John Paul Jones – the admiral, not the rock star – was a Scotsman by birth, and a legendary seaman and naval strategist who fought valiantly for the patriots during our Revolution. He commanded the Bonhomme Richard, and during his service inflicted significant damage on superior British naval forces along the coasts of Nova Scotia, Ireland, and England. After the war, on 18 July 1792, he died while in Paris. The American ambassador to France at the time, Gouverneur Morris, harbored an intense dislike of Jones and refused to request repatriation or government funds for a proper burial for this national hero. Luckily, a French admirer, one Pierrot Simmoneau, donated money for expenses – in particular an alcohol-filled lead coffin that would help preserve the remains and would also be easily identifiable when the U.S. government finally came to claim Jones.
Having been a Calvinist, Jones’ body was interred in the Protestant section of St Louis Cemetery. But shortly after Jones was buried, France’s revolutionary government sold the cemetery, and the bodies therein were promptly forgotten.
And as for the U.S. government? No one in Washington paid the slightest attention for more than 107 years.
In 1899, then-ambassador Horace Porter commissioned a team of researchers to find Jones’ grave in the long-forgotten cemetery. This was a deeply personal search for Porter, a renowned Civil War commander in his own right, because he “felt a deep sense of humiliation as an American that our first and most fascinating naval hero had been lying for more than a century in an unknown and forgotten grave.”
Six years after starting the search, Jones’ lead coffin was located. On 7 April 1905 the body was positively identified, still wearing a recognizable naval uniform. Those present were amazed by the good condition of the corpse, which the alcohol had mostly mummified.
Jones was transported back to the U.S Naval Academy onboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in April 1906, with President Teddy Roosevelt delivering a tribute upon arrival. Seven years later, after much preparation, the remains were re-interred in an elaborate bronze and marble sarcophagus in the Naval Academy chapel, where they remain to this day.
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