Recovery of John Paul Jones’ Body


The recovery of the body of famed US Navy Admiral John Paul Jones from the St. Louis Cemetery in Paris by soldier and diplomat Gen. Horace Porter is an effort in painstaking research and determination motivated by patriotism, This event is doubly interesting because a former SAR President General played the lead role in making it happen.

Career of Paul Jones

John Paul Jones has been the subject of many books – we will not go into any great detail into his life. Rather we will look at the end of his life. After the Revolution ended he was appointed Prize Agent in 1783 to settle the many accounts for prizes captured and sold at auction. This kept him occupied in Paris and Denmark for the next five years. In April of 1788 he was offered a command in the Russian Navy and had an audience with Catharine the Great. He was to command a fleet in the Russian war against the Turks. In the summer campaign he led the naval forces to victories. He left Russian employment in June of 1789 and returned to Paris. Partly this was due to medical advice: he had contacted a very heavy cold which developed into pneumonia in St. Petersburg. Two eminent physicians who attended him pronounced his lungs permanently affected and that he could not endure the rigors of another Russian winter.

In Paris he was interested in combating the Algerian pirates and obtaining the release of the American prisoners they held. On 1 June 1792 Admiral John Paul Jones was appointed commissioner to treat with the Dey of Algiers for the release of captive Americans. He was also exploring the possibility of service in French Navy under King Louis XVI.

On 11 July 1792 he attended the meeting of the National Assembly in Paris, and later — at the Café Timon — was toasted as the “coming admiral of France.” But, on 18 July 1792, he died of dropsy of the chest at the age of 45 years and a few days. One can only wonder what history would have been like had he lived! Imagine the combination: Napoleon in command of the land armies and Jones in command of the French Republican navy! King George III would probably have had his reign cut short even though protected by his “moat.”

France at that time was in a period of turmoil. The Bastille had fallen three years before, but King Louis XVI was (precariously enough) still the monarch. Many of the nobility had fled to surrounding nations and threatened to militarily suppress the revolution and restore absolute monarchical rule. Looking a little bit ahead, the King’s bodyguard will be massacred in a few weeks (10 August 1792) and the King himself will be tried, convicted and beheaded on 21 January 1793.

Gouverneur Morris, the American Minister to France, who was on intimate terms with Paul Jones, refused to spend on “such follies” as a public funeral “either the money of his heirs or that of the United States.” He told the person at whose house the Admiral lodged to cause him to be interred in the most private manner, and at the least possible expense. But M. Pierre François Simonneau, the Commissary to whom this person was obliged to apply for a Protestant burial, was indignant at the order given by the Minister, and said that if America “would not pay the expense of a public burial for a man who had rendered such signal services to France and America he would pay it himself.” So it was that the hero of two continents was buried by private charity for the sum of 462 francs.

Fortunately, however, the authentic letter written to Mrs. Janet Taylor, Paul Jones’s eldest sister, by Colonel Blackden contained the following valuable information: “His body was put into a leaden coffin on the 20th, that, in case the United States, which he had so essentially served, and with so much honor, should claim his remains they might be more easily removed.” The bill of 462 francs paid by M. Simonneau was an unusually large expenditure and would have amply covered the cost of a substantial leaden coffin, a thorough preparation of the body to ensure its preservation, and an elaborate system of packing, with a view to its transportation by sea.

Since Jones was a Protestant he was buried in a cemetery designated for that use: The St. Louis cemetery. This was at the southwest corner of the intersection of Rue Grange-aux-Belles and Rue de Écluses Saint Martin in Paris. It was officially closed in January 1793 and later sold by the government.

General Horace Porter

Horace Porter was born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, 15 April, 1837. His father, David Porter was governor of Pennsylvania from 1838 to 1845. His grandfather, Andrew Porter, was commissioned a captain in 1776 and served through the Revolution in the artillery with the final rank of colonel. Andrew Porter was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. Horace was educated at home, and afterward entered the Lawrence scientific school of Harvard, and while there was appointed to the United States military academy, from which he graduated in 1860. He was for several months instructor of artillery at West Point, and then was ordered to duty in the south at the beginning of the Civil War. He was chief of artillery in charge of the batteries at the capture of Fort Pulaski. He participated in the assault on Secessionville, where he received a slight wound in the first attempt to take Charleston. He was on the staff of General McClellan in July 1862, and served with the Army of the Potomac until after the engagement at Antietam. In the beginning of the next year he was chief of ordinance on General Rosecrans’s staff, and went through the Chickamauga campaign with the Army of the Cumberland. When Grant took command in the East, Porter became aide-de-camp on his staff, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and later as colonel. He accompanied Grant through the Wilderness campaign and the siege of Richmond and Petersburg, and was present at the surrender at Appomattox. He loaned his wooden pencil to General Lee to mark some emendations to the surrender terms. And President Lincoln invited him to attend the Ford Theater that fateful night. (Porter was a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.) He, however, was in a hurry to return home to his young wife.

After the war he made a series of tours of inspection, by Grant’s direction, in the South and on the Pacific Coast. He was assistant secretary of war while Grant was secretary ad interim, served as secretary to Grant during his first presidential term, and continued to be his intimate friend till the latter’s death. He resigned from the army in 1873, managed the Pullman Palace-Car Company and was president and director of several corporations including the West Shore railroad. He wrote West Point Life, a book of verse published in 1866, and Campaigning with Grant, published 1897 as a book after being previously published serially in The Century Magazine.

Work had stopped on Grant’s Tomb for several years for lack of money. It was Horace Porter who led the drive that raised the funds to complete the Grant Tomb on Riverside Drive in New York. He campaigned in this cause as vigorously as he had in other causes. He directed the dedicatory ceremonies on 27 April 1897 that were largely attended.

Horace Porter was a charter member of the SAR from New York and its President General from 1892 to 1897.

The Search for John Paul Jones’ Remains

President McKinley appointed Horace Porter ambassador to France in 1897 – our first full ambassador to that sister republic. Fortunately, he had learned French at home in his youth and had done well in it at West Point. So he was quite prepared to act this role and became a most valuable diplomat after having been a heroic soldier and capable business leader.

While in Paris he took it upon himself to research the circumstances of John Paul Jones’ last days and burial in Paris. Various authorities differed in the exact date of death and disposition of the remains. After much research he finally pinpointed the correct date and cemetery. However, the cemetery had been desecrated and partially built on.

General Porter described the situation thusly:

“After having studied the manner and place of his burial and contemplated the circumstances connected with the strange neglect of his grave, one could not help feeling pained beyond expression and overcome by a sense of profound mortification. Here was presented the spectacle of a hero whose fame once covered two continents and whose name is still an inspiration to a world-famed navy, lying for more than a century in a forgotten grave like an obscure outcast, relegated to oblivion in a squalid corner of a distant foreign city, buried in ground once consecrated, but since desecrated by having been used at times as a garden, with the moldering bodies of the dead fertilizing its market vegetables, by having been covered later by a common dump pile, where dogs and horses had been buried, and the soil was still soaked with polluted waters from undrained laundries; and as a culmination of degradation, by having been occupied by a contractor for removing night-soil.”

Cemetery with Location of Coffin

[Map of the St. Louis Cemetery showing the 1792 street names and the 1905 names. The cemetery itself is about 120 feet long on Rue de la Grange aux Belles and 130 wide. The oblong mark shows Jones’ coffin. The higher courtyard was not used for burials. By 1905 both were mostly built on.]

Knowing that Jones was buried in a lead coffin gave rise to the hope of finding the remains. Certainly if he had been buried in only a wooden coffin or a winding sheet there would be no identifiable remains.

So the next step was to actually excavate the abandoned cemetery which had subsequently been built over. But unfortunately news of his interest had become public and the landowners thought they could reap a windfall from this project – they speculated that the rich American government would spare no cost. So General Porter put the project on hold until the sensation died down and he was able to conduct reasonable negotiations with the landlords and occupants. He then negotiated an agreement with all concerned for access to property for a period of three months. He estimated the project would cost about $35,000. President Roosevelt recommended that Congress appropriate this amount, but it never did. So Porter had the work started from his own funds on 3 February 1905.

“The prefect of the Seine kindly permitted M. Paul Weiss of the service of the carrières (quarries) of the city of Paris to direct the work, which was begun on Friday, February 3, 1905. This experienced and accomplished mining engineer displayed a professional skill of the very highest order, and by his ability, zeal, and devotion to the work greatly facilitated the task. The project presented serious difficulties from the fact that the filling of earth above the cemetery was composed of the dumpings of loose soil not compact enough to stand alone, and the shafts and galleries had to be solidly lined and shored up with heavy timbers as the excavations proceeded. The drainage was bad in places and there was trouble from the water. The walls of one of the buildings were considerably damaged. Slime, mud, and mephitic odors were encountered, and long red worms appeared in abundance.

“The first shaft was opened in one of the yards to a depth of 18 feet. It proved clearly that the dead had never been disturbed. . . .

“Two more large shafts were sunk in the yards and two in the Rue Grange-aux-Belles, making five in all. Day and night gangs of work men were employed, and active progress was made. Galleries were pushed in every direction and ‘‘soundings’’ were made between them with long iron tools adapted to this purpose, so that no leaden coffin could possibly be missed.”

On 22 February the first leaden coffin was discovered. But an attached copper plate identified the remains as some one else. On 23 March a second leaden coffin was found with an easily read plate – not John Paul Jones. On 31 March a third leaden coffin was found, but without identification. It was decided to open another gallery for air flow before opening the coffin.

The Verification

The additional gallery was opened on 7 April and preliminary measurements and observations indicated that this indeed was the sought-for remains. Porter writes:

“For the purpose of submitting the body to a thorough scientific examination by competent experts for the purpose of complete identification, it was taken quietly at night, on April 8, to the Paris School of Medicine (École de Médecine) and placed in the hands of the well-known professors of anthropology, Doctor Capitan and Doctor Papillault and their associates, who had been highly recommended as the most accomplished scientists and most experienced experts that could be selected for a service of this kind. I of course knew these eminent professors by reputation, but I had never met them.

“While the professional examinations for identifying the body were taking place, directions were given to let the workmen continue the excavations in order to explore the rest of the cemetery, as there was a small portion that had not yet been reached. On April 11 a fourth leaden coffin was found with a legible identification plate.

“On April 18 the fifth and last leaden coffin was discovered. It was without an inscription plate and of unusual length. Upon opening it there was found the skeleton of a man considerably over 6 feet in height.

“All the coffins except the one containing the remains of the Admiral were left undisturbed in the places where they had been discovered, and, the cemetery having been fully explored, the shafts and galleries were refilled and the property restored. There had been excavated 80 feet in length of [vertical] shafts, 800 feet of [horizontal] galleries, and about 600 feet of soundings. The excavated earth had to be carted to a distance of 2 miles to find a dumping ground and afterwards hauled back. In refilling the galleries it was necessary in places to use stones and blocks of indurated clay to give proper stability.

“There were discovered in all five leaden coffins in the cemetery. Four having been easily identified, reasoning upon the principle of elimination led to the conclusion that the other must be the coffin sought. However, the scientists were identifying the body by more positive means.”

Meanwhile the painstaking process of identifying the remains beyond any doubt continued. The alcohol poured into the lead coffin preserved the body quite well. Only the nose was distorted by being pressed against the coffin. Comparison with an authentic life-size Houdon bust confirmed the identification.

“There was procured, through the courtesy of the director of the Trocadéro Museum, a copy of the other well-known bust of Paul Jones by Houdon, one of the most accurate works of the famous sculptor, who was also an admirer of his subject. It represents him in the uniform of an admiral, and was found more useful for the purpose of making the comparative measurements on account of its being life-size. James Madison, in a letter dated April 28, 1825, says: ‘‘ His bust by Houdon is an exact likeness, portraying well the characteristic features.” Sherburne, in his biography, says: “His bust by Houdon, of which several copies remain in this country, is believed to be the best representation of his features ever made.” Besides these there were submitted a copy of the medal given by Congress – showing a profile of the face – and a mass of authentic information regarding the Admiral’s chief characteristics, appearance, size, color of hair, age, etc.

“Doctor 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 busts were made from the subject before him, and that the length of the body, 5 feet 7 inches, was the same as the height of the Admiral. All of the comparative measurements are set forth in detail in his report, the greatest difference between any of them being only 2 millimeters, about seven-hundredths of an inch.

“Professor Hervé called attention to a peculiar shape of the lobe of the ear, which he said was, according to his experience, something very rarely seen. Its exact copy was observed upon the bust.”

Dr. Papillault concludes his report with the following paragraph.

“Without forgetting that doubt is the first quality of all investigators and that the most extreme circumspection should be observed in such matters, I am obliged to conclude that all the observations which I have been able to make plead in favor of the following opinion: The body examined is that of Admiral John Paul Jones.”

Thus the physical measurements indicated that these remains were of Jones. However, further verification was sought by performing an autopsy – “doubtless the only one in history ever made on a body that had been buried for a hundred and thirteen years.” This effort was led by Dr. Capitan.

“No mark of a wound was discovered on the body. Paul Jones was never wounded. History is in abundant possession of the most detailed records of every fight in which he was engaged, and they make nowhere a single mention of his ever having received a wound. Buell finds no record of a wound. Sherburne, in his well-known Life and Character of Paul Jones, page 362, says: “Commodore John Paul Jones on the ocean during the American Revolution was as General Washington on the land – never known to be defeated in battle, and neither ever receiving a wound.”

The left lung showed a spot which clearly indicated an attack of pneumonia consistent with his experience in St. Petersburg. The heart, liver, gall bladder and stomach all were healthy and normal. However, the kidneys presented clear evidence of interstitial nephritis, commonly called “Bright’s disease.” This agrees completely with the with 1792 diagnosis of dropsy.

The Return to America

Now that the remains had been positively identified it became a matter of state interest to return the remains to America. The first step was to place them into the original coffin, with various preservatives. That coffin was placed inside an outer coffin of oak provided with eight silver handles. This was transported to the American Church of the Holy Trinity on 20 April 1905.

President Roosevelt ordered a squadron of war vessels, composed of the Brooklyn, Tacoma, Chattanooga and Galveston to proceed to Cherbourg and to convey the remains to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, “where they are to receive permanent interment in the crypt of the new chapel now under construction.”

In the meanwhile Porter conferred with the President of France and others as to what part they wanted to play in the ceremonies attending the transfer of the remains. They all manifested an enthusiastic wish to pay every possible honor on that occasion to the memory of the illustrious sailor.

The squadron landed at Cherbourg and, after many receptions and parties, 500 sailors were brought into Paris on 6 July (Jones’ birthday) to accompany the remains on the land portion of the trip back to Cherbourg. A notable church service, not a funeral but rather a patriotic glorification of the dead, attended by many dignitaries, marked the formality of delivering the remains to the American government. At 5 o’clock the procession started from the church to the train station.

“When the body of John Paul Jones was seen moving solemnly toward the body of Napoleon, each having died in a distant land to be brought back after many years with every mark of honor to the country he had so eminently served, there was a sentiment aroused which deeply touched the hearts of all participating in the ceremony.”

The squadron left Cherbourg on July 8 and arrived at Annapolis on the 23rd. The casket was landed, without great ceremony, and placed in a temporary brick vault.

The Commemorative Exercises

The 24th of April 1906 was chosen for the formal commemorative exercises in honor of John Paul Jones by President Roosevelt because it was the anniversary of Jones’s famous capture of the British Ship of War, Drake, off Carrickfergus, in 1778. This date occurred during the session of Congress, the academic year of the Naval Academy and the convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Special trains were arranged for the Presidential and Congressional parties and the regular train service was increased from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington to Annapolis.

President Roosevelt, French Ambassador Jusserand, Horace Porter and Governor Warfield of Maryland were the main speakers. Navy Chaplain Clark closed the exercise with a prayer.

The casket was left in charge of the Academy until it was transferred to crypt in the Naval Academy Chapel.

Porter had to prod Congress to persuade them to finally advance the money for this crypt. It was seven years later (1913) that John Paul Jones remains were placed in the ornate crypt beneath the chapel at Annapolis. And, though it had several times been proposed to reimburse Porter for his expenses in Paris toward exhuming and verifying the remains, nothing was ever done. So it can truly be said the private charity buried John Paul Jones in Paris and then later exhumed him to be interred in America!

In Closing

Horace Porter evinced the utmost patriotism all through his life – as a cadet, officer and diplomat. He extended this to the Sons of the American as a charter member and President General. He led the nation in the drive to finish and dedicate his former chief’s mausoleum. He was mortified to find the remains of our most famous naval hero forgotten in a desecrated foreign cemetery. He led (and financed) the exhumation and identification of the remains. And later made sure that a proper crypt was provided for the hero.

He, his wife and two of their sons are buried in the Old First Methodist Church Cemetery, West Long Branch, New Jersey, Section C, Lot 44. A plain headstone marks his grave with his title as “Brigadier General.” There does not appear to be an SAR marker near.


Horace Porter, “The Recovery of the Body of John Paul Jones,” The Century Magazine, October 1905.

John Paul Jones Commemoration at Annapolis April 24 1906 issued by the Government Printing Office in 1907 and then reprinted with some additions in 1966. The 1966 edition gives, in addition to the commemoration the complete reports of Horace Porter, the examining doctors, and the report of the admiral in command of the returning squadron. To this is added a considerable number of letters and papers by Jones and a chronology of his events.

Elsie Porter Mende, An American Soldier and Diplomat, Frederick A. Stokes, New York 1927. A loving biography written by his daughter. web site of grave information, a search on Horace Porter will bring up a brief biography of him, his portrait and photos of his tombstone. Until very recently there was no SAR marker – the NJSAR placed a marker in 2010. Also the same website contains similar information on John Paul Jones. has a description of the collection of Horace Porter’s artifacts donated by his grandson, Horace Porter Mende. This collection contains photographs, insignia, certificates and military attire. contains a biography of Andrew Porter, (1743 – 1813), and a posthumous portrait of him. One copy of the original posthumous portrait is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, managed by the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia.