Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meriwether Lewis, Suicide or Murder

By Chester Campbell

One facet of my new mystery, The Surest Poison, is hot in the news these days. The opening paragraph of Chapter 2 tells about PI Sid Chance’s former job as police chief in the small town of Lewisville, TN, “named after explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis died nearby on the Natchez Trace. Some say he was murdered there.”

The town of Lewisville is fictional, but it sits about where the real Lewis County seat of Hohenwald is located. The front page of last Thursday’s newspaper carried a story about Lewis’ modern-day relatives pushing the federal government to exhume the famed explorer’s body and answer the question did he commit suicide or was he murdered? He is buried in a tiny cemetery at the Meriwether Lewis National Monument along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

A bachelor, Lewis died at the tender age of 35. He had no siblings, but there is no shortage of nieces and nephews with lots of great-great-greats before their names. They have banded together to petition the National Park Service to find out how he died. You can check out their new website at Solve the Mystery.Org.

Educated at what would become Washington & Lee University, Lewis joined the Army and rose to the rank of captain. He was appointed an aide to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and resided in the presidential mansion. After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson planned an expedition to explore a route across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. He chose Lewis to lead the venture. Between 1803 and 1806, Lewis’ pioneering party explored thousands of miles along the Missouri and Columbia rivers and their tributaries.

When they returned in 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had made the two men national heroes. Jefferson was particularly fond of Lewis and named him governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. It appears the bureaucracy and politics in St. Louis proved a bit too much for him. In the fall of 1809 Lewis set off for Washington and a meeting with the president. He planned to travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then around Florida and up the East Coast. After becoming ill around Memphis, he decided to take the land route across to the Natchez Trace and on up to Nashville.

Sick and beset with problems, he drafted a last will and testament during the trip. On the night of Oct. 10, 1809, Lewis and two servants stopped at Grinder’s Stand, a two-room log inn on the Trace near my fictional town of Lewisville. Two shots were heard during the night, and the next morning Lewis was found mortally wounded. He died within a few hours. A traveling companion buried his body near the stable. Covered with chestnut fence rails, it remained unmarked until 1848.

The mystery began immediately, though Jefferson and fellow-explorer William Clark accepted the suicide story. His family contended it was murder. Robberies and killings were not uncommon along the isolated route, and rumors said Lewis was murdered to keep secrets of political corruption. Now nearly 200 distant nieces, nephews and cousins have signed a petition asking that the body be exhumed and examined for forensic evidence.

“What we want is the truth,” 73-year-old Howell Lewis Bowen, a great-great-great nephew, said. “We’ve had one roadblock after another. It’s very frustrating–every time we take a step forward, we have to take two steps back.”

Some historians have criticized the effort, but several archeologists have signed on to help. They include a professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University and anthropologists at Middle Tennessee State University. One archeologist says there’s a chance the real cause of Lewis’ death may be etched on his bones, but the chances are pretty low there will be evidence to prove one way or the other.

Interestingly, the explorer’s death was responsible for the creation of Lewis County. In 1843, the Tennessee General Assembly carved it out of neighboring counties and named it as a memorial to Meriwether Lewis.

According to a local official of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the young explorer had written friends about things he wanted to accomplish after the Washington trip. She believes he was murdered. The Heritage Foundation plans to mark the 200th anniversary of his death on Oct. 7 by dedicating a bronze bust of Lewis for a planned visitor center.

According to Wikipedia, “Lewis observed, collected, and described hundreds of plants and animal species previously unknown to science. The expedition was the first point of Euro-American contact for several Native American tribes; through translators and sign language, Lewis conducted rudimentary ethnographic studies of the peoples he encountered, even as he laid the groundwork for a trade economy to ensure American hegemony over its vast new interior territory.”

It makes an interesting footnote to The Surest Poison.


joe doaks-Author said...

This is a facilitating case. Fodder for a novel here, I’d think.

I saw an episode of the History Channel on this topic. You’ve done a great job of summarizing in one short blog, what took them an hour to explain. In fairness, they had…well…an hour to fill. Still, nice job on the key points, Chester.

Best regards, Galen

Jean Henry Mead said...

Yes, an excellent article, Chester. I don't blame his g-g-g nieces and nephews. I'd also like to know whether he was murdered.

Chester Campbell said...

Galen and Jean, it will be interesting to see what comes of this. I've been down the Natchez Trace on a bus tour before it was finished. I haven't seen the monument to Lewis, however. Probably should have done that while I was working on The Surest Poison. Since I was creating a fictional town, I didn't want to get confused by the facts. Ha!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story, Chester. So much for those who have to go "abroad" for history. We're just beginning to realize that every square foot of this country is historic (and probably soaked with blood.)

I've long said that the way to teach history is to transport students to where it happened -- sort of a "Beam me down,Scotty" experience. (-:

Lewis and the Natchez Trace make a great story.

Pat Browning

Gayle Gresham said...

Very interesting. I didn't know anything about this. My g-g-g-g-grandfather was a first cousin of Meriwether Lewis.

Chester Campbell said...

I agree, Pat. Going to places like thia brings history alive.

Glad to bring you up to date, Gayle. It is an interesting development.

Unknown said...

He was a drunk and a cheat, reportedly, and at one point early in his career was living with Jefferson, I believe. There were rumors about the two of them. When I ready his biography, I came to the conclusion he was probably murdered, but can't remember why I came to that conclusion. He also never finished his report, I believe.