The Resurrection of John Paul Jones

By Captain Patrick Grant, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The French had great respect for Jones’ contribution to preserving the freedoms so cherished in America and France. Only through the influence of two friends—American Colonel Samuel Blackden and Major Jean-Baptiste Beaupoil, a former aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette—did he receive a proper burial. Frustrated by the miserliness of Morris, Pierre-François Simonneau, the local precinct’s royal commissioner, agreed to pay for the interment.

As a display of religious tolerance in Catholic France, a delegation from the Legislative Assembly was selected to attend the Protestant funeral. Their presence lent irony to the affair, as Jones’ initial support for the French Revolution had turned to horror as its excesses began spinning out of control. Jones had admired and esteemed Louis XVI for the invaluable aid he had provided in support of the American struggle for independence. The king had awarded him the Order of Military Merit and the title chevalier (knight), presented him with a gold-hilted sword, and proclaimed him “the valiant avenger of the rights of the sea.” But by the time of Jones’ death, although France was technically a constitutional monarchy, Louis was a virtual figurehead.

The Legislative Assembly honored the naval hero with a military escort and procession. On 20 July the funeral cortege wound its way through the streets of Paris to the Saint Louis Cemetery, led by French grenadiers and followed by the Assembly deputation, representatives of the Protestant community, and Jones’ friends and acquaintances. Gouverneur Morris did not attend, sending instead a lower-level American attaché. In the distance, thunder and lightning provided a solemn aura to the journey, as Parisians lined the streets and hung out of windows in respectful silence as the funeral procession passed.

Within three weeks of the funeral, armed Revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis and his family were being held. Many of the 600 Swiss Guards who died defending the king, being Protestants, were tossed into a mass grave adjacent to Jones’ burial site.

A Frustrating Final Campaign

John Paul Jones’ presence in Paris is a story in itself. Following the American Revolution, he had become disenchanted with the unwillingness of the fledgling U.S. Congress to build the standing navy he passionately believed was necessary for the young nation’s defense. Restless in peacetime, Jones yearned to return to the sea and warfighting. Coincidentally, in early 1788 Russia’s ambassador in Paris contacted the naval officer’s friend Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to France, about Jones’ availability. Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, was waging a sea and land war against the Ottoman Empire and in dire need of naval expertise. Jones jumped at the opportunity.

After his arrival in St. Petersburg, Catherine bestowed on Pavel Ivanovich Dzones the rank of kontradmiral (rear admiral), an honor denied him by Congress for political reasons. The empress had him believe that he would command a fleet and operate independently against the Turks, but he was misled. During the 16 months he served with the Russian navy, Jones participated in two significant sea battles, each critical to the Russian effort to dominate the Black Sea and capture Constantinople. But his skill and courage during the Liman campaign were downplayed and disparaged by his ambitious Russian naval superiors.

Jones was recalled to St. Petersburg in late 1788 with the expectation of being given command of the Baltic fleet, but during the trip north he aggravated an existing lung condition that resulted in a severe case of pneumonia from which he never fully recovered. On his arrival in the capital, the admiral became a victim of politics and intrigue at the Russian court and the expressed hatred of British naval officers serving the empress. He left St. Petersburg in August 1789 in the wake of an alleged sexual scandal concocted by his enemies. After wandering from Warsaw to Vienna, Amsterdam, and London, he retreated to Paris in 1790, where he spent his last years in failing health, awaiting recall to service by Empress Catherine or President George Washington.

Years earlier Jones had written Secretary of State John Jay of his concern for American seamen captured by the dey of Algiers. His willingness to lead a fleet of American warships against Algiers had resulted in the dey posting a handsome reward for anyone who would bring him the head of John Paul Jones. Within weeks of his death, the formal commission he had sought from the Department of State to negotiate with the dey of Algiers for the release of American citizens reached Paris.

The Ambassador’s Quest

Just over a century later, in 1897, Horace Porter—a Civil War brevet brigadier general, Medal of Honor winner, member of General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, and Grant’s secretary during his first term as president—arrived in Paris. Two years later he began a quest that would consume six anxious years and great personal expense. A number of patriotic Americans, distraught that the remains of their early naval hero were residing ingloriously somewhere in a foreign land, had conducted unsuccessful attempts to research and locate Jones’ final resting place. Porter would be ably assisted in his search by Colonel Arthur Bailly-Blanchard, second secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

The ambassador’s motivation for taking on the task was personal:

I felt a deep sense of humiliation as an American citizen in realizing that our first and most fascinating naval hero had been lying for more than a century in an unknown and forgotten grave and that no serious attempt had ever been made to recover his remains and give them appropriate sepulture in the land upon whose history he had shed so much luster.

Knowing that he had been buried in Paris, I resolved to undertake personally a systematic and exhaustive search for the body.

Porter feared that on Jones’ death, the admiral had been “snatched from history and relegated to fiction” like “an obscure outcast.”

In 1892 a similar sense of outrage had taken hold of Porter because the remains of his mentor and friend President Grant still lay in what he described as “a little brick hovel” of a tomb seven years after his death and not in a planned memorial structure. He personally took charge of raising the necessary funds and overseeing construction of the famous monument to Grant that sits above the Hudson River.

Finding John Paul Jones’ burial location, gaining access to the site, and proving that the recovered remains were those of the admiral proved to be an exercise in detection and persistence that severely tested Porter’s analytical and diplomatic skills. The search for the burial site began in June 1899 with an exhaustive review of writings about Jones in French newspapers and documents. The original certificate of burial had been lost when government buildings housing the records had burned during the 1871 Paris Commune. By careful sleuthing, Porter found a copy of the certificate in an 1859 magazine article written by French archaeologist Charles Read. The certificate confirmed the fact that Jones had been “buried in the cemetery for foreign Protestants,” specifically the long-since abandoned Saint Louis Cemetery.

Other writings and rumors raised doubts about the accuracy of the Read article. Speculation as to where Jones was interred included Charles Dickens’ claim that he was buried in the “Congressional” cemetery. An Alexandre Dumas novel located the grave in a cemetery that did not exist at the time of Jones’ death. There were also claims that Jones had been reinterred adjacent to Lafayette’s tomb in Paris’ Picpus Cemetery. One account alleged that the body resided in a churchyard in Dumfries, Scotland, near his birthplace. Porter carefully investigated and refuted each claim.

The ambassador spent the next several months reviewing hundreds of periodicals and journals to determine if any other Protestant cemeteries had existed in and around Paris. No mention could be found of other such burial sites. Porter determined that Saint Louis Cemetery had been established in 1720 at the behest of the Dutch, and no burials had been permitted without an appropriate certificate issued by the Dutch Embassy. A review of the Church of Saint Louis’ meeting minutes revealed that four pages covering the period of Jones’ death and burial had been torn out. By searching numerous junk shops and antiquarian stores, Porter was able to track down the sale of the church’s old records to the Society of the History of Protestantism. The missing pages were found in its possession. The minutes indicated that the funeral oration for the admiral had been given by a Dutch pastor, Paul Henri Marron, and confirmed that all of Pastor Marron’s burials took place at Saint Louis Cemetery.

In addition, a bill was found confirming that Commissioner Simonneau had paid 462 francs to bury Jones in an expensive lead coffin and apparently had never been reimbursed. Porter attempted to locate descendants of the commissioner in anticipation of paying them for their ancestor’s generosity more than 100 years before. No living relatives were found.

Zeroing in on a Burial Site

Porter had become convinced that the Read article was correct and that Saint Louis Cemetery was the site of Jones’ burial. Using old maps, the ambassador explored the section of Paris called “le Combat,” famous as the location of cock, dog, and other animal fights. The government had sold the old cemetery to private interests in 1796, and the ground was subsequently regraded. The graves lay approximately eight feet below ground level, beneath a courtyard, shacks, and buildings.

Under French law, abandoned cemeteries were required to transfer remains to the Catacombs of Paris. Whether the deceased had been removed from Saint Louis Cemetery prior to its being covered was unknown. A check of the Catacombs registry revealed that only one body had been exhumed from Saint Louis, that of Lady Alexandra Grant, a Scottish citizen. Given the wartime chaos in France for nearly 25 years following Jones’ interment, no significant effort to remove other remains had evidently occurred. A further concern was the possibility that lead coffins had been dug up during the 1793–94 Reign of Terror and, like many lead statues, melted down to make bullets for the French Republic’s army.

The next step in finding Jones’ remains posed political, economic, and technical challenges for Porter. Loose soil, poor drainage, and damaged buildings would complicate the project, as would noxious odors and poor ventilation. Only by digging shafts and tunnels supported by elaborate timber shoring could the graveyard be searched.

To proceed with excavation, Porter was required to obtain individual agreements with each proprietor and tenant, and according to the ambassador, “This was altogether the most discouraging episode in the history of the undertaking.” Speculation abounded that the United States was willing to pay exorbitant sums to gain the right to tunnel. Given the unrealistic monetary demands of the owners and occupants of the various properties, Porter decided to allow the “excitement to subside,” waiting two years before restarting negotiations. Using an appeal to public sentiment and assurance that the U.S. government had not allocated funds for the project, he obtained permission to proceed with the subterranean excavations in early 1905. The agreement strictly limited access to the grounds to three months. Porter secured the services of Paul Weiss, an accomplished mining engineer, whose professional skill and devotion to the delicacy of the task proved well beyond the ambassador’s expectations.

Meanwhile, under the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s sea-power writings, President Theodore Roosevelt had launched an ambitious campaign to strengthen the U.S. Navy. Colorful naval reviews, elaborate ceremonies, and exercises were the order of the day, culminating in the around-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907–9, a blatant display of the growing reach of American military might. Aware of Porter’s efforts and anticipating the public-relations value of the project to his crusade for a more powerful American Navy, Roosevelt approached Congress for an appropriation of $35,000 for the recovery. Ironically, indifference to John Paul Jones’ cause lingered into the 20th century, as Congress took its time reacting to the president’s request. Porter theorized that the project may have been perceived as “too Utopian in its nature to receive serious consideration, the remains of the Admiral having been long since relegated to the realms of mystery and given up as lost beyond recovery.” The ambassador decided to avoid further delay and personally advanced the money with no expectation that he would be reimbursed.

The first shaft was sunk on 3 February 1905 to a depth of 18 feet. The immediate discovery of many skeletons confirmed that few, if any, remains had been removed from the cemetery. The corpses in this section were not in separate graves, leading to the conclusion that they were the remains of destitute individuals buried in inexpensive wooden coffins that had long since rotted away. Porter suspected that very few lead coffins like the one in which Jones’ body had been encased were present, given the expense of such containers. In all, five shafts were sunk and horizontal subterranean galleries extended out from the shafts in various directions. To locate the lead coffins, soundings were made between the galleries using long iron tools.

As the excavation continued, a mass grave of skeletons piled helter-skelter was discovered. This was apparently the trench section where the bodies of the Swiss Guards had been tossed. The first lead coffin was discovered on 22 February. An encrusted inscription plate required the skills of a restorer of ancient art objects to decipher the name of the deceased. The nameplate as well as one found on a second lead coffin ruled out either occupant as being John Paul Jones.

The Hero Identified and Honored

On 31 March a third lead coffin was found. It lacked an inscription plate but according to Porter was “superior in solidity and workmanship” to the first two. The decision was made to open this coffin. Typical of those in use in France at the time of Jones’ death, the mummy-shaped coffin was narrow at the feet, widening to the shoulders, and rounded at the head. A preliminary examination determined that the corpse was approximately 5 feet, 7 inches, the exact height of the admiral. The remains were taken to the Paris School of Medicine for examination. For six days and in the presence of a dozen French and American officials, several renowned French anthropologists would perform tests and comparisons to definitively identify the body.

Wrapped in a winding sheet, the body was surrounded by straw. The alcohol that had originally filled the coffin had externally embalmed the remains, which were remarkably well-preserved. The head had been turned slightly to the right and the nose bent, due to the placement of too much straw beneath the head prior to the casket being closed. A linen cap and ruffled linen shirt were the only items of clothing. On the cap was an embroidered letter “J” with a very pronounced loop. When the cap was reversed, the letter appeared to be a “P”. Anthropometric measurements of the head and facial features were performed and compared to a three-quarter-size bust by famed French sculpture Jean-Antoine Houdon that Jones’ contemporaries had regarded as extremely accurate, and to a profile of the naval commander on a congressional medal. A peculiar-shaped earlobe and all other facial measurements were consistent with the features displayed on the bust.

Among the unofficial onlookers present while the remains were being measured soon after their removal from the coffin had been John Stone, Ambassador Porter’s 11-year-old nephew. Nearly 60 years later, retired Navy Captain Stone, a 1917 Naval Academy graduate, recalled that “there was a feeling of awe in the room.” Approaching the corpse, “Uncle Horace said I could feel his hand, I think it was his right one. . . . With some reluctance (really a great deal) I held the hand. It was soft and pliable. I did not hold it long!” Stone added that “When first seen J. P. J. seemed alive. No photograph was made until about 2 days later—by that time his face had changed due to exposure.”

An autopsy revealed that the left lung displayed signs of the pneumonia Jones had been diagnosed as having in late 1788. Distinct indications of kidney disease were consistent with symptoms the admiral had displayed just prior to death. The absence of scars or other evidence of battle wounds was also consistent with the belief that Jones had never been seriously wounded in any of his many engagements. Formal documents concurring with lead anthropologist G. Papillault’s conclusion that “the body examined is that of Admiral John Paul Jones” were signed by all in attendance. Notified of the panel’s definitive findings, President Roosevelt immediately dispatched a squadron of four cruisers to escort the admiral home.

The body was placed in a new lead container that was soldered closed, affixed with seals of the American Embassy, and placed in an outer oak casket adorned with eight silver handles. The lid was secured using 16 silver screws and the casket then draped with the American flag. Placed on a French artillery caisson ornamented with flags, it was escorted to a Paris train station by 500 American Bluejackets, two companies of U.S. Marines, and French cuirassiers, horse artillery batteries, infantry, and military bands. The casket was transported to Cherbourg, where it was placed aboard the armored cruiser Brooklyn for the 13-day journey across the Atlantic.

The American squadron departed Cherbourg on the evening of 8 July flying the American ensign at the fore and the French ensign at the main. Arriving at Chesapeake Bay on the morning of 22 July, the squadron was joined by seven battleships that would accompany the cruisers on the final leg of the journey to Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Naval Academy. As the Brooklyn passed, four of the battle wagons fired a 15-gun salute.

On 24 April 1906, the anniversary of his victory over the sloop-of-war HMS Drake , John Paul Jones was ceremoniously honored by President Roosevelt and fellow countrymen, including Ambassador Porter, at the Naval Academy. Atop his flag-draped coffin sat a wreath of laurel, a spray of palm, and the gold-hilted sword presented to him by Louis XVI after the capture of HMS Serapis . Final interment in an elaborate crypt beneath the transept of the Naval Academy Chapel took place on 26 January 1913. Modeled on the tomb of Napoleon, the marble sarcophagus is surrounded by eight black and white Pyrenees marble columns. Etched in bronze on the floor are the names of Jones’ major commands and flagships: the Providence , Alfred , Ranger , Bonhomme Richard , Serapis , and Ariel . All except the Vladimir , his flagship during the Russian campaign against the Ottomans, are inscribed for posterity to recall.

John Paul Jones was described by Empress Catherine as a rogue, by Rudyard Kipling as a pirate, and more graciously by Winston Churchill as a privateer. And as if those descriptions were true, his remains lay unmarked and forgotten for more than a century. His final resting place, however, befits his status as the spiritual father of the U.S. Navy.


John Paul Jones Commemoration (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907, reprint 1966). This volume contains addresses given at the 1906 John Paul Jones commemoration at the U.S. Naval Academy and papers and reports, including Horace Porter’s, about the search for and identification of Jones’ remains. The 1966 reprint includes Captain John G. M. Stone’s recollections of Jones’ remains.

Joseph Callo, John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006).

William M. Fowler Jr., Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976).

Lincoln Lorenz, The Admiral and the Empress: John Paul Jones and Catherine the Great (New York: Bookman Associates, 1954).

Elsie Porter Mendes, An American Soldier and Diplomat (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927).

Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (New York: William Morrow, 1992).

Robert L. O’Connell, Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (New York: Century Company, 1897; reprint Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959; Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).

Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).


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