Yes, I am talking about that Meriwether Lewis – of the Lewis and Clark Louisiana Purchase Expedition fame.
Charles Willson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The traditional story that has made its way into the history books, and is also the generally accepted theory, is that Lewis was going through a very hard time financially and was relatively unstable. He was on his way to sell his Expedition journals in Washington D.C. to get the much needed funds to pay off his creditors. Early on this trip he was supposed to have been held in a state of house arrest by a Major Russell because of his instability – and that while under house arrest he attempted suicide twice. He continued on from there to a place known as Grinder’s Stand, in Tennessee and that while there he succeeded in taking his own life via a gunshot to the chest and one to the head. Major Russell sent a letter dictating the prior suicide attempts and Major Neely sent a letter telling the details of how he found Lewis. With both of these pieces of evidence, President Jefferson and Lewis’ cohort, William Clark, accepted the finding of suicide.
A newer version of events is that Lewis was murdered at Grinder’s Stand as part of a conspiracy arranged by General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson is suspected because he was Lewis’ greatest rival and he was sore due to being replaced as the Governor of Louisiana by Lewis upon his return from the Expedition. Wilkinson had a great amount of influence and if he wanted to could have easily pulled off a murder. Major Neely was assigned as Lewis’ guard by Wilkinson, suspicious at best. Lewis was murdered and Neely, Russell, and the Grinder’s conspired to tell the world it was a suicide.
Some additional pieces of evidence that support this theory:
- No one investigated the death of a national hero
- The one witness to his death, Mrs. Grinder, changed her story at least three times
- A report from the 1840’s, when an inquest was being performed with regard to the body of Lewis for establishing the monument to him showed that he had a hole in the back of his head, but no mention of the front. This would have been inconsistent with a suicide by gunshot with the type of weapon he had.
- The handwriting of the letter by Major Russell telling of Lewis’ prior suicide attempts was tested by a forensic handwriting analyst in 1996 (compared with other communications by him) and found to be a forgery.
- Mr. Grinder happened to come into some money right after the death of Lewis – looks suspicious
- Court documents show that Major Neely was in court, over two days ride away, on the day that Lewis died, when he stated in his letter that he saw Lewis on the day of his death
If you are interested, you can check out the episode of Decoded about the Lewis conspiracy. You can also read some more about the monument and a little about the conspiracy at the National Park Service website.
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