One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Friday, July 08, 2011
HOME IS THE HERO
I hate misplacing things. Because no matter what you have misplaced, the cost of finding it is always double. First there is the cost of the thing. Then because of the flaying about looking for the thing, you lose your train of throught. I find its always better to just assume I lost the thing years ago and believe it will eventually turn up. I learned this lesson from John Paul Jones, the pugnatious and aggressive Scotsman who founded the American Navy.
John Paul had the first requirment for greatness; luck. While serving as third mate on board a merchantman in 1768, both the captain and the first mate died of yellow fever, instantly promoting him. Over the following years Captain John Paul aquired a reputation for brutality. And just when the bad press had brought his carreer to a a dead end, luckily, his brother died in the colony of Virginia and left him a small fortune.
John Paul decided to stay in Virginia, and to confuse any hounding lawyers added a third name to his moniker. And when, luckily, the shooting started in Boston, Captain John Paul Jones packed up his resume and offered to fight for his new country as a privatier.
At first he did most of his fighting just to get a ship. But when he finally did, flying the American flag while sailing out of France, he had at last justified his luck. He raided British ports. He captured British merhcant ships in full view of the English coast. He lashed his ship to an English warship and fought it out until both ships were sinking. Offered a chance to surrender, he responded, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Then the British warship surrendered to him.
When that war was over John Paul Jones was out of work. So, with congressional approval, he hired on with the Russian Navy. But that never worked out and he even contracted pneumonia. In May of 1790 he returned to Paris. And it was there, on July 17, 1792, that the 45 year old was found lying face down on his bed, dead as a doornail. His sevents and admirers pickled the hero in rum, packed him into an iron coffin, and buried him in the old Saint Louis Cemetery, set aside for foreign protestants.
Unfortunatly, three weeks after John Paul Jones was laid to rest, a mob decended on the Royal Palace of Tuileries, and captured the King and Queen. To achieve this, they had to first butcher his Swiss guard, and their bodies were dumped into a common grave right next to Jones' resting place. What with the revolution and wars, by 1796 the cemetary was abandoned and forgotten. And unfortunatly for the next 100 years John Paul Jones floated in rum, and slowly decomposed while the mundane world went on with out him and about him. In time the land atop John Paul Jones came to be occupied by a grocery, a laundry, an apartment house and their attendant sheds, toliets, cess pools and wells.
And there he might have stayed had not, luckily, a lunatic shot American President William McKinnely in September of 1901.
That lunatic made Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, at 44, the younget man ever to take the oath as President of the United States. And when Teddy decided to run for his own term, in 1904, he was opposed by Republican National Chairman Mark Hanna (below), who protrayed his fellow Republican Teddy as a wild eyed lunatic, and called him “that damn cowboy”.
What Roosevelt needed in 1904 was anything that would make him look like a stalwart defender of tradition. Luckily, he found what he needed when his abassador to France pointed out that one of our greatest Revolutionary War heroes had been MIA in Pais for the last one hundred years. So the order went forth in typical Teddy Roosevelt fashion, “Dig up our hero! Whatever it costs!"
General Horace Porter (above) was a civil war hero, a friend of President Grant, and now the amasador to France. He had become obsessed with finding the body of John Paul Jones in 1897 after a biography of the old salt was published. And after three years of research through old maps and confusing government records Porter found the cemetary where Jones had been buried, now adjacent to the Rue de la Grange aux Belles, or in the more prosaic English, Street of the Beautiful Barn. Because of all the construction, the only way to recover the hero now was to tunnel into the graveyard, not a pleasant occupation, but a great plot for a horror movie.
Before he could dig, Porter had to get the current owners’ permission. It took him two years to negotiate the price for a 3 month contract with all the local land owners. At the same time President Roosevelt submitted a special appropiation to pay the $35,000 price tag to dig up John Paul Jones’ corpse. John Paul would not have been surprised to discover that a hundred years had not made the Congress any more rational. On evening of Friday, February 3, 1905, Mr. Porter started the work, on his own dime. Congress had ignored the President's request.
Heading the project was M. Paul Weiss, who had been trained as a mining engineer, and he was going to need all that training. Weiss sunk the first shaft 18 feet straight down into a back yard. He discovered that the bodies had not been moved. That was lucky. Unfortunatly, despite the construction over the graves, the ground was not well compacted, and a great deal of time would have to be spent shoring up the shafts, and supporting the building walls. Noted Porter, “Slime, mud, and mephitic (fould smelling and poisonous) odors were encountered, and long red worms appeared in abundance.”
“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…Galleries were pushed in every direction and ‘‘soundings’’ were made between them with long iron tools,…so that no leaden coffin could possibly be missed."
The wooden coffins had long since corrided away. The bodies had been slowly decaying in the soil, and the miners introduced waves of fresh air that hastened the decay. The stench was often overwhelming. Three lead coffins were found, the first on February 22, and the second a month later. Those two had copper plates identifying their occupants. Neither was John Paul Jones. Shortly there after they found the King’s Swiss Guard, in their mass grave, stacked one atop the next. And now Weiss knew they were on the right track.
On March 31st the miners hit the third lead coffen, without a plate The crew decided they needed more fresh air before they opened it. It was a lucky thing they did.
On April 8th they they finally struggled to pry loose the coffin lid, under the watchful eye of Ambassador Porter (above, left). The body inside was wrapped in tin foil. The stench of alcohol filled the tunnel. Rolling back the tin foil, there, with his nose bent by the weight of the coffin lid, was the recognizable face of John Paul Jones. After a hundred years he needed a shampoo, but that was to be expected.
Doctor J. Capitan performed an autopsy and determined that the heart and liver were normal, but the left lung showed signs of “small patches of broncho-pneumonia partially cicatrized” He wrote that he had come to the conclusion that “the corpse of which we have made a study is that of John Paul Jones”.
Teddy Roosevelt ordered up a fleet of 11 battle ships to escort Captain John Paul Jones back to America. On April 24, 1906, he was placed in a temporary tomb in Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Anapolis, Maryland. It was temporary tomb because Congress had yet to pass the appropiation to pay the cost to recover the body.
When the hero arrived home, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech. He had been re-elected President without serious opposition because, luckily for Teddy, Mark Hanna had died of typhoid fever in February of 1904. So the the entire trip had been unnecessary. And Congress never did pass that authorisation to pay for the effort. Poor General Porter had to take up a collection. But at least, at last, John Paul Jones was home. I told you he was lucky.