Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Curious Case of John Paul Jones, Post-Mortem

One cannot underestimate the role French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1747-1792) played in the identification of John Paul Jones’s remains. The Houdon bust of Jones, sculpted from life, was arguably the most accurate portrayal of Jones. Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy.


This year marks the 232th anniversary of one of the most famous battles in American
naval history. On 23 September 1779, off Flamborough Head, England, the British warship, Serapis, struck her colors after a vicious and bloody moonlight encounter with the Bon
Homme Richard
. As the victorious skipper of the outclassed and outgunned Richard, John Paul Jones achieved his greatest triumph and ensured his reputation for the ages.

But if his immortal words “I have not yet begun to fight,” assured Captain Jones a hallowed place in the pantheon of American naval heroes, they by no means guaranteed his immediate
future. The Revolution ended in 1783 and the Continental Navy ceased to exist. America, the Scotsman’s adopted homeland, suddenly offered few challenges to one who drew vitality
and sustenance from the sea.

Jones spent the remaining years of his life in Europe, first trying to settle prize claims for his former crewmates and then as advisor and rear admiral in the Russian Navy under Catherine the Great. His health soon after began to fail. The cruel Russian winter took its toll and he contracted pneumonia, a disease that became chronic. Even before his Russian sojourn, he displayed evidence of bronchiolitis, a condition that may very well have approached clinical
asthma. Malaria had infected him years earlier in the West Indies and he was also subject to recurring attacks of that disease.

He returned to Paris in 1790, his voice weakened and his diminutive five feet seven inch frame wracked by frequent coughing fits. Two years later the once wiry seaman had already lost much of his appetite and began to show symptoms of jaundice. Jones’s limbs swelled and 18th century
medicine could do little to stem his overall physical decline.

Colonel Samuel Blackden, a North Carolina planter, described his last illness: “A few days before his death his legs began to swell, which proceeded upward to his body so that for two days before decease he could not button his waistcoat and had great difficulty in breathing. . . .”

On 18 July 1792, Jones succumbed to “dropsy of the heart” at age 45. Blackden recalled that “the body was put into a leaden coffin . . .that, in case the United States, which he so essentially served with so much honor, should claim his remains they might be more easily removed.”
Memories faded and time and neglect gradually erased the location of Jones’s unmarked grave. Yet there were those who had not forgotten. In 1845, Colonel John H. Sherburne began a campaign to return the hero’s remains to the United States. He wrote to the Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft and requested that the body be brought home aboard a vessel of the Mediterranean Squadron.

Six years later preliminary arrangements were made, but those plans fell through when several of Jones’s Scottish relatives objected. Had they not intervened, a far more serious problem might well have put a premature end to the whole affair. Where was John Paul Jones buried?
Almost another 50 years passed before another individual, the newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to France, Horace Porter, vowed to locate the grave. “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.”

After painstaking research into the records, Porter narrowed the field to a long abandoned
Paris cemetery now covered by rows of squalid tenements. Exploratory excavations began on 3 February 1905. Fifty-six days later workmen finally unearthed a lead coffin which was opened in the presence of Ambassador Porter and other witnesses. Those present were amazed to find
that the body which had been wrapped in linen and packed with straw, had also been immersed in alcohol. The flesh appeared to be well preserved. Porter wrote: “The face presented quite a natural appearance. . .Upon placing [a likeness of Jones in profile] near the face, comparing the other features and contour of brow, appearance of the hair, high cheek-bones, prominently arched eye-orbits, and other points of resemblance— we instinctively exclaimed, ‘Paul
Jones’; and all those who were gathered about the coffin removed their hats, feeling that they werestanding in the presence of the illustrious dead—the object of the long search.”

Yet the Ambassador realized that he conjectured on the skimpiest of evidence. A more scientific analysis of the remains was necessary. Immediately, a team from the Paris School of Medicine began that investigation.

After removing the linen winding sheet, an anthropologist carefully measured the cranial features. The existence of a “from life” Houdon bust of Jones made comparison that much easier. Porter wrote: “Dr. Papillault, with his delicate instruments, made all the necessary anthropometric measurements of the head, features, length of body, etc., and found them so entirely exact as to be convinced . . .that the length of body, five feet seven inches, was the same as the height of the Admiral.”

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