Part 6: Suicide or Murder?

Page 6 of 6

In addition to their insistence that Lewis's death is too mysterious to declare a suicide, the murderists advance six principal arguments. The review that follows is not meant to be an endorsement.

First, the problem of forensics. How could a master marksman bungle his suicide? Assuming that Lewis was using .69 caliber pistols, how could he miss with the first shot? Lewis was a superb marksman, so the argument goes, and if he wanted to blow his brains out he would surely have been able to do so. Even if we accept that somehow the first shot miscarried and removed a portion of his skull without killing him, what followed, according to the evidence we have, strains credibility. How could a man suffering from a severe head wound have the capacity to shoot himself a second time? After he shot himself in the head, the murderists argue, he would have been unable to regroup and shoot himself in the side. Assuming he was―somehow―able to shoot himself in the side, he would have died more or less immediately. If somehow he lived on after the second shot, he would not have had the strength to crawl about the premises and the yard at Grinder's Inn. If we really want to know the truth, why not exhume the body and subject Lewis's remains to rigorous twenty-first century forensic analysis? Murderists claim that the suicidists are hiding behind the protocols of the National Park Service, because they know that exhumation would confirm that Lewis was murdered.

Second, the problem of mixed messages. Why would a suicidal man tell Amos Stoddard that he intended to return to St. Louis? Why would Lewis tell Gilbert Russell he intended to go to Philadelphia to finish his book if he planned to kill himself? Why would a suicidal man make plans to move his mother to Missouri? Why would Clark say he reckoned Lewis would return with flying colors if he knew Lewis was in steep decline?

Third, the problem of narrative inconsistency. What should we make of the conflicting testimony of Priscilla Grinder in the years (decades) after Lewis's death? Was she alone or wasn't she? Did she see Lewis lurching around on a moonless night, or did she make that up? If Lewis slashed himself with a knife or razor, why didn't Neelly mention that in his letter to Jefferson? Were there other travelers at or near the inn that night? What actual evidence do we have that Lewis tried twice to kill himself on the journey from St. Louis to Fort Pickering? Are Russell's letters authentic?

Fourth, the problem of credibility. How can we trust Major Neelly if he stole some of Lewis's personal items and refused to return a few of them to the Lewis family after his death? How can we trust the Grinders? All three of them were perfect strangers to Meriwether Lewis. All three are shadowy figures who would not merit even a footnote in history were it not for their association with Lewis at the worst moment of his extraordinary life. They may have been speaking the truth as they knew it, but none of them actually witnessed the death of Lewis, unless they were his assassins or co-conspirators with his assassins, in which case their testimony would, of course, be tainted. If Jefferson had an adulterous affair with Maria Cosway and tried to seduce his friend John Walker's wife, how can we trust him as a biographer of Lewis? Isn't there some evidence that Clark may have changed his mind later in life?

Fifth, the problem of character. Lewis had no adequate reason to kill himself. "If there is such a person as the anti-suicide type, it was Meriwether Lewis."132 All the alleged symptoms of Lewis's mental instability, gleaned both from the journey itself and from the years after his return, are deliberately taken out of context and heaped together to create the portrait of a neurotic and suicidal man. Guice wrote, "Interpretation of those . . . [incidents] as evidence of suicidal tendencies is farfetched, to say the least, unless one starts with the premise of suicide. . . . Where is the hard evidence that Lewis suffered from depression?"133

Sixth, the problem of the tenacity of the murder theory. It is not true, as the suicidists claim, that the murder theory didn't spring up until the mid-nineteenth century. Local folks from the Hohenwald have always suspected the suicide story. Although the written records are lost, oral tradition tells us of inquests, widespread suspicion of Robert Grinder, the possibility of bandits whose names are preserved, the rumor that Lewis had a map of a gold mine he had discovered in Montana, and much more. The 1848 Monument Committee in Tennessee would not have declared, without evidence, "The impression has long prevailed that under the influence of disease of body and mind Governor Lewis perished by his own hands. It seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin."134 Where there is smoke, there's fire. Oral tradition that points towards murder circulated immediately after the crime, and it continues to percolate in rural Tennessee in the twenty-first century.

The most recent contribution to the debate has been offered by Thomas Danisi and John Jackson in their 2009 administrative biography of Meriwether Lewis. Their view is that Lewis was suffering from an extremely severe form of malaria in the last weeks of his life. After twice attempting to kill himself on the river journey between St. Louis and Fort Pickering, Lewis did in fact take his own life at Grinder's Inn. His death was not suicide in the manner of a desperate or deranged man taking his own life, but an extreme response to extreme pain. It was, as they put it, "a strange and tragic form of self-surgery, not suicide."135 In other words, Lewis killed himself but did not commit suicide.

This is an extraordinarily ingenious argument. It effectively solves the problem of Lewis's violent death. Now the overwhelming evidence for what the poet John Donne called "self slaughter" can be accepted, but the stigma of suicide is removed. Good historians that they are, Danisi and Jackson found it impossible to explain away the documentary evidence for suicide. They did not engage in John Guice's quixotic attempt to undermine the foundation for suicide plank by plank, with good argument and bad. In my opinion, no competent historian, not even the formidable Guice, has been able to dispose of the evidence for suicide in a convincing way. Danisi and Jackson acknowledge the validity of the documents and oral traditions available to us. At the same time they do not believe Lewis was, in psychological terms, a suicidal man. Danisi and Jackson write, "It was the failure of his body, not his mind, nor his dedication, that cut him down. Lewis was simply unable to continue treating a lifelong, incurable illness. His death cannot be attributed, as many have tried to do, to personal weakness or to the failure to rise to a challenge. It was the result of unforgiving nature, the work of an impartial centuries-old protozoa as indifferent and final as a bullet."136

The often-repeated analogy to the self-slaughter but not suicide theory is the fate of the 200-plus workers in the World Trade Center towers who jumped out of the skyscrapers' windows after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Those individuals unquestionably jumped to their deaths that morning, but they cannot justly be regarded as people who committed suicide. They were not suicidal. Like Lewis, they killed themselves, but they did not commit suicide.

Given the slender basis for concluding that Meriwether Lewis was murdered, what fuels the persistence and vehemence of the murderists? I think literary historian Albert Furtwangler gets it exactly right. In his remarkable book Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals, Furtwangler writes, "No matter how one takes these lines [from Neelly's letter to Jefferson], as artless report or contrived cover story, they make a demeaning end for a man like Lewis. . . . One wants his death to be a fitting conclusion to his life, but it reads as a travesty of Lewis's days on the trail―an incongruous, discontinuous perversion of his career at his height."137 Furtwangler notes that in the last journey of his life, Lewis was not leading, but led, chaperoned by a man as far beneath him as James Neelly. The man who bestrode the source of the Missouri River ended his life in a roadside inn so squalid that he preferred to sleep on the floor. During Lewis's terrible derangement, one of the expedition's supreme riflemen "bungles even as a marksman."138

This seems like an essential insight into the perseverance and the vehemence of the suicide-murder debate. Elliott Coues admitted that one must prefer murder "to clear so great a name from so grave an imputation."139 David Lavender explained that the murder theory "keeps insistently cropping up to explain, in more palatable form, the death of a national hero."140

I have in this chapter tried in every possible way to be careful, rational, analytical, and generous. I have described the events of October 10-11, 1809, as objectively and fairly as possible. I end by paraphrasing Richard Dillon.

Was Meriwether Lewis murdered? Let the reader decide. Did Meriwether Lewis commit suicide? Let the facts be submitted to a candid world. As the master himself put it in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

[T]ruth is great, and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.141


132. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 344.

133. Guice, By His Own Hand?, pp. 88, 89.

134. Quoted in Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 95.

135. Thomas Danisi, "The 'Ague' Made Him Do It," in We Proceeded On 28, no. 1 (February 2002): pp. 10-15.

136. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p.342.

137. Furtwangler, Acts of Discovery, pp. 224-225.

138. Furtwangler, Acts of Discovery. pp. 224-225.

139. Coues, The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, p. lvi.

140. Lavender, The Way to the Western Sea p.385.

141. Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Peterson, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 347.