Alliance and Ariel.
In between the eight columns that form the perimeter of the crypt are American national ensigns (flags) and Union Jacks.
In the periphery of the circular space surrounding the sarcophagus are niches displaying historic objects related to Jones’ life and naval career, which include an original marble copy of the Houdon portrait bust, a gold medal awarded to Jones by Congress in 1787, the gold-hilted presentation sword given to Jones by Louis XVI of France, and Jones’ commission as captain, Continental (U.S.) Navy, signed by John Hancock.
And also inlaid in brass is this inscription:
JOHN PAUL JONES, 1747-1792; U.S. NAVY, 1775-1783.
HE GAVE OUR NAVY ITS EARLIEST TRADITIONS OF HEROISM AND VICTORY.
ERECTED BY THE CONGRESS, A.D. 1912.
Perhaps Congress giving itself credit for the sarcophagus might have been a bit overreaching. But there is a plaque that does give nod to the man who brought John Paul Jones home: Brevet Gen. Horace Porter, a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate and close friend of Ulysses Grant. When work on Grant’s Tomb stopped due to lack of money, it was Porter who kept the project rolling with his fundraising efforts. A large audience was in attendance when the monument on Riverside Drive in New York was dedicated April 27, 1897.
And so with work finished on Grant’s Tomb, Porter jumped into a similar mission when he was appointed as ambassador to France in 1897: Find and bring back the body of naval hero John Paul Jones.
Porter spent the next six years researching and funding the investigation to determine where Jones had been buried. Records revealed Jones was likely buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery for Foreign Protestants, but it had been paved over.
Congress agreed to pay $35,000 for the excavation, but rather than waiting for the funds to be released, Porter paid for the work himself. The body was found almost perfectly preserved in an alcohol-filled lead coffin within a wooden coffin. That was done because when he died in 1792 Jones’ friends believed the U.S. would eventually bring the body back to America.
By the time Porter was convinced through autopsy and other records that he had found John Paul Jones, it was 1905. Naval enthusiast President Theodore Roosevelt used repatriating Jones’ remains as an opportunity to show off his growing naval power.
On July 6, 1905, to commemorate the 158th year of Jones’ birth, his remains were led by military escort through the streets of Paris and taken by torpedo boat to USS Brooklyn which, along with a squadron of warships, brought Jones’ body back to America, 113 years after his death.
Roosevelt deemed Jones’ final resting place to be the U.S. Naval Academy’s chapel which was being built on its Annapolis, Md., campus. Jones’ body was placed in a temporary vault until his final crypt was finished.
April 24, 1906 was chosen for the formal commemorative exercises of John Paul Jones’ re-internment because it was the anniversary of Jones’ famous 1778 capture of the British warship Drake.
Held at the Naval Academy, Roosevelt presided over the ceremony, using it as an opportunity to not only recognize the “memory of the dead hero” whose “indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death” should be emulated by future naval officers, but also to push his agenda on the need to build ships in time of peace to prepare for future need.
He evoked the image of the British burning Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812 as he thundered: “The sin of the invaders in burning the buildings is trivial compared with the sin of our own people in failing to make ready an adequate force to defeat the attempt.”
In case that message didn’t get through, he added “Let us remember our own shortcomings and see to it that the men in public life today are not permitted to bring about a state of things by which we should in effect invite a repetition of such a humiliation.”
After this ceremony, Jones was placed back into the vault to await the designing and sculpting of his final resting place. During this period of time, Roosevelt completed building his Great White Fleet, launched it on its 2-year circumnavigation of the world, and oversaw the building and completion of the Panama Canal and left office.
Finally, on Jan. 26, 1913, John Paul Jones was entombed within the 21-ton ornate marble and bronze sarcophagus. Considered a pirate by the British, a rogue by the Russians, and nearly forgotten by America, John Paul Jones had risen yet again from obscurity to lay in splendor for eternity as the Sailor who gave the modern U.S. Navy many of its traditions.