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The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones

By Scott Martelle

Chicago Review Press

310 pages, $26.95

By Edward Cuddihy

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Finally we have a welcome light summer diversion from the large, important, and sometimes laborious presidential biographies and current affairs exposés that have filled the nonfiction portion of the 2014 publishers’ lists.

This one, “The Admiral and the Ambassador” (with an impossibly long subtitle that pretty much tells the rest of the story), will not be remembered for its profound insights or its grave analyses of war, assassination or international intrigue.

Instead, what we have is newspaper reporter Scott Martelle’s compact slice of American history wrapped in what newspaper editors like to describe as: “A darn good yarn.” That’s editor shorthand for an insignificant story that is highly entertaining – a good read.

In this case, there are two interwoven good yarns separated by a century of wars, mortal struggles for liberty and equality, and both regal and presidential assassinations. And instead of the usual grave mysteries, this book features a mystery grave.

The two narratives, juggled deftly to keep the reader on her toes by jumping back and forth from the 18th century to the turn of the 20th century, center around John Paul Jones, the U.S. Naval hero of the Revolutionary War – or was he a common pirate? – and a nearly forgotten diplomat of the post-Civil War era named Horace Porter.

Porter was a young man when he served Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. He was middle-aged when named an ambassador by President McKinley during the Spanish American War. And he lived long enough to lend his name to patriotic fundraisers during World War I. In his day, he was good copy; little known today.

Porter lived the privileged life of a rich American in late 19th century Paris that Martelle compares to the Paris of Admiral Jones’ philandering days with Benjamin Franklin a century earlier. His descriptions of both Parises abound with life and color.

Oh yes, and there’s the mystery grave. That was the lead-lined coffin reeking of alcohol, interred in a long-abandoned cemetery that eventually wound up under a Parisian laundry and a rundown boardinghouse in one of Paris’ less desirable arrondissements.

What gave this grave its mystery is that it was said to contain the lost and long-forgotten body of John Paul Jones who is considered the founder of the U.S. Navy.

It was Jones, a Scots-American, sailing from the protection of a French port under the flag of the new American nation, who captured or destroyed 60 British vessels including at least two important warships, and invaded a small Scottish coastal town where he held an old grudge against the town fathers, setting off a panic of sorts across Great Britain.

Along the way, Jones destroyed – or stole – more than a million dollars worth of British goods. That’s real money in today’s dollars. Maybe a quarter of a billion dollars.

How this dashing and tempestuous early American hero wound up in a pauper’s grave in Paris is a story in itself. But even more intriguing is how Horace Porter, an independently wealthy New Yorker, by then the American ambassador to France, sniffed out and exhumed Jones’ remains, mostly with his own money.

It seems Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were committed to returning Jones’ body to its rightful place of honor in the United States, but a tight-fisted Congress was unwilling to foot the bill. Not much has changed on Capitol Hill in 100 years.

To make matters worse, some congressmen, along with a handful of irritable Frenchmen and a gaggle of skeptical yellow journalists in search of a moribund story, argued the body was likely not Admiral Jones at all. They opined the body could belong to just about any long-forgotten Parisian who happened to be buried in an alcohol-filled lead-lined coffin, in one of the city’s few Protestant cemeteries.

Porter and his supporters eventually won the day.

For the record, the remains, confirmed as belonging to Jones in studies as recent as 2004, are enshrined today in an elegant, if garish, sarcophagus in the basement crypt of the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and author of several books, grew up in Western New York, where he landed his first newspaper job at age 16, freelancing a high school sports column for his hometown Wellsville Patriot.

He attended SUNY Fredonia State and worked at the Jamestown Post-Journal and the now-defunct Rochester Times-Union before leaving the area. He now writes for the Los Angeles Times.

His affinity for Western New York shows through clearly in his description of the Pan-American Exposition in what is now Delaware Park, and President McKinley’s assassination in Buffalo at the hands of crazed anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

Besides the Pan-American, Martelle recounts the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris from contemporary newspaper reports, and his description of Porter sailing out of the Port of New York on a trans-Atlantic liner is cinematic.

Martelle is a straigh-forward newspaper writer whose prose sometimes slips into the schlock words and phrases of today’s television journalists – including the hated and overused “going viral” – but while a little out of place, in this 19th century narrative, it doesn’t detract from a good mystery.

Horace Porter himself was somewhat of a mystery. In his time, he was best known for raising the funds and shepherding the building of the magnificent tomb for his friend and Civil War hero Gen. Grant. The granite neoclassic monument in Riverside Park overlooks the Hudson River in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

A generation of early prime-time television viewers will recall that Grant’s Tomb became a household joke in the ’50s because Groucho Marx in his comedy quiz show “You Bet Your Life,” asked the same consolation question week after week. Groucho would intone in mock seriousness to peals of studio laughter: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The answer he sought, of course, was none other than Ulysses S. Grant.

Some might ask a similar question today: Who is buried in John Paul Jones’ tomb?

The answer, according to author Martelle: Probably John Paul Jones.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.