How did Meriwether Lewis die?

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy. And today we're going to be talking about a history mystery.

Katie: We've gotten a lot of requests to talk about the Lewis and Clark expedition, but considering that could easily be, oh, I don't know, an hour long podcast, we've decided to focus on something slightly more tangential but still related.

Sara: Very intriguing story too.

Katie: Exactly. And that is how did Meriwether Lewis die?

Sara: In 1809, Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds on the wild Natchez race, which is a road that goes from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, and people have been obsessed since then about finding out how he died. Obviously gunshot wounds, but what was the story surrounding it? People from all different fields - forensics, mental health professionals, scholars - some have constructed lunar cycles to discount the witnesses testimony, and some have studied the ballistics and analyzed the bullets. People are just obsessed with this, even though it happened 200 years ago.

Katie: and the question is was it a murder or was it a suicide? But before we get into that, let's go back to the very beginning because I hear that's a good place to start.

Sara: Sure is. Meriwether Lewis was born August 18th, 1774 near Charlottesville, actually really close to Monticello, Tomas Jefferson's home.

Katie: This will come in later.

Sara: And his father died serving in the Continental Army, and the family relocated to Georgia for a little bit before moving back to Virginia, and when Lewis was a young man, he joined the Virginia militia to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, and later enlists in the Army. And he's got a pretty impressive Army career. He advances rapidly and gets hooked up with Tomas Jefferson. By 1803, Jefferson has appointed him as the commander of an expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, so pretty good gig for young Meriwether. And he prepares for this pretty diligently, study all sorts of astronomy, botany, medicine, zoology - something I didn't know about. I'm just imaging him a frontiersman, exploring.

Katie: No, he did have some medical knowledge on other expeditions too.

Sara: Really studying up before this big expedition. And enlists his friend William Clark to co-command! And the Lewis and Clark expedition, just very briefly, covers 8,000 miles, takes three years with the core of discovery, and Lewis is the field scientist, so he's gathering specimens and keeping really detailed journals. And at the end of this massive trek, he comes home again.

Katie: And he is a national hero, as is Clark. The quote that most people know is from Tomas Jefferson. "His courage was undaunted, his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities. A rigid disciplinarian, yet tender as a father of those committed to his charge. Honest, disinterested, liberal, with a sound understanding and a scrupulous fidelity to truth." Which is a long winded way of saying he was pretty awesome?

Sara: Pretty stand-up guy.

Katie: So they were wined and dined and Lewis was named the governor of the upper Louisiana Territory in 1807, but instead of heading to St. Louis, which is where he was supposed to be, he goes to Philly to look for a publisher and an illustrator for the journals, because that was supposed to be his big priority. You get those journals published, and let everybody know what happened and what they found when they were exploring the purchase. Philadelphia society loves him. He's extremely social. He may have even proposed to a young lady while he was there, but then he goes to Virginia, still unmarried, and he doesn't make it to St. Louis until a year after his appointment which Tomas Jefferson is not pleased about, and he is not the sort of person I'd want to anger.

Sara: No.

Katie: He doesn't really love being a governor either, because you have to remember, he's this young, outdoorsy, frontiersman type of guy. So he's just a bit stifled at this desk job. Things aren't going well. His friends are worried that he has a drinking problem, which they call youthimistically his "indisposition." And he seems to be depressed. But when James Madison is made President in 1809, he replaces Jefferson's cabinet and the new Secretary of War, William Justus, won't pay Lewis back for some very legitimate expenses that Lewis had, so -

Sara: On the expedition.

Katie: Right. So Lewis decides he's going to make his way to Washington to take care of it.

Sara: So he leaves St. Louis and travels by the Mississippi River, departs the river at the Chicapaw Bluffs near Memphis, and sets off on the Natchez Trace for Washington D.C. And the Natchez Trace at this point is one of the most important roads in the United States. It's actually an old Native American game path, and like I said earlier, it stretches from southern Mississippi all the way to Nashville. And Jefferson has taken the trouble to expand the road and make it a little easier to travel, because he wants to connect Mississippi and Alabama to the eastern United States, and really incorporate the new territories into the country. But that's not to say it's an easy road to take. It's pretty wild.

Katie: Quite the opposite.

Sara: Yeah. It's got cane breaks and it runs by Cypress Swamps. It crosses rivers and creeks. As it's approaching the eastern Hardwood Forest, it rises 1,000 feet. So it's a pretty tough road.

Katie: And it has an intimidating nickname.

Sara: It does. It's known as the Devil's Backbone, and that's partly because of the geography, but it's mostly because bandits are also lurking along the road, waiting for travelers, mostly people who have traveled down the Mississippi River selling supplies to walk back up with all their money.

Katie: But there are a few little stops where you can go and stay a few inns along the way.

Sara: Yeah, these rough and tumble sort of places where you can stop, spend the night, buy some new ammunition and supplies, and on October 10th, 1809, Lewis stops at one of these.

Katie: It's called Grinders Stand. It's this little inn in the Tennessee Mountains, run by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Grinder, but Mr. Grinder is not in the house; Mrs. Grinder is. And sometime on the night of October 10th, Lewis sustains a gunshot wound to the head and also to the chest, and he's dead by sunrise the next morning as we mentioned before. So again, what is it that happened? The first theory is that he committed suicide. And a part of the reason that we think this is because of the testimony of Mrs. Grinder. Now, she does give a few different testimonies over the years, so let's just clarify that at the outset.

Sara: We're going to hear a lot of stories from old Mrs. Grinder.

Katie: Right. One part of Mrs. Grinder's story that we know is true is that Lewis shows up just with two servants. One, his own named Pernia, and another unnamed servant. And his traveling companion James Neely is about a day behind. He's rounding up some stray horses before he comes and meets up with Lewis.

Sara: He's the one that actually takes care of the body, right?

Katie: Right. So Mrs. Grinder tells her account to James Neely, and he writes in a letter to Tomas Jefferson, "Mrs. Grinder said that she noticed when Lewis came that something was just a little bit off. He didn't seem to be of sound mind. So she gives him the house, but makes sure she sleeps nearby in case something goes wrong. And the servants also sleep nearby in the stable loft. Around three a.m. she hears two pistol shots. So she wakes up the servants, and they get there, and Lewis has shot himself in the head and the chest. He asks for water, and then dies shortly thereafter." And again, Neely's not there, so he only hears this later from Mrs. Grinder, and she doesn't see any of it, she just hears it.

Sara: She's an oral witness.

Katie: Right. Maybe not the best account. Neely also says in his letter to Jefferson the possessions that he has of Lewis'. He's got his rif le, his watch, his pistols, his tomahawk. But you have to wonder why didn't Neely talk to the servant? Why didn't he talk to Mrs. Grinders children? Why didn't he transcribe anything, take good records?

Sara: There's no even semi-official inquest into this very suspicious death. Everyone is quick to assume its suicide.

Katie: And Mrs. Grinder gives a different testimony a couple of years later to Alexander Wilson, who is an ornithologist, and was supposed to do the illustration for the journals of all the birds. And she tells him that she was actually awake all night, and she was listening to Lewis talk to himself, this violent discourse.

Sara: She compared him to a lawyer, didn't she?

Katie: Yeah, like he was questioning himself back and forth. And she hears a shot and a thud, and he says, "Oh Lord," and then there's another shot, and he says, "Oh madam, give me some water and heal my wounds." But she doesn't, and instead watches him through spaces between the logs in the log cabin.

Sara: Which is so bizarre? And she says she's frightened.

Katie: Right. It's not the most flattering portrayal of oneself to give.

Sara: It's a strange story.

Katie: So is that because she didn't want to say that before, saying that this is what she saw, or is it because she's just making this up as she goes along? So she sees a body stagger outside and fall by a tree, but he makes it back into his room, and she can hear him scraping a bucket of water with a gord, because he's still thirsty. And she waits two hours before she sends her children to get the servants. And this is the grisly part. They find him with his brains exposed. There's not a lot of blood, but his forehead is completely gone, and he offers to pay the servants to finish the job. So he dies two hours later, and she says his last words were, "I am no coward, but I am so strong, it is so hard to die."

Sara: So in addition to Mrs. Grinder's story, we also have some contemporary descriptions of Lewis' mental state at the time. And the main one is Captain Gilbert Russell who was the commander of a fort where Lewis stayed, wrote to Jefferson about three months after the death, and said that Lewis was unstable and he was keeping him there at the fort until he seemed better. And he also thought that liquor was a big part of the problem, and that Lewis' friend Neely actually encouraged this drinking. We're going to hear more about Neely later on.

Katie: Neely's a little bit of a sketchy character. But Russell makes a public statement two years after the death, and again, this is something that much like Mrs. Grinder's testimony changes the longer time goes on. He calls Lewis "mentally deranged" when he arrived at Fort Pickering, and he also says the crew told him Lewis had tried to kill himself twice. He kept Lewis at the fort until he was better, but after he left, he got worse, and then says that he "destroyed himself in the most cool, desperate, and barbarian like manner." And again, he places some blame on Neely, who he thinks contributed to his ills.

Sara: And his account also mentions a detail about razors, about Lewis cutting himself head to foot with razors.

Katie: Which again, makes no sense? After you've got yourself in the head and shot yourself in the chest, why would you be cutting yourself from head to foot with razors?

Sara: And you were saying earlier, I thought this was interesting that that sounds like a very different kind of suicide. A different kind of person!

Katie: Self mutilation is much different from someone who actually wants to end it. And one scholar, Tomas DeNissi, who is a Lewis and Clark scholar, said that he thought perhaps Clark had malaria, and in severe cases, you can be in a lot of pain, and people may try to get at that pain in a self harming sort of way. So maybe that had something to do with it.

Sara: So it wasn't necessarily a suicide, but an accident.

Katie: Right.

Sara: But we - nevertheless we have a lot of motives, possible motives for Meriwether Lewis' suicide.

Katie: Things that could have contributed if he was already in a depressed state of mind.

Sara: To his stress. Financial problems, here he is going to D.C. to explain himself basically. He's thought to be unlucky in love, maybe a broken proposal or a refused proposal. He's not very good at being governor. He's an outdoorsy type, and not suited to a desk job.

Katie: Well, and one I think us writery type of people can empathize with, he could not seem to get those journals done.

Sara: Writers block.

Katie: That was his main job. He had to get them compiled, he had to get them illustrated and published. That was why he was there, and he couldn't seem to do it.

Sara: Yeah. The drinking problem, that too! And then an epidemiologist has suggested that Lewis has syphilis as well, which can lead to dementia and suicide. It can drive you crazy, basically.

Katie: And some also have suggested that he may have been addicted to laudanum, which again, drug addiction can obviously effect your mental state.

Sara: So this makes a pretty good case for the suicide camp.

Katie: And we have some pretty big names in that suicide camp. James Neely had told Tomas Jefferson that Lewis "appeared at times deranged in mind." William Clark, of course his good friend, thought that Lewis committed suicide even before he heard it for real. He'd seen a report in the newspaper that he'd killed himself, and said, "I fear, oh I fear, the weight of his mind has overcome him. What will be the consequence?" He never even questioned that it was suicide. And neither did Tomas Jefferson or Mullen Dickerson who were very good friends of Lewis'. Steven Ambrose, who wrote the Lewis biography Undaunted Courage, says it was definitely a suicide, as does a historian named Paul Russell Cutwright. So again, we've got some pretty good names in the suicide camp. But then -

Sara: But there's also a murder faction who believes that Meriwether Lewis did not take his own life, but was in fact murdered. So Lewis' family, or at least a lot of them, believe that he was murdered, and that's a pretty understandable thing for his family to think. Suicide is not -

Katie: It still carries a bit of a stigma.

Sara: Yeah, and Lewis' mother particularly did not want to believe that her son killed himself. Then there's this sort of weird story that you'll see presented as fact in a lot of sources that there a Tennessee commission that later studied Lewis' remains.

Katie: Right. They had an inquest.

Sara: And issued a report saying "it was more probably he died at the hands of an assassin," but this report was very flawed in that they didn't give any reason for why they came to this conclusion. But the whole thing is not -

Katie: We can't find any records that this ever happened at all, and in fact found several things that said, "No, this never happened. There were no courthouse records that were burned or destroyed. This was just another of the wild rumors."

Sara: But regardless of that, the murder theory does pick up some steam, and especially in the 1840s people start looking into that more. But you said that some people believed it was murder right from the start. But I like the explanations for why it might have been murder.

Katie: Right, some things about it are pretty fishy.

Sara: One - I mean, the major point is that Lewis was a good shot, and why did - he carried a 69 caliber pistol.

Katie: And how do you shoot yourself in the head with a 69 caliber pistol?

Sara: And live to shoot yourself again? So that's an interesting point. It's not really pointing fingers at any assassin, but it's an interesting reason why it might not be a suicide.

Katie: Right. And part of it was about the trajectory. Neely wrote in one of his letters that the second shot had "entered and passed downward through his body, and then came out low, down near his backbone." And some have said, well, that wouldn't make sense if it was a self-inflicted wound.

Sara: But we provided some potential motives for the suicide, so we've got to do the same for the murder. Who might have murdered Meriwether Lewis?

Katie: Well, our first suspect would be the traveling companion Neely, who Eldon Schenard, who's the authority on the medical history of the whole Lewis and Clark expedition, that's who he thinks is our best culprit.

Sara: And he's the one suggesting that the bullet trajectory is off.

Katie: Right. And he also says that Lewis may have found Neely going through his stuff, and Neely shot him. In general, Neely's a really sketchy character, and he doesn't come off well by anyone's account. He never even gives Lewis' stuff to his family. And he's not a friend of Lewis'; he's a government Indian agent that Lewis runs in to at Fort Pickering during his difficulties.

Sara: When he's being kept there because he's in such a depressive state.

Katie: Right, and he's happy to find a traveling companion. Another thing that people have pointed out that was strange about his behavior is that he sent his servant with Lewis and Pernia, who was Lewis' servant, instead of keeping him to help his own mission of finding these stray horses. And why would he do that? That doesn't make a lot of sense. And also, why didn't he get better accounts of Lewis' death. Is it because he had something to hide? So he's actually a fairly credible suspect if you're going with the murder theory.

Sara: And so is Lewis' servant, Pernia. Pernia went straight to Jefferson after the death saying it was a suicide, and then he goes to the family saying that Lewis owes him money, $240.00, and the family thinks that he might have been the one who murdered Lewis, if Lewis was murdered.

Katie: Right, and he's a somewhat credible person because he would have had the opportunity too.

Sara: Yeah, he dies only seven months after Lewis though, overdosing on laudanum.

Katie: On purpose, they think, so that would be two suicides in a row. Some say - and this is one of the more insane theories -

Sara: These get weirder and weirder as we go on.

Katie: We're not going to give this one any credence. That this was a conspiracy involving Tomas Jefferson! That's the account of David Leon Chandler, and he says that Jefferson wanted Lewis assassinated, because he knew Tomas Jefferson's deep, dark secrets. What these secrets are I don't know, but that's not a very credible idea.

Sara: Our other wild suspect is Mr. Grinder who was tried for murder, except that there are absolutely no trial documents to back this up. Some people have suggested that there was maybe some romantic relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Grinder.

Katie: Dangerous liaison.

Sara: But the only point we should make about the Grinders though is that they were very poor and shortly after this, they have enough money to buy land and slaves.

Katie: So they did get something out of this.

Sara: So something happened to them after the death.

Katie: And Grinder - Mr. Grinder is a little sketchy too. He illegally sold whiskey to Indians and they were basically just trying to make money any way they could. So we can keep them on the table, unlike another suspect, James Wilkinson. And Wilkinson was involved with Aaron Burr. They had a plot with the Spanish Government to make an entirely separate nation from the Mississippi Valley through parts of the southwest. But Wilkinson betrayed Burr to hide his own treason, and he ends up in New Orleans commanding troops. And therefore had the power to keep anyone from entering or leaving the mouth of the Mississippi. He was also governor of Louisiana before Lewis, and he was accepting lots of money from Spain. So some have said, what if Lewis found out?

Sara: Calling his treason.

Katie: Right. And Wilkinson had him snuffed.

Sara: And then remember we are at a seedy little inn on the Natchez Trace, the Devil's Backbone, so it might have been a robber. There was also a rumor going around at the time that Lewis had discovered a gold mine and mapped it out, and people thought this was true, even though -

Katie: These whole gold mine rumors don't usually really work out.

Sara: So anybody could have been trying to steal this information about the gold mine.

Katie: Goonies style.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: And our last sort of sketchy account from Mrs. Grinder. She was interviewed again 30 years after Lewis' death, and this time, she tells again a completely different story. It has very little in common with the other two. She says that armed men had some to the end, and Lewis had challenged them to a dual. And she also says that the servants stayed with Lewis, where remember she's said before that they stayed in a stable loft. In the middle of the night she hears three shots, and she sees Lewis crawling in the road on all fours, and when she sees Pernia, his servant, he was wearing Lewis' clothes, which he then quickly said Lewis had given to him. And some of this account actually makes sense, but some of it is completely ridiculous. She says at one point after he was shot, he said, "Oh, Lord, congress relieve me." Which I don't think is the kind of thing one says when they're shot.

Sara: A dying man says? No.

Katie: And another point that we'd like to make is that Meriwether Lewis Clark who was Clark's son, but named for Meriwether Lewis, may also have wanted to take away the stigma of suicide for Lewis.

Sara: So stoked this murder idea.

Katie: Right, in later years.

Sara: A professor of law and forensic science, James Darrs, says in 1996 that maybe the best way we can find out definitively whether it's murder or suicide is if we exhume Meriwether Lewis' body.

Katie: Right, and his descendants agreed to it. They all sign off, they want to know what happened too.

Sara: The National Parks Service turned down this request, because Lewis is buried on park grounds. But they don't want everyone exhuming remains from all of their -

Katie: Right, going digging up all the national monuments to see what's under them.

Sara: But the request has been renewed at the urging of his descendants, and there's also a spin on it that's not so grisly, not just well, was he murdered or was it a suicide? They're also suggesting we could learn a lot about Lewis. His physical characteristics, how tall he was, maybe whether he had syphilis.

Katie: Right, what his health was like in general.

Sara: Yeah, and we have mitochondrial DNA samples from L ewis' female descendants, so we would be able to confirm the body, and then we could also test for gunpowder residue, skull fractures, things like that, which with our modern knowledge of forensics might help us figure out what happened.

Katie: So let us know what you think. Cast your vote for murder of suicide, and email us at

Sara: You can still visit the gravesite and a reproduction of Grinder's Stand. I've actually been to the Natchez Trace twice this past summer, although I missed this. I didn't know about it yet.

Katie: still, way to rub it in our faces Sara, thanks a lot. Well, that about does it for the death of Meriwether Lewis, at least as far as we know now. Maybe we can do an update podcast if the National Park Services change their mind.

Sara: And if you're interested in something grisly like exhuming bodies, search for How Body Farms work on our homepage at Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.