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Sunday, December 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some Push Murder Theory In Meriwether Lewis' Death

Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA - He was Magellan in buckskin, Moses in reverse. Instead of trying to lead his flock out of the wilderness, he led them straight into it. At a time when most people seldom left their farm, he took a small band of daredevils across the vast continent, mapping the unknown and solving the mystery of America, only to become a mystery himself at the end.

For years, children have been taught that Meriwether Lewis - head of the Lewis and Clark expedition - blazed a trail West at the start of the 19th century, then shot himself to death a few years later.

But some experts tell a different story, one that could be historical dynamite. They say Lewis was murdered, and this week they'll seek the chance to prove it.

At an unusual meeting here Tuesday in the southeast regional office of the National Park Service, an impassioned group of scholars, scientists and Lewis descendants will make a case for opening the grave of America's greatest explorer, believing his dust-bound, disputed remains could solve one of history's most tantalizing riddles.

More than mere curiosity compels them. Unlike past disputes over the mortal coils of Jesse James or John Wilkes Booth, whose demises provided fodder for academic debates, the dispute over Lewis pits two perceptions of the American hero (inevitably flawed or irreproachably perfect?) and two deeply held views of America's infancy.

If our first post-Revolutionary celebrity fell victim to an

assassin, rather than depression, historians may have to recalibrate their carbon dating on the loss of American innocence. No longer his own shame, the death of Lewis would be tacked onto the growing list of America's collective shames.

Also, should it turn out that nearly 200 years of whispered suspicions about a sensational death were, in fact, well-founded, then everyone with a sinister, unorthodox slant on the deaths of John F. Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln or Vince Foster could gain new credibility.

Finally, for the 160 Lewis descendants asking that the remains be exhumed, the dispute is about peace of mind, about laying a cherished ancestor to rest. Some insist Lewis, who possibly attended church with his friend Thomas Jefferson, awaits a proper Christian burial, denied him 188 years ago because of the scandalous nature of his death.

"The main reason I want the exhumation and autopsy done is I want the truth established," says William Anderson, 80, great-great grandson of Lewis' older sister, Jane. "I think he was murdered. But if it was suicide, that's all right. I just want to know."

Park Service officials, meanwhile, worry where it will all end. If they permit the Lewis exhumation, will someone come along next year and ask to dig up a Civil War battlefield? Or an American Indian burial ground? Or Martin Luther King Jr., whose grave site also falls under Park Service jurisdiction?

Even without the pending Park Service meeting, Lewis already is crossing millions of minds these days, thanks to a lavish Ken Burns documentary about the 1804-1806 expedition with William Clark. The documentary, which debuted several weeks ago on public television, reminded viewers of Lewis' often forgotten feat: More heroic then Neil Armstrong, more humane than Columbus, he navigated the uncharted immensity of North America from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest with determination and dignity.

He was the first U.S. citizen to stand atop the Continental Divide and witness the dreamscape of the West - which is why it's so ironic that no one witnessed his fatal injuries on Oct. 11, 1809.

Some things are known. At the end of his life, Lewis was under terrific stress, traveling from St. Louis to Washington for a showdown with federal bureaucrats over some questionable expense reports he'd filed as governor of the new Louisiana Territory.

On Oct. 10, he stopped at a lonely outpost called Grinder's Inn, on the Natchez Trace, 72 miles southwest of Nashville, Tenn. Mrs. Grinder, the proprietor, a woman whose first name seems to have vanished in the mists of time, heard strange noises that fateful night, followed by the pioneer's plaintive cries:

"O madam!" Lewis called. "Give me some water, and heal my wounds."

If only Grinder had opened her door, there might be no mystery. But she cowered in her cabin until daybreak.

The Burns documentary hews closely to the majority opinion that Lewis shot himself twice - once in the head, once in the breast - then finished the job by cutting himself from head to foot with a razor.

Ridiculous, say people like L. Ruth Frick, of Washington, Mo., an amateur historian who has spent 40 years studying Lewis.

"A man who'd killed many animals," she says, "and knew how to commit suicide painlessly, to do it in the way that's been described, doesn't make any sense."

"The historical version of the death is historical folderol," says James Starrs, a law professor and forensic scientist at George Washington University and the leader of the crusade to exhume Lewis.

Starrs suggests that Lewis may have been the victim of a robbery, a likely fate for any rich-looking gent along the Natchez Trace, which seethed with bandits and robbers. Other historians agree, among them Richard Dillon, history professor at the University of San Francisco, who wrote a widely respected biography of Lewis roughly 30 years ago.

"It was an extremely dangerous place," Dillon says of the Natchez Trace. "Murder was endemic down there. He was all alone, maybe out of his head to some extent. He'd have been a great target."

Suspicion also tends to fall on Maj. James Neelly, U.S. agent to the Chickasaw nation, who accompanied Lewis on part of his journey, then oddly abandoned him the day before his death. Also, there was Lewis' servant, John Pernier, "who stole (Lewis') money and horses, returned to Natchez, and was never afterwards heard of," according to a letter written by the son of Clark.

Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the recent bestseller about Lewis, "Undaunted Courage," which forms the basis of the Burns documentary, also dismisses out of hand the notion that Lewis met with foul play.

Ambrose insists the suicide scenario is the most logical. Though no one saw Lewis take his life, many saw him deteriorate in the days before his death, and his best friends never doubted what happened, based on their knowledge of his turbulent mind.

An ally is Joe Baugh, district attorney general of Lewis County, Tenn., where a bizarre coroner's inquest last year found plenty of cause for doubt about Lewis' death, leading a jury to formally recommend exhumation.

"I know from having been in the district attorney's office a long time," Baugh says, "in every death there are strange circumstances. But this was really very strange."

Not only does the truth demand exhumation, Baugh claims, but Lewis himself would.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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