Suicide or Murder
October 11, 1809: Thirty-five year old Meriwether Lewis dies … of something. After returning from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lewis was rewarded with 1,600 acres of land. He intended to publish the Corps of Discovery journals, but was having editorial difficulties. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson made Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory. His record as governor is mixed but much of what is seen as negative comes from letters written by Frederick Bates, the territorial secretary. Bates has been accused of undermining Lewis because he, himself, wanted the governorship.
Lewis had funded a mission to return a Mandan chief to his tribe. Because of a letter written by Bates, the promised reimbursement from the federal government was rescinded. Lewis’s creditors called in their notes and Lewis was forced to sell off most of his private property, including his land, to pay them. He was making a trip to Washington, D.C. to clear up matters with President Jefferson. He began his journey on September 3 and had intended to sail the entire way from St. Louis to Washington, via New Orleans. Instead he left the Mississippi River and went overland using an old pioneer road called Natchez Trace. The road held the known danger of highwaymen who robbed and sometimes killed.
On October 10, Lewis stopped about 70 miles southwest of Nashville, Tennessee at Grinder’s Stand. After dinner, he retired to a one-room cabin. At some point before dawn, gunshots were heard. Lewis was found in his cabin, having been shot several times. He bled to death shortly after sunrise. The story of his death was not well documented. There were those who felt he had committed suicide and other who deemed his death to be murder. Cited as reasons for suicide was his poverty. There were stories of his being addicted to opium (something Bates never mentioned as he was sending messages back East). Mrs. Grinder offered several different versions as to what had happened that night and they vary in many details.
The first time Lewis’s body was examined by a doctor was forty years after his death when the Tennessee State Commission was in charge of locating his body and building a monument over the site of his burial. Although his death was given as suicide, the doctors in 1848 believed he had been assassinated. There have been recent requests to have his body exhumed and a more modern forensic study done to see if it could be determined exactly how he came to be shot. The Department of the Interior granted permission in 2008 but it was rescinded when the Administration changed. Lewis’s debts were finally covered by the US government two years after his death. Bates eventually became the governor of Missouri.
The suicide does not play the game, does not observe the rules. He leaves the party too soon, and leaves the other guests painfully uncomfortable. – Joyce Carol Oates
Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon. – Emile Durkheim
Murder is not perpetrated in a vacuum. It is a product of greed, avarice, hate, revenge, or perhaps fear. As a splashing stone sends ripples to the farthest edges of the pond, murder affects the lives of many people. – Erle Stanley Gardner
Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend. You cannot mix up sentiment and reason. – Agatha Christie
Also on this day: Raising the Mary Rose – In 1982, the Mary Rose, a sixteenth century warship, was raised from the sea.
Free, But … – In 1865, Paul Bogle led a revolt in Jamaica.
Shop Til You Drop – In 1929, J.C. Penney opened store #1252.
Land Dispute – In 1767, the Mason-Dixon survey was completed.
New Map of New Netherlands – In 1614, Dutch explorers asked for a trade monopoly in the colonies.