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Controversy over Meriwether Lewis' death has descendants and scholars campaigning to exhume his body at his grave site in Tennessee. (Connie Ricca / Corbis)

Meriwether Lewis' Mysterious Death

Two hundred years later, debate continues over whether the famous explorer committed suicide or was murdered

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Captain Meriwether Lewis—William Clark’s expedition partner on the Corps of Discovery’s historic trek to the Pacific, Thomas Jefferson’s confidante, governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and all-around American hero—was only 35 when he died of gunshot wounds sustained along a perilous Tennessee trail called Natchez Trace. A broken column, symbol of a life cut short, marks his grave.

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But exactly what transpired at a remote inn 200 years ago this Saturday? Most historians agree that he committed suicide; others are convinced he was murdered. Now Lewis’s descendants and some scholars are campaigning to exhume his body, which is buried on national parkland not far from Hohenwald, Tenn.

“This controversy has existed since his death,” says Tom McSwain, Lewis’s great-great-great-great nephew who helped start a Web site, “Solve the Mystery,” that lays out family members’ point of view. “When there’s so much uncertainty and doubt, we must have more evidence. History is about finding the truth,” he adds. The National Park Service is currently reviewing the exhumation request.

The intrigue surrounding the famous explorer’s untimely death has spawned a cottage industry of books and articles, with experts from a variety of fields, including forensics and mental health, weighing in. Scholars have reconstructed lunar cycles to prove that the innkeeper’s wife couldn’t have seen what she said she saw that moonless night. Black powder pistols have been test-fired, forgeries claimed and mitochondrial DNA extracted from living relatives. Yet even now, precious little is known about the events of October 10, 1809, after Lewis – armed with several pistols, a rifle and a tomahawk – stopped at a log cabin lodging house known as Grinder’s Stand.

He and Clark had finished their expedition three years earlier; Lewis, who was by then a governor of the large swath of land that constituted the Upper Louisiana Territory, was on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle financial matters. By some accounts, Lewis arrived at the inn with servants; by others, he arrived alone. That night, Mrs. Grinder, the innkeeper’s wife, heard several shots. She later said she saw a wounded Lewis crawling around, begging for water, but was too afraid to help him. He died, apparently of bullet wounds to the head and abdomen, shortly before sunrise the next day. One of his traveling companions, who arrived later, buried him nearby.

His friends assumed it was suicide. Before he left St. Louis, Lewis had given several associates the power to distribute his possessions in the event of his death; while traveling, he composed a will. Lewis had reportedly attempted to take his own life several times a few weeks earlier and was known to suffer from what Jefferson called “sensible depressions of mind.” Clark had also observed his companion’s melancholy states. “I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him,” he wrote after receiving word of Lewis’s fate.

At the time of his death Lewis’s depressive tendencies were compounded by other problems: he was having financial troubles and likely suffered from alcoholism and other illnesses, possibly syphilis or malaria, the latter of which was known to cause bouts of dementia.

Surprisingly, he may also have felt like something of a failure. Though the Corps of Discovery had traversed thousands of miles of wilderness with few casualties, Lewis and Clark did not find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, the mission’s primary goal; the system of trading posts that they’d established began to fall apart before the explorers returned home. And now Lewis, the consummate adventurer, suddenly found himself stuck in a desk job.

“At the end of his life he was a horrible drunk, terribly depressed, who could never even finish his [expedition] journals,” says Paul Douglas Newman, a professor of history who teaches “Lewis and Clark and The Early American Republic” at the University of Pittsburgh. An American icon, Lewis was also a human being, and the expedition “was the pinnacle of Lewis’s life,” Newman says. “He came back and he just could not readjust. On the mission it was ‘how do we stay alive and collect information?’ Then suddenly you’re heroes. There’s a certain amount of stress to reentering the world. It was like coming back from the moon.”

Interestingly, John Guice, one of the most prominent critics of the suicide theory, uses a very different astronaut comparison. Lewis was indeed “like a man coming back from the moon,” Guice notes. But rather than feeling alienated, he would have been busy enjoying a level of Buzz Aldrin-like celebrity. “He had so much to live for,” says Guice, professor emeritus of history at The University of Southern Mississippi and the editor of By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. “This was the apex of a hero’s career. He was the governor of a huge territory. There were songs and poems written about him. This wasn’t just anybody who kicked the bucket.” Besides, how could an expert marksman botch his own suicide and be forced to shoot himself twice?

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A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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