From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Legendary Continental Navy Capt. John Paul Jones was famous for his retort, “I have not yet begun to fight,” upon being asked to surrender his sinking and burning Bonhomme Richard to HMS Serapis. At the end of the fight, it was Jones who was victorious.
Jones struggled to find relevancy following the end of the American Revolution, with a less-than-stellar stint as an admiral in the Russian Imperial Navy. He begged the United States to give him an appointment, but that young republic had disbanded its navy. When he died in 1792 of lung and liver diseases, he was jobless and nearly penniless, buried and forgotten. Yet more than one hundred years later, the thrice-buried Jones would rise – and rise again – putting sort of an after-life twist on his famous quote: “I have not yet begun to be buried.”
Following the naval hero’s death at age 45, it fell to the American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, to figure out what to do with the Scottish native who had fought so bravely for American independence. Unfortunately, Morris barely tolerated Jones. He was afraid the cost of the funeral would fall on his shoulders so he left instructions with Jones’ landlord that Jones was to be buried as inexpensively as possible.
A local politician, M. Pierre François Simonneau, could not bear to have the former naval hero buried like a pauper; he ensured Jones received a funeral befitting his status. Simonneau believed that one day the body of Jones would be returned to the United States so he arranged to have the body preserved in alcohol and placed in a lead coffin. Jones was buried in a Protestant cemetery at a total cost of 462 francs.
Luckily for Jones, his legend and fame outlived him. John H. Sherburne published the earliest biography (1851) of the naval hero: “The Life and Character of John Paul Jones.” He tried to find Jones’ body for a year and finally gave up the search.
In 1897, Brig. Gen. Horace Porter, a former Civil War officer and the American ambassador to France, hired historians and researchers and spent his own money to find Jones’ cemetery and the grave.
Six years later, Porter’s team located the cemetery, which had been closed for many years and had mostly turned into an overgrown pet cemetery. Porter employed dozens of workmen who sank shafts and dug trenches looking for the relatively-rare lead coffins. The workmen found three lead coffins, the first two being unidentified civilians, and then the third being a well-preserved corpse.
In what would be fitting for a 19th century episode of CSI Paris, Porter hired anthropologists and France’s foremost pathologist to make the formal identification. They discovered the body had been preserved with alcohol and they noted the long hair was brown, with a touch of gray and was covered in a linen cap monogrammed with the letters “P” and “J”.
Additionally, the investigators compared the head to that of a bust of Jones, which had been made using calipers and rulers to obtain the exact measurements of Jones’s facial features. The ear lobes were also compared to those on the bust for even further accuracy. The pathologist concluded that the body in the casket was indeed the one Porter had been seeking.
John Paul Jones’ body was then placed back in the lead coffin, which in turn was put into a mahogany casket for transit back to the Unites States on board USS Brooklyn following a French-American funeral procession. After arriving at Annapolis in July 1905, the casket was transferred to the tug USS Standish and taken ashore to the U.S. Naval Academy where it was placed in a brick vault at the Academy’s Bancroft Hall.
President Theodore Roosevelt gave the eulogy for Jones during an April 24, 1906 commemorative ceremony. Roosevelt, ever the politician, used the pulpit as an opportunity to announce the expansion of the Navy. The grand ceremony was attended by thousands, a far cry from Jones’ first internment.
It wouldn’t, however, be his last.
Gen. Porter, who had been awarded $35,000 to reimburse him for his costs in finding the naval hero’s body, requested it be applied to the cost of a marble crypt for Jones’ final re-burial in January 1913.