Simon Sebag Montefiore: The strange career of the founder of the US Navy

From a lecture by the writer and journalist, delivered at the British Russia Centre in Vauxhall, London

Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great's lover, secret husband and co-ruler of the Russian empire, delighted in his friendships with exotic princelings, Tartar imams and Jewish rabbis, but he had a more stormy relationship with the world's newest nation in the late 18th century, the Americans. He hired the founder of the US Navy, Admiral John Paul Jones, to fight for him in the Black Sea against the Turks, sacked him for incompetence but then saved him from one of the first sex-scandal honeytraps.

Jones, born the son of a gardener on a Scottish island, was the most celebrated naval commander of his day. Jones's tiny squadron of ships had terrorised the British coast during the American War of Independence: his wildest exploit was to raid the Scottish coast, taking hostage the inhabitants of a country house.

This earned him the enviable reputation in America as a hero of liberty, in France as a dashing heart-throb and in England as a pirate. Prints were sold of him; English nannies scared their children with tales of this bloodsoaked ogre. When the War of Independence ended in 1783, Jones, living in Paris, found himself at a loose end. Thomas Jefferson helped to direct him to Potemkin, who knew that Russia needed sailors. Neither he nor Catherine could ever resist a Western celebrity. Potemkin recruited him at once.

In April 1789, the American was arrested and accused of paedophile rape. The story has the seedy gleam of a modern sex scandal. Jones appealed to the prince: "A bad woman has accused me of violating her daughter!" Worse, the daughter was said to be nine. Jones, once a Parisian Lothario, admitted to Potemkin: "I love women" and "the pleasures that one only obtains from that sex, but to get such things by force, is horrible to me."

The French representative at the Russian court, Count de Segur, Jones's last friend, turned detective to save the American. He discovered that Jones had told Potemkin the truth – the accusing mother was a procuress who traded "a vile traffic in young girls."

The girl, Katerina Goltzwart, was not nine but 12, if not 14. She sold butter to guests at Jones's hotel, the London Tavern. In his statement to the chief of police three days after the incident, Jones admitted the "depraved girl" came several times to his room. He always gave her money. He claimed that he had not taken her virginity but "each time she came chez moi, she lent herself with the best grace to all a man could want of her."

Segur asked Prince Potemkin to reinstate Jones and not to charge him. The latter was possible, but not the former. "Thanks for what you tried to do for Paul Jones!" Jones was not prosecuted.

Who framed Jones? Potemkin was above such vendettas. The English officers hated the American corsair enough to frame him, but Segur concluded that Prince de Nassau-Siegen was the culprit.

Once back in Paris, Jones bombarded Potemkin with complaints about the medals he was owed: "Time will teach you, my lord. that I am neither a mountebank nor a swindler but a man loyal and true."

John Paul Jones was commissioned by Washington and Jefferson to defeat the Algerian pirates of the Barbary coast, but he died in Paris in July 1792, aged 45, and was given a state funeral. He became revered as the founder of the US Navy. His grave was lost until 1905 when General Horace Porter discovered Jones, well-preserved in a lead coffin.

In an example of necro-imperialism, President Theodore Roosevelt sent four cruisers to bring Jones home, and on 6 January 1913, thousands of miles and 125 years after parting with Potemkin, he was reburied in a marble sarcophagus, based on Napoleon's at Invalides, at the Naval Academy at Annapolis where he now rests – his strange career in Russia forgotten.

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