In 1783, America was enjoying its first peaceful summer as a new nation. The peace treaty that would finally settle that with Great Britain was about to be signed in Paris on September 3rd. What were once simply words on parchment were now a recognized reality by the world. For Moravian Bethlehem it had a special meaning. Peace would mean that it could get back to the peaceful pursuits that its founders had set for it. And at least one of the warriors of that conflict, U.S. naval hero John Paul Jones, had come to Bethlehem that summer to recover from a bout with malaria and share in that town’s peaceful tranquility.
Jones’s biographers over the years seem to have had quite a difference of opinion as to exactly why he came to Bethlehem. Several claim that the reason was that there was a “Moravian sanitorium,” as one put it, that specialized in healing Revolutionary War veterans. In his 2003 biography, Evan Thomas says Jones was “forced to take the cure at a retreat in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It’s doubtful that Jones was helped by the treatment prescribed—cold baths and probably bleeding, the eighteenth-century quackery by which patients purged ill humors from the blood a pint or two at a time.”
Dr. Paul Peucker, director and archivist of the Moravian Archives, says he has never heard of an institution called a Moravian sanitorium in 18th century Bethlehem that practiced medicine this way. Perhaps biographers have been confused by a Water Cure sanitorium founded in 1845 by Dr. Franz Oppelt that operated on Fountain Hill on the site of what was to become the first St. Luke’s Hospital. It was popular of Civil War veterans.
Whatever the reason, even in Bethlehem trouble seemed to find Jones. On the evening of August 17, Jones was enjoying a glass of wine (he never drank anything stronger and then only three glasses at most) with Samuel Wharton, a prominent Philadelphia merchant and his friend at the Sun Inn, when Valentine Fuehrer, landlord of the Crown Inn, located on the south side of the Lehigh, burst excitedly into the room. Clearly agitated, Fuehrer told how two men had come to the inn, assaulted a traveler, and stole his papers. They demanded that the landlord give them the money the traveler had given to him for safekeeping. When the traveler fled, they took over the inn’s barroom, holding the remaining guests hostage until the money was turned over to them. As there was no magistrate in the town, he did not know who to turn to.
Always a man of action, Jones told Fuehrer he would settle it and followed him out into the summer night. Arriving at the Crown, Jones, who had put down more than one mutiny at sea, overawed the two men. When they attempted to fight back, Jones said that if they made another move he would “clear the deck for action!” That apparently settled the matter. Jones held the two men in personal custody at the Crown until a magistrate arrived the next day.
Bethlehem historian Bishop Joseph Levering noted that in reality the two men were tavern keepers on the route to Philadelphia who assumed the traveler, a Moravian courier, was engaged in a plot to raise an Indian uprising, and that they would be rewarded for its discovery. It would be September 22 before a local judge, who historian Levering says shared the attitude of the tavernkeepers about Moravians, let the two men go. By then Jones, with a war fought and won, had left for distant seas.
If Jones ever recalled that day in Bethlehem, he apparently never wrote of it. But his life was so crowded with events in its short 45 years that it was possible he might have barely remembered it. Born John Paul to a Scottish landscape gardener, he became fascinated by the sea at an early age. Here he could imagine an adventuresome life, one not confined by the rigid social system of the 18th century, where glory and honor ruled. Jones went to sea at age 13. Part of that time was served as a third mate on slave ships. In 1768 he took command of the brig when both its captain and a ranking mate suddenly died. He guided the ship back to shore and its grateful owners gave him command of it. John Paul followed it with two successful trading trips to the West Indies. But after he flogged a crewmate from an influential family who later died of yellow fever, he was a marked man.
From that point he added Jones as his last name. Although there are long standing traditions that he took the name Jones after a friend who saved his life, most biographers believed he took that name because it was so common. Jones fled to Fredericksburg, Virginia where his older brother lived. Here he talked of founding a plantation. But when a young woman from an influential family rejected his offer to marry for that of a wealthy suitor, Jones gave up on the idea. Though he enjoyed the company of women, he apparently never again seriously thought of marriage.
Thanks to Richard Henry Lee of the Continental Congress he got a position with the new U.S. Navy. Jones was shown to be a skilled officer and performed well in the transport of troops, the movement of supplies, and the movement of convoys. But Jones was plagued by two problems. One was the elitist attitude of the New England officers who had control of the ships and his inability to control at times his feelings toward them, particularly the overall commander Esek Hopkins. Although he told Congress he wanted a fast ship because “I intend to sail in harm’s way,” Jones was constantly overlooked for New England captains.
Massachusetts legislators in Congress catered to their influential seafaring constituents whose primary interest was privateering largely because of the prize money they could reap from captured British merchant ships. Getting into battles with the powerful British Navy frigates was the last thing most of them wanted to do. In 1777 Jones went to France, which was about to become America’s ally, but had not yet done so. He was now in command of the newly constructed USS Ranger. Although new, Jones discovered the Ranger needed a lot of work to make her the kind of vessel he wanted.
On February 16, 1778 France signed a treaty of alliance with the U.S. and Jones took the Ranger on a raiding party into the British Isles. Here after much trouble he landed at the British port of Whitehaven, the port he had left as a 13 year-old when he first went to sea, and burned boats in her harbor. The Ranger’s most successful action was, after an hour’s battle that took its captain’s life, the capture of a sloop of war, the H.M.S. Drake. One source called it, “one of the Continental Navy’s few significant military victories of the Revolution.”
Jones would achieve another in 1779. Given a converted French merchant ship that he named Bonhomme Richard, the French translation of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, he set out with a small squadron to seek out British ships. His crew was an international bunch made up of English, French, Irish, Scottish, Norwegian, Swiss, Italian, Bengali, and Indian sailors. His marines numbered 140 mostly Irish deserters from the British service who were serving with a French regiment. They would act as sharp shooters from the rigging above. On September 23, 1779 off the East Yorkshire coast he spotted a convoy headed by the 50-gun British frigate, H.M.S. Serapis. It was one of the legendary battles of the age of sail. Although his other ships barely joined him in battle, Jones and his men fought determinedly, holding off one of the Royal Navy’s best ships.
Seeing that the Bonhomme Richard was about to sink, the British commander shouted to Jones if he was ready to surrender. His reply, which is sometimes debated by historians was, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Seeing that he could not fight any longer, Captain Richard Pearson of the Serapis surrendered. Jones took command of her as the Bonhomme Richard sank out of sight.
But Jones’s problems on land were more difficult to solve than those at sea. Although he was often promised new commands, he was, also, often denied them. Frustrated, he traveled to Russia where in 1787 he entered the navy of Empress Catherine the Great. But the intrigues against him in the Continental Congress were nothing compared with those of the Russian Court. In 1790 he returned to Paris an embittered man. It was in 1792 that Jones was found dead due to illness in his Paris apartment. Buried in a French cemetery owned by the royal family, his body was forgotten for years. It was not until 1905, at the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, that his body was exhumed in an elaborate ceremony and buried in a crypt beneath the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in a bronze and marble sarcophagus, a sailor home from the sea for good at last.