The Admiral and the Ambassador

As a veteran journalist, I've long been drawn to overlooked narratives from the past. In this case, a magazine article questioning the identity of the body sealed up in the John Paul Jones sarcophagus at Annapolis led me to the intriguing story about the search for the admiral's body more than a century ago in Paris.

The frame of the story invariably shows up in the final chapters of Jones biographies. But I was more curious about Ambassador Horace Porter, the man who put his own fortune behind the expensive search to try to find and recover Jones's body (and yes, I believe he found the right one). The lives of Jones and Porter, I realized as I dug into the research, cover large swaths of American history, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the nation's emergence as an industrial power and then a world power with the 1898 Spanish-American War.

But it also is a story involving fascinating characters, from Jones, the Scottish gardener's son who, in some eyes, was the creative force behind the US Navy, to Porter, a Civil War hero who moved among the upper reaches of American industrialism and politics. It touches on presidents Ulysses S. Grant (Porter was an aide in both the war and the White House), William McKinley (Porter raised millions in the campaign to get him elected), and Teddy Roosevelt (under whose administration Jones's body was finally discovered and moved to the US Naval Academy, where it now rests).

I hope you find it as intriguing to read as I found it to write.

An Excerpt

The work proceeded in ghoulish tedium. A second shaft was sunk through the street in front of the laundry, followed shortly afterward by a third shaft in the street near the entrance to the courtyard behind the granary. Two more shafts were then dug, one through the floor of a granary shed and the last in the courtyard near what would have been the back wall of the cemetery. Each shaft, beginning with the first one, was given a letter in order: Shaft A, Shaft B, and so on. The site was a hive of activity. And it was difficult work. The soil reeked of the long dead—“mephitic odors,” Porter called them—and groundwater seeped in at such a pace the workers had to install pumps.

The tunnels at first were extended like exploratory tentacles, which meant they dead-ended, a design that created poor air circulation. Because of the instability of the earth, the men installed squared wooden girders to hold up a protective wooden roof and to brace sideboards that kept the crumbling dirt walls from closing in. They worked by dim candlelight amid the stench, the slop at their feet, the chill, and the stagnant air. As the men dug, they unearthed massive red earthworms, bones, leering skulls—visions they were apt to revisit in their deepest sleep.

Once the first tunnel reached the old garden wall, the workers backtracked a bit and struck out in perpendicular directions, roughly paralleling the wall. In the basement of the laundry, another crew went to work in the back corner, digging an open pit in search of coffins. The crew digging Shaft B out in the street was aiming to tunnel into the property and meet up with the crews working off Shaft A. There was a logic to the scramble. Combined, the three work sites would cover the entire front section of the old cemetery, the place where Porter thought Jones’s body was most likely buried.

In the first few days, they struck a cluster of corpses from a mass burial. There were three layers of skeletons, dozens of them, stacked in a crisscrossing pattern like cordwood, “some lying facedown, others on their sides.” The searchers were confused at first. Then Porter recalled journalistic paintings by Etienne Bericourt that detailed the loading onto carts of the Swiss Guardsmen killed just three weeks after Jones’s death. As Protestants, the Swiss soldiers would not have been buried in any of the Catholic cemeteries. These stacked bones, Porter concluded, were the remains of those men, and he interpreted the discovery as “another proof that although the cemetery was closed soon after [Jones’s] death there was plenty of room left for his coffin at the time of his burial, for the reason that so many bodies were interred there afterward.”

About Scott Martelle

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

Currently an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, my work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

Where my work has appeared

Some of my