Part 3, Derangement

Page 3 of 6


The words that recur most often about Lewis's condition in the last weeks of his life are deranged and derangement. The Oxford English Dictionary defines deranged as "disordered in mind; insane," and cites several useful examples from the era in question.

Captain James House, for example, wrote a letter from Nashville on September 28, 1809, about what he had heard on the road about the indisposition of Governor Lewis. Lewis's friend Amos Stoddard had told House that, near Chickasaw Bluffs, he had encountered someone "who informed him, that Governor Lewis had arrived there . . . in a State of mental derangement ― that he had made several attempts to put an end to his own existence, which the patroon had prevented, and that Cap Russell, the commanding officer at the Bluffs had taken him into his own quarters where he was obliged to keep a strict watch over him to prevent his committing violence on himself and had caused his boat to be unloaded at the ferry to be secured in his stores."30 House went on to sound very much like Clark: "I am in hopes this account will prove exaggerated ― tho' I fear there is too much truth in it" [emphasis added throughout this section]. This letter is an important document in the suicide-murder debate, because it proves that the story of Lewis's suicide attempts on the lower Mississippi River did not surface after Lewis's death by way of adding credibility to the reports of his suicide. House's letter was written at the end of Lewis's stay at Fort Pickering, and eleven days before the incident at Grinder's Inn.

In his letter announcing Lewis's suicide to former President Jefferson, dated October 18, 1809, James Neelly wrote, "[O]n our arrival at the Chickasaw nation I discovered that he appeared at times deranged in mind. we rested there two days and came on. . . ." Neelly informed Jefferson that at Grinder's Inn, "a woman [Priscilla Grinder] who discovering the governor to be deranged gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it."31

Captain John Brahan wrote, "No person being at home but the wife of Mr. Grinder the woman discovering the Governor to be deranged gave him up the house and slept herself in another house near it."32

Gilbert Russell wrote several accounts of the two weeks he spent taking care of the ailing Lewis in September 1809. Three of those narratives are extant. In the first of those accounts, a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated January 4, 1810, Russell, who knew of Lewis's suicide, reported that when he arrived at Fort Pickering Lewis was suffering from a "situation that rendered it necessary that he should be stoped until he would recover, which I done & in a short time by proper attention a change was perceptible and in about six days he was perfectly restored in every respect & able to travel."33 Russell did not specify just what the situation was in the letter. In the second account, a letter to Jefferson dated January 31, 1810, Russell explained that Lewis's death was precipitated by "the free use of liquor,"34 which Russell had prohibited Lewis at Fort Pickering, but which James Neelly had permitted and apparently encouraged on Lewis's overland journey towards Nashville. This is the letter in which Russell blamed Neelly for Lewis's death. On November 26, 1811, Russell produced his last extant account of the decline and death of Lewis. "On the morning of the 15th of September," he wrote, "the Boat in which he was a passenger landed him at Fort pickering in a state of mental derangement, which appeared to have been produced as much by indisposition as other causes."35 Thanks to Russell's careful ministrations and his refusal to give Lewis access to alcohol, "on the sixth or seventh day," Russell wrote, "all symptoms of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses and thus continued for ten or twelve days."36 Unfortunately, once Lewis had resumed his journey, "in three or four days he was again affected with the same mental disease, [emphasis added]" perhaps because "By much severe depletion during his illness he had been considerably reduced and debilitated, from which he had not entirely recovered when he set off," because "that country being yet excessively hot and the exercise of traveling [was] too severe for him," and because "He had no person with him who could manage or controul him in his propensities."37

On November 26, 1809, Clark wrote to his brother Jonathan about the disposition of Lewis's papers. "I have just receved letters from Capt. Russell," he reported, "who Commands at the Chickasaw Bluffs that Govr. Lewis was there detaind by him 15 Days in a State of Derangement most of the time and that he had attempted to kill himself before he got there."38 Apparently Clark received letters from Gilbert Russell that have subsequently disappeared. Those letters confirmed the two prior suicide attempts, the house arrest at Fort Pickering, and Lewis's mental derangement.

In his biographical sketch of Lewis of August 18, 1813, Jefferson wrote, "Mr. Neelly, agent of the U.S. with the Chickasaw Indians arriving there [Fort Pickering] two days after, found him extremely indisposed, and betraying at times some symptoms of a derangement of mind."39

In 1845, the New York Dispatch published a retrospective article on Lewis's death, drawn from a newspaper called the North Arkansas, published in Batesville, Arkansas. Although the article reported Priscilla Grinder telling a somewhat different account of Lewis's death, it confirmed her observation "that Mr. Lewis was mentally deranged" on the evening of October 10, 1809.40

Thus the overwhelming testimony of Lewis's contemporaries was that in the last month of his life he was mentally ill, that his mental illness was related to and exacerbated by a severe physical indisposition (almost certainly malaria), and that his mental illness was worsened by "the free use of liquor which he acknowledged verry candidly," and vowed to curtail, according to Gilbert Russell. Although some of these observations would be regarded as hearsay and derivative in a court of law, three of these contemporaries, Gilbert Russell, James Neelly, and Priscilla Grinder, had the opportunity to observe Lewis directly between September 15 and October 11. They all used the word derangement in describing Lewis's behavior. Jefferson's account must have been based in part on James Pernier's face-to-face report at Monticello sometime later in the autumn of 1809.

It seems quite likely that Lewis's derangement was partly the result of a severe bout of malaria. Gilbert Russell explicitly considered that possibility. In other words, Lewis's mental illness may not have been solely mental in nature, but a combination of physical and metaphysical factors. In his last letters, Lewis spoke of his indisposition and his state of exhaustion, but not of mental or physical derangement. Vardis Fisher argues that Lewis's ability to write coherent letters to Madison and Stoddard "suggests that on his arrival at the fort he was delirious, or otherwise ├źderanged,' because of heat and fever, and not that he had gone out of his mind because of his financial and other troubles."41 Danisi and Jackson do their best to ignore the evidence of Lewis's mental derangement and emphasize his physical illness instead. Thus: "Commanding officer Capt. Gilbert Russell was appalled to see a man who was obviously so sick. . . . Captain Russell was no doctor but he had seen many men, himself included, suffer from the ague."42

30. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 87.

31. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

32. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 140.

33. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, pp. 243-244.

34. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 246.

35. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 251.

36. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 251.

37. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 252.

38. Holmberg, Dear Brother, p. 228.

39. Jackson, Letters, p. 592.

40. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 259.

41. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 85.

42. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 291.