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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two Sides: The Death of Meriwether Lewis

The Death of Meriwether Lewis: Suicide or Homicide
Yes, I am talking about that Meriwether Lewis – of the Lewis and Clark Louisiana Purchase Expedition fame.
Meriweather Lewis
Charles Willson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To be quite honest with you, I had no idea that there was even any intrigue involving his death until about a month ago when I read the premise of To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis by Andra Watkins. Apparently many kids learn in school that within two years following his return from the Expedition, Meriwether Lewis took his life in a small stand (like an old school tavern/hotel/B&B) on the Natchez Trace on his way to Washington D.C. Well, I didn’t even learn that much. So I was very interested in learning more about his death, but imagine my surprise when I started reading that there is speculation that maybe it was a homicide and not a suicide. So I did some research and talked with co-workers and even watched a television episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded (the second episode of the show) on the subject. The natural progression is to now discuss it with you! Was Meriwether Lewis murdered or did he commit suicide?


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

Photo credit: jdj150 via Visual hunt / CC BY
There is much evidence to support both the theory of suicide and murder. I think that one way to become much closer to the truth is through the exhumation of the body of Meriwether Lewis to analyze the remains. However, this will not be completed because it is located on National Park Service property and they have turned down the request of the Lewis descendants. What do you think? Is the newer evidence at all convincing? I find that it is a viable possibility.

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.

Copyright © 2014 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. I'll definitely look for this one. Where I live, about half of everything is names after Lewis and Clark (the other half is named after Daniel Boone). So I have heard the 'murder vs suicide' debates. But since it has a local twist, I'm always ready to learn more!

    1. It's always interesting to see what the local hero inspiration is in towns. In the town I grew up in it was all about Nathan Hale - the middle and high schools were named after him.


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