Who killed Meriwether Lewis?

A forensic scientist named James Starrs thinks the famous explorer may have been murdered -- and wants to dig up his body to try to find out.

Published March 23, 1999 6:58PM (EST)

In the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1809, Meriwether Lewis rode up to an inn called Grinder's Stand, a small log cabin in the Tennessee mountains on the Natchez Trace, the old pioneer road between Natchez, Miss., and Nashville, Tenn. He was traveling to Washington, where he hoped to clear up debts to the War Department he had incurred while serving as the first American governor of the Louisiana Territory. Then he planned to deliver the priceless journals of his great expedition, which had come to a triumphant conclusion just three years earlier, to his Philadelphia publishers.

The 35-year-old explorer appears to have been in a desperate state. One month earlier, on Sept. 11, he had written his will. At about the same time, according to a letter written by the commander of a fort where Lewis had stayed on his trip, Lewis had twice tried to kill himself, either by jumping overboard or by shooting himself, while traveling down the Mississippi River by boat. The commander, Capt. Gilbert Russell, wrote that he had been forced to hold Lewis, who had been drinking heavily, on 24-hour suicide watch at the fort for a week. Lewis' companion on the trip, James Neelly, later told Thomas Jefferson that Lewis "appeared at times deranged in mind." Historians have speculated that Lewis may have been tormented by manic depression, or even suffering from syphilis.

Lewis asked Mrs. Grinder, whose husband was absent, whether there was room in her inn. Neelly had stayed behind to round up two stray horses and was planning on meeting Lewis at the next residence inhabited by white people. Except for two servants, who were trailing behind, burdened by heavy trunks, Lewis was alone.

According to the conventional scholarly view, later that night, Lewis, after tormentedly pacing in his room for several hours and talking out loud, shot himself once in the head, grazing his skull, and then again in the chest. Still alive, he may or may not have tried to finish the job by cutting himself from head to toe with his razor blades. He died shortly after sunrise on Oct. 11.

On the face of it, there would not seem to be much reason to question this account. But there has long been a dissenting body of thought that holds that Lewis was not the victim of a suicide, but of a murder. This position was first enunciated by scholar Vardis Fisher in his 1962 book "Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis." Eldon G. Chuinard, the authority on the medical history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, took a similar position in a journal article published in 1992.

The dispute might have remained one of those unresolvable hobby-horses of interest only to a passionate handful of historians and Americana buffs. But recently, thanks to James E. Starrs, it has heated up. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, also believes that Meriwether Lewis may have been murdered -- but he is not content to debate the issue in the pages of obscure journals. Starrs wants more concrete evidence: He wants to dig up Meriwether Lewis' remains.

In 1996, Starrs spearheaded a plan to exhume Lewis' remains, and helped convince a Tennessee coroner's jury that the National Park Service, on whose land Lewis is buried, should allow it. Only through such an investigation, Starrs believes, will it be possible to render a decisive, scientific verdict to end the debate.

Starrs has been joined in his effort by John Guice, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, who has been studying the history of the Natchez Trace for 10 years. "When I started researching the history of the Natchez Trace," Guice says, "it became abundantly clear to me that the only way that we would get a definitive answer [about] Meriwether Lewis would be to have a forensic examination of his remains. I might add that this is a conclusion I reached before I ever heard of professor Starrs."

Starrs' exhumation effort also has the overwhelming endorsement of Lewis' descendants, 160 of whom have signed a statement supporting it. Dr. William Anderson of Williamsburg, Va., one of Lewis' two closest living relatives, calls Starrs' proposal a "wonderful opportunity ... a golden opportunity to attempt to find out what happened."

"There's been a lot of conjecture, imagination and fictionalizing in books and so on, but very little of it is based on known fact," he says. "And the only chance I can see of ever settling the thing would be what professor Starrs hopes to do."

But in order for that to happen, the National Park Service would have to agree -- and it doesn't. The NPS has effectively resisted the jury verdict, saying that allowing an exhumation would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to national monuments all over the country being dug up. The NPS is a formidable obstacle: One of Starrs' friends, who is also the former chief historian of the Park Service, warned him, "You'll never win. You're fighting the National Park Service."

Starrs, however, will not be deterred so easily. His zeal is evident the moment he begins to speak on the topic of Lewis' death. A scientist who has ventured into historians' territory, he believes his project has been held back by interdisciplinary warfare -- and has less than flattering things to say about historians. "I tend to side with Voltaire," Starrs says. "Voltaire said that 'God in all of his omnipotence can't change the past. That's why he created historians.'"

Stephen Ambrose may not hold similarly dismal views of scientists, but he thinks Starrs is sniffing around the wrong bones. Ambrose, a noted historian and the author of a bestselling 1996 biography of Lewis, "Undaunted Courage," believes that Starrs is simply misguided: He thinks the record clearly shows that Lewis died by his own hand, and he sees no value in an exhumation. In his book, Ambrose dismisses the venerable Lewis-was-murdered theory, stating tersely that the "literature is not convincing; the detailed refutation by [historian] Paul Russell Cutright is." In a recent New York Times Magazine article about the boom in forensic historical research headlined "Tabloid History," Ambrose lambasted Starrs' undertaking and even wrote to President Clinton on the matter. "What Starrs calls controversy, isn't," the article quotes that letter as reading. "Let him rest."

"Let the man rest?" Starrs replies incredulously. "Do you think he is resting, knowing that we are trying, desperately, to find, one way or the other, the truth of the matter?"

As for Ambrose, he is weary of the subject. "If they want to dig him up, they should dig him up," he says with exasperation. "I'm not going to object to it. I don't have any say in it. It's not my body ... The president knows what I think. The National Park Service knows what I think ... I've had my say."

Starrs is just one of a number of scholars in recent years who have made headlines -- and ruffled feathers -- by using forensic techniques in an attempt to resolve historical conundrums. It was Starrs who disinterred the remains of Jesse James and confirmed that they were the real McCoy. The New York Times Magazine article profiled Starrs alongside researchers involved in such projects as analyzing a lock of Beethoven's hair for signs of syphilis and using computer-imaging software to determine whether Emily Dickinson's personal letters conceal testimonies of a lesbian relationship. Featured as well, of course, was retired pathologist Eugene Foster's DNA investigation of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings case.

Starrs was dismayed to find his project lumped in with what he considered sensationalistic forensic enterprises (though some might argue that whether or not Beethoven suffered from syphilis is at least as historically valid a question as whether Meriwether Lewis was murdered). Not surprisingly, some of Starrs' colleagues have bristled at his criticisms. "Jim has his share of detractors in the forensic science community. Some find his pointed comments on some of our professional shortcomings too pointed," says forensic scientist Barry Fisher, adding that he himself considers Starrs "a voice of conscience in forensic science." Starrs himself is also not immune to the charge of sensationalism. "I am concerned that occasionally you hear comments that he is more or less seeking publicity, which is certainly not true," says his colleague Guice, who describes Starrs as being "totally dedicated to seeking out the truth in this matter" and as "a man of the highest integrity."

Forensic historical research is controversial in part because of questions of propriety: It involves many of the same issues as a decision to perform an autopsy. In Lewis' case, the fact that his family has signed off on the exhumation removes one major objection. But a larger historical question remains. Certainly, before giving scientists permission to take the extraordinary step of exhumation, it's reasonable to expect that they give compelling reasons. Mere suspicion should not be enough -- after all, virtually every historical event more than 50 years old can be called into question. There must be, at the very least, reasonable doubt -- and some would argue that the burden of proof lies with the revisionists. Have Starrs and his fellow revisionists raised sufficient doubt about the conventional version of how Lewis died to justify his proposed removal?

The thesis that Lewis committed suicide rests upon several pieces of circumstantial evidence (no firsthand evidence exists to support either position). First, there's Capt. Russell's document asserting that Lewis had tried to kill himself twice on his journey, that he was drinking heavily and that he had to be placed under suicide watch. Second, there is the contemporaneous account of Mrs. Grinder. Third, there is the reaction of the man who knew Lewis best, his fellow explorer William Clark, who wrote upon hearing of Lewis' death, "I fear O' I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him, what will be the Consequence?" Finally, there is the fact that neither Clark nor Thomas Jefferson, who also knew Lewis intimately, ever doubted that Lewis killed himself. After Lewis' death, Jefferson wrote that "Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections ... I observed at times sensible depressions of mind ... his Western expedition ... suspended these distressful affections; but after his establishment at St. Louis in sedentary occupations they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends."

It's an impressive array of evidence, but Starrs and the revisionists question all of it. Their most powerful counter-argument is the fact that Mrs. Grinder, the sole witness, gave differing accounts of what happened, and that her account differs from several other accounts.

According to a letter James Neelly wrote to Jefferson, Lewis arrived at Grinder's Stand to find Mrs. Grinder alone. Mrs. Grinder, "discovering the governor to be deranged, gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it." The servants slept in the nearby stable loft. At around 3 a.m., Mrs. Grinder heard "two pistols fire off in the Governors Room." She woke up the servants, but by the time they arrived upon the scene, they were too late to save Lewis, who "had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the breast with the other." The dying Lewis uttered to his servant, "I have done the business my good Servant give me some water." His servant obliged him, but to little avail. Lewis died a short while after.

By his own account, Neelly arrived upon the scene only after Lewis' death. His letter to Jefferson described only what he had gathered posthumously from Mrs. Grinder, who was an aural witness but not an eyewitness to the shooting. Yet Mrs. Grinder's own muddled accounts hurt the credibility of Neelly's case. Mrs. Grinder's description of the event found its way into four separate written accounts; in each telling, her story was different. Alexander Wilson, the renowned ornithologist, also heard Mrs. Grinder's story, in a separate telling. Wilson transcribed her account in an 1811 letter to one of his colleagues.

In this rendition, Mrs. Grinder remained awake, terrified, listening to Lewis talking to himself, sometimes violently, all night. She heard a pistol fire, a heavy thud, an exclamation of "O Lord!" and another shot. Lewis cried out to her, "O madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds," but Mrs. Grinder did not go in, watching Lewis through the spaces between the logs in the kitchen wall. Lewis staggered outside, fell and rested beside a tree. Eventually he returned to his room, where Mrs. Grinder heard him scraping a bucket with a gourd for water. Mrs. Grinder allowed Lewis to suffer for two hours. Finally, she sent two of her children to the barn to awaken the servants. When the servants came to Lewis, they found him with part of his forehead blown off, his brains exposed, "without having bled much." Lewis offered them all the money left in his trunk to blow his head off. The servants refused. About two hours later, Lewis died. His last words were "I am no coward; but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die."

Various aspects of this version of Grinder's account, as told by Wilson, have aroused suspicion. Some historians have observed that a frontier woman would not have acted so timidly. Others have wondered how Lewis, a famously capable shot, could have failed to kill himself.

Further complicating matters is the account given by Capt. Russell, who, after asserting that Lewis shot himself in the head and the breast (the ball in the latter case having "entered and passing downward thro' his body came out low down near his back bone") claims that Lewis "got his razors ... and ... was found ... by one of the servants, busily engaged in cuting [sic] himself from head to foot." This grisly detail is absent from Grinder's accounts.

Scrutinizing these and other accounts has become a cottage industry among Lewis historians ever since Vardis Fisher opened the debate in the 1960s. Since then, nearly everyone involved has been implicated by one researcher or another as a murder suspect. First and foremost is Neelly, fingered most famously by Dr. E.G. Chuinard, the authority on the medical history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Chuinard points to evidence -- including the angle of trajectory described in Russell's account -- to argue that Lewis awoke to find Neelly rifling through his belongings, and was shot by Neelly as he rose from the floor. Lewis' servant, Pernier, is another major suspect. According to legend, Lewis' mother accused him of murdering her son. There are even wild theories about Lewis dying in a conspiracy involving Thomas Jefferson, or Lewis sleeping with Mrs. Grinder and being caught by a violent Mr. Grinder.

Starrs has little patience with such theories -- or, indeed, for the speculations, inferences and informed hypotheses that make up historical interpretation in general. "I only work with physical evidence," he says, "and if I don't have any physical evidence, there's no way in which I can pinpoint the blame on any particular person." He does allow himself to speculate that Lewis might have been mistaken for a merchant and killed by one of the robbers who, he asserts, were common on the Trace. Such a scenario could also explain why Mrs. Grinder, afraid for her own life as Lewis was attacked in the next room, failed to emerge from where she cowered, Starrs suggests. (In "Undaunted Courage," however, Ambrose asserts that "no robbery had been reported for years" on the Natchez Trace.)

As for Jefferson's and Clark's lack of suspicion that Lewis was murdered, which Ambrose makes much of, Starrs scoffs. Saying the argument "infuriates me as a logician," he contends that what Jefferson and Clark may or may not have believed proves nothing.

But even if Grinder's account is deemed unreliable, Jefferson's and Clark's reactions ruled immaterial and Neelly's testimony tainted because he is a suspect, what about the assertion by Capt. Russell that Lewis had tried to kill himself twice on the same trip -- a claim that, if not knocked down, makes the murder theory about as believable as O.J. Simpson's claim that he wants to find the real killer? Russell's version is given in just one document, which Starrs and other revisionists find suspicious because Russell's signature is not the same as his usual one and because the document appeared so long after the event had taken place. The revisionists also claim that Russell, not being one of Lewis' intimates, is not an unassailable witness. Whether these objections raise sufficient doubts about Russell's account to warrant Starrs' massive labors -- and to justify digging up Lewis' bones -- is a judgment call.

In any case, after nearly 200 years of worms and decay dissolving Lewis' remains, what exactly does Starrs hope to find? In preparation for the exhumation, Starrs has used ground-penetrating radar technology and studied the topography, geology, water drainage and soil composition of the area around the national monument that marks Lewis' grave to determine the likelihood that his remains are suitably preserved for a fruitful analysis. He is convinced that there is a strong chance that they are.

If his suspicion proves accurate, a wealth of information may be lying below those several feet of dirt. By studying the bone trauma that presumably resulted from the two shots, Starrs explains, he could trace the bullet paths and determine if indeed one of the bullets "entered and passing downward thro' his body came out low down near his back bone." Starrs owns an exact replica of the type of flintlock Lewis carried, and contends that it is impossible to fire the weapon on oneself at such an angle without the powder falling out. Consequently, if an exhumation were to confirm the bullet path described in the account, Starr argues that it would be unlikely, if not impossible, that the wound was self-inflicted. The same evidence might also indicate which hand Lewis used to shoot himself. Handwriting analyses show that Lewis was almost certainly right-handed. Starrs could determine from the skeleton whether the path corresponds to the use of Lewis' own right hand. Finally, if Lewis indeed killed himself at point-blank range, then, according to Starrs, there would be residues of "massive black powder" around his wounds. Such residues, which are carbonaceous, are practically immune to decay. If they do not mark Lewis' remains, logic dictates that Lewis could not have shot himself but must have been shot from a distance by an assailant.

"Why don't we just dig the man up, and see what we can find?" Starrs says, adding, "I'm playing the games of historians. I'm doing just what the
historians do. Speculating, and speculating, and surmising and so on. Let's look for the hard evidence."

In the field of historiography, however, the distinction between "hard" and inconclusive evidence is not as easy to draw as in the natural sciences. In a recent issue of Nature magazine, the researchers who confirmed Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings' child admitted that their evidence was less conclusive than their original article had implied. While the genetic evidence Eugene Foster and his colleagues had found tied the Hemings family to the Jefferson family, it could not tie it to Thomas Jefferson himself. Science yielded definitive answers, but only to limited questions. "Y chromosome data," as the Nature article pointed out, "cannot be used to identify individual paternity within the Jefferson clan. That's a job for historians, Foster says."

Meriwether Lewis' case may well prove to be no different. If Starrs convinces the National Park Service to relent and manages to unearth new material evidence that proves Lewis was murdered -- an outcome obviously by no means assured -- he will have performed a valuable historical service, and settled a fascinating debate once and for all. But who killed Lewis, and why, will remain a mystery. And it will still be up to historians like Ambrose to take that new information and recast it within the historical narrative of Lewis' life. For all of Starrs' scorn for the endless speculations of historians, their stories -- based not just on carbon dating and bone fragments but also on that unverifiable quality called judgment -- will always have the last word.

By Leighton Woodhouse

Leighton Woodhouse is a freelance writer living in New York.

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