Thu
Apr 4 2013 11:00am

The Death of Meriwether Lewis: Suicide or Murder?

He was one half of the famous Lewis & Clark expedition. He was secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, living behind canvas walls on the ground floor of the new, unfinished Executive Mansion. He was the first American governor of the Louisiana Territory. But, in early October 1809, Meriwether Lewis was found shot in the head in a room of an inn on the old Natchez Trace near present-day Hohenwald, Tennessee.

The verdict:  Suicide.

Thirty-nine years later, in 1848, an effort was launched to locate Lewis’s grave and provide a proper memorial.  The remains were exhumed and a coroner’s jury made a determination of cause of death.

The verdict: Murder.

The death of Meriwether Lewis has been controversial since the great explorer drew his last breath. Robert Grinder, owner of the Grinder’s Stand, the inn where Lewis died, was allegedly accused of murder, but the charges were said to have been dropped for lack of evidence. There are no records of those events. His wife, Priscilla Grinder, gave three very different accounts of what transpired. Major James Neely, a Chickasaw Indian agent traveling with Lewis, wrote the account that led to the suicide conclusion, but Neely was actually sixty miles away (two days ride by horse) at the time of Lewis’s death. A deposition, allegedly written by Major Gilbert C. Russell and produced for General James Wilkinson’s 1811 court martial, claims that Lewis attempted suicide twice on his way to Fort Pickering (Memphis) on that final journey. But the FBI has proved that deposition a forgery; a fraud designed, it seems, to bolster the suicide theory.

And none of that takes into account the second bullet hole, the one in Lewis’s chest.

In the face of such discrepancy, and despite the request of Lewis’s descendants, the U.S. Department of the Interior has refused to allow the exhumation of Lewis’s remains to sort out the controversy.

But who would want Lewis dead? And why?

First, in brief, the facts and the alleged eyewitness accounts: Lewis was headquartered in St. Louis in the fall of 1809. He had engaged in some land speculation, not unusual for the time. But Congress refused to reimburse him for expenses he made in the course of his duties as governor; his land speculation failed to earn him much money. Lewis was, in a word, broke. The young explorer determined to go to Washington and plead his case to Congress. Failing that, he intended to sell his journals, which were almost guaranteed to fetch a high price.

He intended to travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then book passage on a steamer to Washington, D.C. But for some reason, Lewis altered his course at Fort Pickering (Memphis, Tennessee) to proceed by the Natchez Trace, an old frontier road that ran from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville. This is where the story starts getting strange. Major Gilbert Russell, commander at Pickering, allegedly wrote a letter claiming that Lewis attempted to commit suicide twice while at Fort Pickering. The letter didn’t appear until General Wilkinson’s 1811 court martial. And, in 1996, it proved to be a forgery. Russell never wrote it.

But back to Lewis.

Traveling with Chickasaw Indian agent James Neely, who, like Russell, was appointed to his position by General James Wilkinson, Lewis struck the Trace, probably somewhere between what is now Corinth, Mississippi, and the Alabama line. Each man had a servant traveling with him. Just before they arrived at the Grinder’s Stand inn, according to Neely, two of their horses ran away and Neely went to chase them down. Keep this in mind for just a minute.

Priscilla Grinder said Lewis arrived at the inn and demanded a room. (Her husband, Robert, was away.) She described Lewis as distracted, claimed he appeared to be talking to himself. His bizarre behavior continued at dinner. Then late in the night, Mrs. Grinder heard several gunshots, and Lewis scratching at the back door and crying out for help. She said later that she had been too scared to venture into the night. But she also said in other testimony that there were servants with Lewis. And in later years, she claimed that two or three riders had come up the evening before and Lewis charged forth and challenged them to a duel. (Rather odd behavior if true.)

At any rate, Lewis was found at daylight with a gunshot to the chest and one to the head, and, apparently, several knife wounds. He died shortly thereafter.

His and Neely’s servants were asleep in a barn nearby. They claimed not to have heard the gunshots.

Neely provided Thomas Jefferson with an account of Lewis’s death. But attorney Tony Turnbow has discovered irrefutable court documents showing that at the time Neely claimed he was chasing down the horses, he was actually in Franklin, Tennessee, two days ride from Grinder’s Stand.

But let’s look at it rationally. First, Lewis would have had to have used his pistols (both .69 caliber) as his long rifles were not suited to suicide. For anyone familiar with firearms, the idea that Lewis could have shot himself not once, but twice with .69 caliber pistols is ludicrous. The wound made by such a round either to the head or the chest would have caused massive damage and surely would have precluded a second shot. My father, once a member of the Tennessee National Guard’s pistol marksmanship team, always swore that a round from a .45 caliber pistol to a thumb would stop a man in his tracks. And we’re asked to believe that Lewis sustained such a wound and then was still able to target either his head or chest for a second round. Those who believe that was possible (including famed historian Stephen Ambrose) either a) have no familiarity with firearms of that period, or b) are insane. This is not a situation where you can sit in your ivy-covered tower in academia and apply psychoanalytic babble to Lewis. This is a situation that cries out for proper forensic analysis.

The only examination of Lewis’s remains that bore even a semblance of forensic scrutiny took place in 1838, when his body was exhumed so his burial place could be determined and a memorial placed over it. An inquest jury at the time ruled that Lewis’s death probably was the result of homicide. 

Clay Jenkinson, writing in 2012, claims speculation that Russell’s letter of 1811 was a forgery is unsupported. Jenkinson is a renowned and widely respected historian. But FBI handwriting specialists don’t typically draw unsupported conclusions, and that’s who pronounced Russell’s letter a fraud.

At the heart of most of the conspiracy theories is Major General James Wilkinson, twice commander of the United States Army, of whom Theodore Roosevelt later said: “In all our history, there is no more despicable creature.” Wilkinson was court-martialed for his role in Vice President Aaron Burr’s empire-building scheme in the southwest, but, to President James Madison’s chagrin, Wilkinson was acquitted. After Wilkinson’s death, it emerged that he had been a paid agent of the Spanish crown.

No question exists that Wilkinson was capable of arranging Lewis’s murder, but the motive is a bit vague. Some say that Wilkinson had Lewis killed in jealousy after Lewis was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. Some say Wilkinson feared what Lewis would report to Washington, D.C.

Kira Gale, who wrote The Death of Meriwether Lewis with forensic scientist James E. Starrs, believes that Wilkinson planned the assassination of Lewis. Historian David Chandler says that Lewis learned of Wilkinson’s treasonous activities and planned to reveal them to Congress as part of a bid to have his expenses as governor covered by the government, giving Wilkinson a motive to eliminate his much younger rival.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who hand-picked Lewis as his personal aide in the White House, has been implicated, if only in a passive role. David Chandler believes that Jefferson had a great deal to lose by Lewis’s revelations concerning Wilkinson. The treasonous general was commander of the U.S. Army under Jefferson. Had Lewis revealed his knowledge of Wilkinson’s treason, says Chandler, Jefferson’s legacy would have been permanently scarred.

Although critics only hint that Jefferson may have been directly involved, most grant that, at the very least, he eagerly embraced the suicide story. After all, Jefferson was close to both Wilkinson and Lewis, but Lewis was dead, so Jefferson took the path of least resistance—champion the suicide story to try and protect his reputation from being tarnished by Wilkinson’s misdeeds. Jefferson was a pragmatic politician; Lewis could no longer defend himself while Wilkinson might be able to paint the president with some of the wrongdoing.

Let’s sum up: Priscilla Grinder, the only available eyewitness, told three very different and contradictory accounts of Lewis’s death. Scratch Grinder as a credible witness. Major Neely, who reported Lewis’s death to Thomas Jefferson, is documented as having been 60 miles away on the day of Lewis’s demise. Everything that Neely reported to Jefferson was, by necessity, hearsay. Scratch Neely. The famous letter from Gilbert Russell, detailing earlier attempts by Lewis to commit suicide, was proven a forgery. Scratch Russell. 

By numerous accounts, Lewis sustained one .69 bullet wound to the chest and one to the head. The head wound is said to have taken off part of his skull. He is also reported to have had several knife wounds. It would be valuable now to know the location of the knife wounds, as they might have more closely reflected defensive wounds than suicide attempts.

Meriwether Lewis’s death cannot and should not be put down to suicide. The suicide story simply has too many holes in it and too much evidence arguing strongly against it. An exhumation and forensic examination could go a long way towards resolving the puzzle. Literally dozens of Lewis’s kinfolk have requested such an exhumation. But thanks to a Department of the Interior decision in 2010, we’ll never know the truth behind the famous explorer’s death.

Grave marker photo courtesy of Historic Marker Data Base.


When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.

See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.

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3 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Fascinating! You had me at the second bullet hole.
2. Andra Watkins
I've always been fascinated by Lewis's death. I agree that it can't be put down to suicide.
3. Kelly White
I will beleive anyone who adopts puppies!
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