RSS News


    Return to...
The CorpsThe Character of Meriwether Lewis
Part 4, On the Natchez Trace
Part 6, Suicide or Murder?

Part 5, Weighing Evidence

Page 5 of 6

so far as we know, no one witnessed the death of Meriwether Lewis. Lewis’s servant Pernier was sleeping in a barn or stable approximately 200 yards from the cabin in which the shooting occurred. So was Neelly’s servant. If Mrs. Grinder is to be believed, the servants apparently did not hear the gunshots. Mrs. Grinder was close at hand, across the breezeway, trying to sleep in the other cabin about fifteen feet away, but she did not claim to witness the gunshots. James Neelly was camping somewhere near, but not at Grinder’s Inn. Priscilla Grinder was an ear-witness to the shooting. She heard the shots, and she heard someone fall heavily to the floor of the other cabin. She claimed to have seen Lewis staggering around in the vicinity of the inn shortly after the shooting. In none of the accounts we have did she claim to have seen the body after Lewis’s death, though she almost certainly did. Nor is it clear from the accounts we have whether she was present in the room at the time of Lewis’s death. Probably she was.

The story of Lewis’s death works its way out from whatever actually happened at Grinder’s Inn through a handful of individuals, not one of whom is regarded as an unimpeachable witness. Everyone agrees that something happened at Grinder’s Inn at about 3 A.M.on October 11, 1809. Priscilla Grinder was as close to an eyewitness as exists in this troubled story, but she did not actually see what transpired. The next two to learn what happened and see the result were Lewis’s servant Pernier and Neelly’s unnamed servant. They seem to have had an exchange of words with the dying Lewis, who was still alive when they were summoned to the scene. When James Neelly rode up sometime later in the morning of October 11, Priscilla Grinder told him what she believed―or wanted him to believe―had happened. Neelly accepted her account and supervised the burial of Governor Lewis, though probably the physical labor was performed by black men. Neelly wrote to former president Jefferson on October 18, 1809, one week after Lewis’s violent death. John Bakeless has written, “The entire suicide story, therefore, depends entirely on what the people at Grinder’s Stand that night told Neeley [sic] the next day, with some possible confirmation from Lewis’s two servants.”83 Only one was Lewis’s servant.

Vardis Fisher has called Neelly’s letter to Jefferson “one of the most unsatisfactory documents in all of history.”84 That is something of an exaggeration. Neelly’s letter does not tell us all we would like to know about the death of Lewis, but it told Jefferson all he needed to know, and in clear terms. Neelly’s first sentence got right to the point: “It is with extreme pain I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am Sorry to Say by Suicide.”85 What could be more clear and concise than this? Neelly went on to provide a few details. He also accounted for Lewis’s trunks and papers, and asked the former president where they should be sent. That would have been one of Jefferson’s primary concerns. Indeed, Jefferson would have regarded the security of Lewis’s papers as more important at the time than further details about the shooting. Like Clark, Jefferson’s next thought after absorbing the terrible news of Lewis’s death would have been, as Clark put it, “[W]hat will be the Consequence? what will become of my his paprs?”86

The key player in this sad story was Priscilla Grinder. Dee Brown has called her “history’s sole source for the last hours of Meriwether Lewis’s life.”87 Unfortunately, neither Mrs. Grinder nor Pernier nor Neelly’s servant ever wrote a first-person account of Lewis’s death, so far as we know.88 Neelly was not an eyewitness. His account of the death of Lewis was based primarily on the testimony of Mrs. Grinder, to a certain degree on the testimony of Pernier and his own servant, and partly on his own direct observation of the desperate tableau that awaited him at Grinder’s Inn when he arrived on the morning of October 11.

The key documents pertaining to the death of Lewis are, in descending order, Priscilla Grinder’s account as told by Neelly in his October 18, 1809, letter to former president Jefferson; Alexander Wilson’s account of his interview with Mrs. Grinder, dated May 18, 1811; and three documents created by Gilbert Russell. These documents included two letters to Jefferson, dated January 4, 1810, and January 31, 1810, and the affidavit or deposition he gave on November 26, 1811. Although Russell was not at or near Grinder’s Inn on October 10-11, 1809, he had an opportunity to observe Lewis at Fort Pickering for two full weeks between September 15 and September 29, 1809. Because Russell felt the need to place Lewis under friendly arrest at Fort Pickering, and because he reported that Lewis had twice attempted to commit suicide on the Mississippi River ride between St. Louis and today’s Memphis, his testimony represents an essential part of the story.

An incident for which there was no known eyewitness can never be entirely cleared of mystery.

much has been made of Robert Grinder’s absence on the night of the shooting, but such things happen. Grinder had no way of knowing that Lewis was approaching his hostelry. His absence does not automatically make him a suspect in the case. The murderists find Priscilla Grinder’s fear and trembling, her delay in rousing Lewis’s attendants, deeply suspicious; but there is no adequate reason to discredit her testimony merely because she was paralyzed by fear after the shooting and waited until daylight to send for help. Such things happen. How many historians have been awakened in the middle of a dark night in the middle of nowhere by a shooting incident in their family’s private quarters? Murderists find Neelly’s absence at the time of the shooting suspicious, particularly because he turned up so soon after Lewis’s death on the morning of October 11. On that score, President Madison’s explanation is as good as any: “As soon as they had passed the Tennessee [River], he [Lewis] took advantage of the neglect of his companion [Neelly], who had not secured his arms, to put an end to himself.”89 In other words, the separation of Neelly and Lewis was not the work of Neelly but of Lewis, who insisted on riding ahead to the first white settlement on the Natchez Trace while Neelly remained behind to scour up the stray horses.

Unfortunately, as in virtually all cases of violent death, none of the core players can be regarded as entirely reliable. Mrs. Grinder changed her story over time. By 1839, thirty years after the incident, in her last known account of the death of Lewis, she stated that, “About dark two or three other men rode up and called for lodging. Mr. Lewis immediately drew a brace of pistols, stepped towards them and challenged them to fight a duel. They not liking this salutation, rode on to the next house, five miles.”90 Even Vardis Fisher, who was determined to undermine the credibility of any suicide witness, dismissed the 1839 account as preposterous. “That Lewis rushed out and challenged two or three men to a duel merely because they asked for lodgings is so fantastically improbable that we must assume either that Mrs. Grinder invented it to support her story of derangement, or got Lewis mixed up with another lodger on another occasion.”91

James Neelly was not the villainous character most murderists make him out to be, but he did appropriate a number of Lewis’s personal objects at the time of Lewis’s death. He “returned” a few of them only when Lewis’s brother John Marks directly confronted Neelly’s wife in Nashville in January 1812, and apparently never returned some of Lewis’s personal effects to his family. He had the effrontery to make a financial claim against Lewis’s estate, in spite of his failure to protect the safety of the distinguished man he had agreed to escort. He may also have pocketed the cash Lewis was carrying on his last journey. Neelly’s mismanagement of Lewis’s drinking problem between Fort Pickering and Grinder’s Inn earned him the wrath of Gilbert Russell, who told Jefferson that Neelly was essentially responsible for Lewis’s death: “[T]his Agt. being extremely fond of liquor, instead of preventing the Govr from drinking or keeping him under any restraint advised him to it & from every thing I can learn gave the man every chance to seek an opportunity to destroy himself.”92 Neelly was unceremoniously dismissed from his post as US Indian agent in 1812, a fact that murderists seldom fail to cite in their indictment of his character. In retrospect, Gilbert Russell believed that almost anyone else would have been a more responsible chaperon of Lewis than Neelly. If Meriwether Lewis was murdered at Grinder’s Inn, Priscilla Grinder was either one of the conspirators, or―after the killer(s) fled―she wrongly concluded that Lewis had killed himself. If she had a role in the murder, James Neelly was either a fellow conspirator, or he was a man so simple-minded that he accepted her suicide story without skepticism when he rode up later that morning. These notions frankly strain credulity. If Neelly and Mrs. Grinder were co-conspirators, they either committed the crime without Pernier and Neelly’s servant knowing what they had done, or they included the servants in the conspiracy, or they intimidated them into lifelong silence about what actually transpired at Grinder’s Inn. By the time Pernier reached Thomas Jefferson later that fall, he was sufficiently far away from Neelly that he would have felt secure in telling Jefferson the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.


the two most important men in Lewis’s life, Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, had the same reaction to the news. They were shocked, but they were not surprised. Jefferson could not have been more categorical if he tried. In a public account of the life of Lewis, Jefferson wrote, “About 3. oclock in the night he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens.”93 William Clark, learning of Lewis’s suicide from a frontier newspaper, wrote, “[I]t Says that Govr. Lewis killed himself by Cutting his Throat with a Knife, on his way between the Chickaw Saw Bluffs and nashville, I fear this report has too much truth, tho’ hope it may have no foundation―my reasons for thinking it possible is founded on the letter which I recved from him at your house, in that letter he Says he had Some intintion of going thro’ by land. . . . I fear O! I fear the waight of his mind has over come him, what will be the Consequence? what will become of my his paprs?”94 Notice that Clark did not question the suicide. What he sought was confirmation that Lewis had changed his plans and traveled overland towards Nashville.

Neither Jefferson nor Clark rejected the suicide story as preposterous or even unlikely. That is exceedingly significant. If either of them had the slightest doubt, they would have expressed their resistance to the news in one way or another. If Clark had felt there was any possibility that Lewis had been murdered, if he had sensed anything suspect in the stories radiating out from Nashville, he would have gone to Grinder’s Inn himself to investigate. It is, in fact, more than a little odd that he never in the course of his long life made the pilgrimage to Lewis’s lonely grave. Perhaps he could not bear to visit the scene of such desperation. Perhaps he was ashamed of his friend, or ashamed of himself for not doing more to help Lewis during his last struggle.

The two most important men in Lewis’s life accepted the suicide story because it rang true ― it squared with what they knew about the troubled soul of Meriwether Lewis; how completely he embodied the external strains and challenges of his life; how sensitive he was to criticism; how hard he was on himself; how dramatic and even melodramatic he tended to be; and how self-punishing he was when he felt that he was not meeting his own or the world’s expectations. For Clark, Lewis’s suicide made sense in light of the last letter he received from Lewis, in light of his last meeting with Lewis on August 25, 1809, in St. Louis, after which Clark confessed that “I have not Spent Such a Day as yesterday fer maney years . . . if his mind had been at ease I Should have parted Cherefully.”95 That that Meriwether Lewis might have taken his own life did not surprise William Clark, however deeply he grieved for his fallen friend. For Jefferson, Lewis’s suicide made sense given Lewis’s bewildering silence in the last fifteen months, his failure to write the book, and the difficulties he had put himself in with the War Department in Washington. Jefferson remembered observing “sensible depressions of mind”96 during the White House years, and he was aware of the “constitutional source”97 from which they sprang in both branches of the Lewis family.(These great men―both individuals of extraordinary integrity―accepted Lewis’s suicide. They had more heart and soul invested in Meriwether Lewis than any historian can muster two centuries after the fact. If Jefferson and Clark found Lewis’s suicide all too plausible, how is that we have such trouble accepting it? If they accepted the story without protest, how can a modern biographer declare, “If there is such a person as the anti-suicide type, it was Meriwether Lewis. By temperament, he was a fighter, not a quitter. Much has been made of his introspection. . . . Sensitive he was; neurotic he was not. Lewis was one of the most positive personalities in American history”?98 Doubting Neelly and Mrs. Grinder is a painless enterprise, even if it is unfair. Doubting Thomas Jefferson and William Clark requires amazing temerity. Clark and Jefferson did not believe that Lewis was the “anti-suicide type.” Just the reverse.

The only close friend of Lewis’s who visited the gravesite was Alexander Wilson, the American ornithologist whom Lewis met in 1807 after returning from the great journey. Wilson made his pilgrimage to Grinder’s Inn in the spring of 1811. He loved Lewis. After his interview with the Grinders, he stated, “I left this place in a very melancholy mood, which was not much allayed by the prospect of the gloomy and savage wilderness which I was just entering alone.”99 Wilson subsequently wrote a remarkable poem about Lewis’s disintegration and demise. Wilson, like Jefferson and Clark, was an unambivalent suicidist.

Wilson was no patsy. In his letter to Alexander Lawson, May 28, 1811, he expressed anger at Priscilla Grinder’s failure to succor Lewis as he lay dying on October 11. He had sternly instructed Robert Grinder to take something like adequate care of the late governor’s grave, made him sign a letter promising to do so, and sealed the contract with an advance payment of cash. Wilson interviewed Priscilla Grinder. He recorded her story in considerable detail. It does not vary in any significant way from James Neelly’s more cursory account of Lewis’s death. Danisi and Jackson, though they are not quite suicidists and emphatically not murderists, rightly acknowledge the credibility of Wilson’s report and the unvarnished authenticity of Mrs. Grinder’s narrative. “His interview with Mrs. Grinder recovered the best first-person account of the fatal night. It seems unlikely that the authenticity of the vivid details that he took down were colored by sympathy or retelling.”100

Wilson was Lewis’s friend and advocate. If he had felt the slightest doubt about the veracity of Mrs. Grinder’s story, if he had suspected that she had anything to hide or was omitting any material facts of the case, he would have challenged her directly or at least written of his suspicions and frustrations when he had gotten clear of the grumpy Robert Grinder and Grinder’s Inn. His moving account of the death of Lewis accepts the suicide story unhesitatingly. So does his poem.

These would seem to be insuperable problems for the murderists. Thomas Jefferson, patron and father figure to Lewis, was publicly certain it was suicide. William Clark, partner in discovery and closest friend, was unhesitatingly convinced it was suicide. Alexander Wilson, the scientific friend who undertook a pilgrimage to the lonely grave and interviewed the woman who was the nearest thing we have to an eyewitness, was entirely convinced it was suicide. None of them ever wrote a single sentence giving Lewis’s death the benefit of the doubt or suggesting any possibility of an alternative theory of his death.

Strangely, the enormous weight of these three men’s testimony has not prevented some historians from preferring that he was murdered at Grinder’s Inn.

melodramatically, Lewis’s distinguished biographer Richard Dillon wrote, “Was Meriwether Lewis murdered? Yes. Is there proof of his murder? No. Could Lewis’s death have been a suicide? Yes. Not only because the analysts today will insist that anyone is capable of self-destruction, given the right set of circumstances, even a man of courage like Lewis, but because the Governor was fatigued, depressed, sick and, at times, delirious . . . . And, where there was no proof of murder, there was ‘evidence’ of suicide at Grinder’s Stand.”101 Consider the logic of this. There was evidence of suicide, there was no proof of murder, the governor was fatigued, depressed, sick and, at times, delirious, but “Was Meriwether Lewis murdered? Yes.” It is hard to imagine historiography more colored by wishful thinking than this.

Given all that he conceded in his analysis, it would seem that Dillon, an outstanding historian and biographer, would be forced by his own analysis to pronounce Lewis’s death a suicide, but he concluded, “If there is such a person as the anti-suicide type, it was Meriwether Lewis. By temperament, he was a fighter, not a quitter.”102

Dillon’s suspects include Pernier (perhaps to recover “the money which his master owed him”), Neelly’s servant (“bribed or terrified into lasting silence, or an accomplice”), Neelly (“certainly stole the Governor’s rifle, horse, pistols, dagger, and pipe-tomahawk”), the Grinders (“the inn-keeper, lurking in the woods, or his hard-bitten woman”), possibly even Gilbert Russell (“no paragon of virtue”).103 In the end, having sifted the evidence against all of these individuals, Dillon opts for someone else, however: “His assassin, I am convinced, was either an unknown land pirate of the ilk of the Harpe brothers of bloody Natchez notoriety, or the mysterious Runnion, suspected by Whiteside’s coroner’s jury because his moccasin tracks and the impression of the butt of his unusual rifle were found in the dirt near Lewis’s cabin.”104 “Is there proof of his murder? No.”(/p>

Although the great Lewis and Clark editor Elliott Coues was inclined to vote for murder, he freely admitted that “the fragmentary evidence which has come down to us [indicating murder], moreover, does not hang together well.”105 He freely acknowledged that one of the principal problems for the murder theory was Jefferson’s public declaration that Lewis took his own life. The murder theory is “offset,” Coues admitted, “by the unqualified statements of Mr. Jefferson, a wary and astute man of the world, accustomed to weigh his words well; one who must have been satisfied in his own mind that he had the facts of a case beyond his personal knowledge; and one who had every imaginable reason―personal, official, or other―to put the matter in the most favorable light.”106 Coues admitted that the principal reason to wish it were murder is “to clear so great a name from so grave an imputation.”107 That would seem to be the essential motive of the majority of murderists.

Dr. Eldon Chuinard rejected suicide on the basis of forensics. A man shooting himself with .69 caliber bullets is not going to have the strength to wander about the yard and breezeway of Grinder’s Inn. “The second shot,” Chuinard wrote, “would be expected to have killed Lewis instantly, or have disabled him . . . What do the supporters of suicide think that this second shot would have done to the heart, lungs, aorta and/or intestines? Certainly Lewis would have been in dire shock and soon have bled to death or perhaps paralyzed from spinal cord injury.”108

More recently, Dr. David Peck has disputed Chuinard’s conclusion. The internal trauma and bleeding “could have definitely gone on for two hours prior to his death, not causing the ‘instant death’ that Dr. Chuinard believes it would have,”109 Peck wrote.

Peck believes Lewis was suffering from the milder of the two forms of malaria. He would not have been able to travel if he had been suffering from the more severe strain which caused low blood sugar, anemia, and kidney failure, causing the victim to die “within days.”110 He also doubts that the milder form of malaria would have caused him to commit suicide. “I find it difficult to imagine that symptoms of fever, chills, headache, and nausea he had experienced previously would have caused Lewis to take his own life at this time.”111 Peck believes it is more likely that Lewis’s suicide was brought on by a combination of the malaria, opium addiction, alcoholism, and “other psychological problems.”112

David Lavender, like Stephen Ambrose, was certain that Lewis committed suicide. “There was no doubt in Jefferson’s mind ― or in Clark’s who heard the news in Louisville while on another trip East with Julia and their eldest son, the infant Meriwether Lewis Clark ― that the death was suicide and not murder, a theory that keeps insistently cropping up to explain, in more palatable form, the death of a national hero.”113 For Lavender, the murder theory is not based on evidence, but on the psychology of the American public. Suicide is a shameful way for a national hero to die. Murder is “more palatable,” because would enable us to believe Lewis was mentally stable at the time of his death.

The list of contemporaries who believed that Lewis committed suicide is monumental: Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, Alexander Wilson, Gilbert Russell, James Neelly, John Pernier, Priscilla Grinder, John Brahan, and the anonymous friend who wrote Lewis’s obituary.114 The list of contemporaries who believed that Lewis was murdered is . . . well, entirely blank, with the possible exception of Lewis’ mother Lucy Marks. The list of twentieth century authors who are convinced that Lewis committed suicide is enough to daunt the courage of any murderist: Donald Jackson, Gary Moulton, James Ronda, James Holmberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Stephen Ambrose, Thomas Slaughter, David Lavender, Stephen Dow Beckham, M.R. Montgomery, Harry Fritz, David Freeman Hawke, David Nicandri, Paul Cutright, Jonathan Daniels, Dayton Duncan, William Foley, Landon Jones, Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs, Carolyn Gilman, Larry Morris, Dawson Phelps, David Peck, and a host of others.

The list of contemporary murderists is also impressive: John Guice, Richard Dillon, Elliott Coues (?), Reuben Gold Thwaites, John Bakeless, Bernard DeVoto, Vardis Fisher, Eldon Chuinard, Olin Wheeler, Kira Gale, and James Starrs.115

John Bakeless, though he was a murder advocate, acknowledged, “The evidence for murder is not very strong, and the stories from Fort Pickering strongly suggest suicide, but none of the evidence is really conclusive.”116

the leading exponent of the murder position is John Guice, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and an expert on the history of the Natchez Trace. He has written and lectured extensively on this subject. In the endless debate over the death of Meriwether Lewis, Guice and the murderists have one enormous advantage; it is impossible to refute their main assertion. Guice has written, “No one knows whether or not Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. No one witnessed the firing of the two .69 calibre pistol balls that caused the fatal wounds.”117

Guice has summarized the murderist position in a delightful and at times playful thirty-two-page essay, “Why Not Homicide?” in By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. Guice’s historiography―at least in this essay―is remarkable and perplexing, to say the least. He spends a full thirty pages attempting to punch holes in the suicide theory, and just a page and a half making the case that Lewis might have been murdered. By my count, Guice offers forty arguments against suicide. (See footnote)118 The essence of his argument is twofold: first, that the “evidence” for suicide is not nearly as compelling as it has been made to appear, and almost every piece of suicide “evidence” is capable of being read another way; second, because it is impossible to know definitively that Lewis committed suicide, historians should be much more even handed and agnostic about this sensitive and important question. Guice argues that the authority of three men has unfairly distorted the debate: Dawson Phelps, who wrote an influential article for the William and Mary Quarterly in 1956; Donald Jackson, whose magisterial Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1978) has made him seem like the final authority on Lewis and Clark questions; and Stephen Ambrose, whose Undaunted Courage (1996) has sold “millions of copies and who did far more than any other single writer to convince Americans that Lewis killed himself.”119 Guice argues that if historians were more rigorous and less impressionable ― less in the thrall of Ambrose and Jackson ― they would admit the suicide-murder debate is far from resolved. He suggests that responsible historical analysis must acknowledge, at the very least, that in the absence of an eyewitness, we can never be 100 percent sure that Lewis took his own life. In that regard, Guice has performed an important service to Lewis and Clark studies.

John Guice makes many useful points in his essay. He argues that there is no good reason to conclude that Lewis was depressed after the expedition merely because he was dilatory in getting to St. Louis. Not only did Lewis make considerable progress on the publication project in the nation’s intellectual capital, Philadelphia, in 1807, but he got a well-deserved vacation in which he “cavorted with the girls.”120 Guice also rightly contextualizes Lewis’s drinking habits. Heavy drinking in the early national period was not unusual. W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition is a useful study of the heavy consumption that was commonplace on the American frontier. Guice concludes, “The amount of whiskey drunk on the southern frontier seems astronomical by modern standards.”121

Guice also insists that while Lewis’s administrative difficulties in St. Louis were serious and to him exasperating, they were not particularly unusual on the western frontier in that era. US government functionaries in and out of the army routinely had trouble getting their vouchers honored by faraway Washington bureaucrats. As Danisi and Jackson convincingly prove, Lewis was busy, productive, and professionally engaged throughout his time in St. Louis, in spite of the backbiting insubordination of his assistant Frederick Bates, in spite of the manifold complexity of land titles and social and legal authority in the period of transition between European colonial administration of Louisiana and the regimen that the new sovereign, the United States, was attempting to impose on an outspoken and unruly population far from the national capital.122

Guice joins a chorus of writers, best represented by the late Stephen Ambrose, in arguing that “It would have been utterly unrealistic” for President Jefferson to believe that Lewis could administer the raw new territory and, at the same time, write a multivolume account of his travels. It is far from clear, Guice argues, that Lewis felt any significant guilt or despondency in not having completed the book.123

Guice is much less convincing when he faults Gilbert Russell for not providing details about Lewis’s two alleged suicide attempts on board the boat that brought him from St. Louis to Fort Pickering. Guice implies that Russell’s failure to specify the nature of the suicide attempts undermines his credibility. Guice fantasizes that Lewis might simply have lost his balance and fallen (twice?) from the deck of the ship “due to wind and current on one of the world’s greatest rivers.”124 This is not a convincing argument. Nor does Guice make a convincing argument that Russell’s affidavit of November 26, 1811, is inauthentic.125

Guice rightly argues that Lewis’s letter to President Madison from Fort Pickering, dated September 16, 1809, is the work of a man essentially in control of his rational faculties (see above, first three paragraphs of Part IV). The fact that the extant copy of the letter is riddled with corrections and deletions is not necessarily evidence that Lewis was deranged. It may have been a draft of the letter Lewis actually sent. He was writing to the president of the United States at a moment when his entire future was at stake. Lewis was physically ill. The document we have is a mess. But the letter is anything but incoherent.126

Guice spends more time trying to puncture peripheral arguments for suicide than analyzing the facts of October 10-11 themselves. In the course of his thirty-two-page essay, he is unable to shake the credibility of Priscilla Grinder, the key “witness” in the story. The best he can do is raise the possibility that Mrs. Grinder claimed, after the shots were fired, she saw more than would actually have been possible on a moonless night. His attempts to weaken the authority of Jefferson’s and Clark’s immediate and lifelong acceptance of the suicide story are unconvincing. He joins Vardis Fisher in arguing that because Jefferson’s integrity (on some issues) has been called into question by biographers and historians, the former president’s declaration that Lewis committed suicide should not be accorded automatic credibility. Jefferson apparently anticipated Guice’s skepticism. At the end of his biographical sketch of Lewis, he wrote, “To this melancholy close of the life of one whom posterity will declare not to have lived in vain I have only to add that all facts I have stated are either known to myself, or communicated by his family or others for whose truth I have no hesitation to make [myself] responsible.”127 One of those “others” was John Pernier, who traveled to Monticello after Lewis’s death to provide a personal report to Jefferson. Guice is even weaker on Clark’s “I fear O! I fear” letter to his brother Jonathan dated October 28, 1809. If Clark really believed Lewis committed suicide, he argues, why didn’t he write more about Lewis’s death during the remaining nineteen years of his life?128 This argument is essentially incoherent. If Theodore Roosevelt really believed that his first wife died on Valentine’s Day 1884, why did he steadfastly refuse to talk or write about her for the rest of his life?

Guice is at his best when he calls for skepticism and agnosticism, at his worst when he publishes absurdities in the hope of nibbling the opposition to death. Even so, it is possible to grant many of Guice’s arguments without joining him in the conclusion that the suicide theory is weak or baseless. The sum total of Guice’s argument is this: We cannot prove Lewis committed suicide. He might have been murdered. Therefore he was murdered.

Guice gives the overwhelming bulk of his energy to the mission of weakening the suicide theory. Only in the last page and a half of his essay does he actually make the case for murder, and then rather half-heartedly. First he nominates as potential assailants James Neelly, John Pernier, and Robert Grinder, but without providing any details or even suggesting motives. Then he cites one of his university students who irresponsibly suggested that Lewis made sexual advances towards Priscilla Grinder, after which she shot him dead. Next he offers two vague indictments of the notorious James Wilkinson. In the first, Wilkinson, a spy and a traitor, wanted Lewis dead (no motive provided) and somehow convinced Lewis’s servant Pernier to do the wet work. In the second, Jefferson helped Wilkinson cover up the crime.129 At least it can be said that not even Guice is convinced by the wild argument that Jefferson was part of the conspiracy. Finally, in the last sentence of the essay, Guice provides his entire case for murder. I quote John Guice’s murder theory in its entirety: “A perfect target for outlaws, Lewis was probably their victim.”130 That, and nothing more.

As Hamlet said, “Is this a prologue, or a posy of a ring?”131


-- Clay S. Jenkinson, 03/2012

83. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 415.

84. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 128.

85. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

86. Holmberg, Dear Brother, p. 218.

87. Dee Brown, “What Really Happened to Meriwether Lewis?” in Columbia Magazine, Winter 1988. Vol. 1, #4.

88. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 337: “But not one word, alas, of Jefferson’s conversation with the Creole [Pernier] has come down to us. Certainly, however, Pernia confirmed Neelly’s claim of suicide (whether rightly or wrongly), so that Jefferson never even considered murder to be a possibility.”

89. Quoted in Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, pp. 303-304.

90. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 155.

91. Fisher, Suicide or Murder, pp. 155-156.

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

93. Jackson, Letters, p. 592.

94. Quoted in Holmberg, Dear Brother, pp. 216-218.

95. Quoted in Holmberg, Dear Brother, p. 210.

96. Jackson, Letters, p. 592.

97. Jackson, Letters, p. 592.

98. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 344.

99. Quoted in Guice, By His Own Hand, p. 158.

100. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 343.

101. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 344.

102. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 344.

103. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 345-347.

104. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 348.

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

106. Coues, The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, p. lvii.

107. Coues, The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, p. lvi. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 251, acknowledges that Coues and Olin Wheeler “found themselves unable to reach a conclusion.”

108. Quoted in Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt, p. 293.

109. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt, p. 293.

110. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt, p. 294.

111. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt, p. 295.

112. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt, p. 295.

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

114. For the obituary, see Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 329.

115. Coues, Thwaites, and DeVoto, it must be acknowledged, were half-hearted murderists, at best. Each of them preferred murder but was aware that Lewis might well have killed himself. None was willing to dismiss suicide out of hand.

116. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 423.

117. Guice, By His Own Hand, p. 74.

118. 1. There were no eyewitnesses; 2. Too much is made of Lewis’s state of mind during his last days in St. Louis; 3. He was busier, less idle and dissipated in Philadelphia than historians have suggested; 4. Lewis was not the first man who has had a hard time finding a wife; 5. Claims that Lewis was an alcoholic have been greatly exaggerated; 6. What evidence do we have that Lewis was despondent about his inability to finish his book?; 7. Considering the complexities of his work in St. Louis, he was not a bad governor of Louisiana Territory; 8. Frederick Bates was not a reliable or credible source for describing Lewis’s difficulties or unpopularity in St. Louis; 9. His financial difficulties have been exaggerated. He was in trouble economically, but he had considerable equity in land, and he was far from bankrupt; 10. Writing one’s will is hardly an indication that he is about to kill himself; 11. It is hard to take seriously Gilbert Russell’s statement that Lewis had twice tried to kill himself given how vague his statement is; 12. Lewis’s letter to President James Madison was clear, upbeat, and rational; 13. Lewis’s letter to Amos Stoddard was hardly the kind of letter one would write who did not intend to return to St. Louis; 14. Russell’s November 26, 1811, deposition may not be authentic; 15. James Neelly’s statement that Lewis was deranged may only indicate physical exhaustion or a bout of drunkenness; 16. Jefferson would not have hired Lewis or sent him west if he thought he was mentally unstable; 17. Stephen Ambrose was inconsistent—earlier in his career he praised Dillon’s biography, but later became an unambiguous advocate for suicide; 18. Jefferson’s acceptance of the suicide story was a “clean” way to handle a difficult situation; 19. Jefferson was capable of self-deception and duplicity; 20. Jefferson’s view that mental hypochondria ran in the Lewis family has been refuted by family members; 21. Too much has been made of Clark’s acceptance of the suicide story—wild rumors were swirling around the American frontier; 22. The fact that Clark never wrote about Lewis’s death after 1809 is very odd—suggests that he was less sure it was suicide than we think; 23. Reliance on Clark’s single letter written immediately after the event is not proof that Clark was always convinced that Lewis killed himself; 24. Historians have read too much into Lewis’s birthday meditation of August 18, 1805, including that whippersnapper Clay Jenkinson; 25. The gaps in Lewis’s journal are not an indication that Lewis was suffering from depression—perhaps Clark was just the more natural journal keeper; 26. The Natchez Trace was not really as safe as historian Dawson Phelps claimed; 27. Dr. Ravenholt’s syphilis theory is implausible; 28. Dr. Chuinard was sure that Lewis could not have survived the second gunshot wound; 29. Lewis was suffering from malaria, not depression; 30. Lewis’s pistols would have made it difficult to shoot himself, particularly the second (abdominal) shot; 31. It was too dark that night for Mrs. Grinder to have seen Lewis struggling about the yard, and there is no mention of a candle or lantern; 32. In 1848 the Tennessee committee reckoned that Lewis had been murdered—it is worth taking that seriously; 33. Dawson Phelps’s conclusion is irrational and illogical—just because there is no evidence that Lewis was murdered does not mean that he wasn’t murdered; 34. The William and Mary Quarterly should have published Grace Lewis Miller’s fine refutation of Dawson Phelps; 35. What happened to Lewis’s money if he committed suicide?; 36. Vardis Fisher was not taken seriously primarily because he was a novelist; 37. Donald Jackson’s authority has been too influential in the suicide-murder debate; 38. Stephen Ambrose’s obsession with Lewis’s supposed suicide has more to do with his first wife’s suicide than with the facts of the Lewis shooting; 39. Why not dig Lewis up and do proper forensics tests?; 40. Richard Dillon makes a convincing argument that Lewis was not the kind of man who commits suicide.

119. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 100.

120. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 77.

121. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 78.

122. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, pp. 213-251.

123. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 79.

124. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 81.

125. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 83.

126. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 82.

127. Jackson, Letters, p. 593.

128. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 87.

129. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 102.

130. Guice, By His Own Hand?, p. 102.

131. Hamlet, III.ii.p. 143.

Part 4, On the Natchez Trace
Part 6, Suicide or Murder?

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)