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"I Fear the Waight of His Mind Has Over Come Him"
The Case for Suicide
JAMES J. HOLMBERG
At a lonely Tennessee inn along the Natchez Trace on 11 October 1809, one of the greatest explorers in American history died. Meriwether Lewis, governor of Upper Louisiana Territory and co-leader of the famous 1802–1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, died at Grinder's Stand some seventy miles southwest of Nashville. It was a violent death—a gunshot wound to the head and another to the body, with reported razor cuts to the arms, legs, and neck. Did this famous explorer die by his own hand? Or was he murdered? At the time of his death, the verdict was suicide. All recorded accounts pronounced it suicide, and no one disputed it.
There the matter lay for almost forty years. By the late 1840s a published report appeared stating that foul play had been involved in the governor's death. The report of the Lewis Monument Committee stated that "the impression has long prevailed that under the influence of disease of body and mind ... Governor Lewis perished by his own hands. It seems more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin." No evidence was cited, only the more likely possibility that it was murder.
What was it? Suicide or murder? Arguments for each have been presented for more than a century, facts and rumors gathered, evidence weighed, and conclusions espoused. Intelligent, thoughtful, and respected individuals have concluded for both suicide and murder. Arguments can be well researched, reasoned, and emotional. The nature of some murder theories is such that articles arguing for suicide are sometimes written simply to preserve the integrity and accuracy of the documents and of the facts of the case. Will we ever know what actually happened on that October night in Tennessee? Probably not, but we can use the sources available to us to theorize and reach reasoned and plausible conclusions. I believe that in the depths of depression and terrible emotional anguish Meriwether Lewis lost to an enemy that has defeated countless others—mental illness. That "dark despair" overwhelmed him and seeing no way out, and perhaps wanting in some way to hurt the people who were hurting him, Lewis used a brace of pistols to end his life.
Will the murder-versus-suicide debate regarding Lewis's fate ever end? Probably not. Do those who believe Lewis committed suicide want to believe that? Of course not. Lewis is an American hero. Everyone would like to believe that this brave man, once capable of facing hostile Indians, grizzly bears, and the hardships and dangers of an epic journey, did not take his own life. But the sad truth is that he most likely did. Given certain conditions, anyone is capable of suicide. And at that time, and at that place, those conditions existed for Meriwether Lewis.
In the end, Lewis's inability to write the expedition's history extended to his inability to even leave a suicide note. Did he act rashly? On impulse? Or had he planned it out? After failing in earlier attempts at suicide on the boat, and later being put first under the crew's, then Russell's, and then Neelly's supervision—with Pernier a constant presence—was he determined to make another attempt on his life? Was telling Neelly to stay behind to look for the horses and then outpacing the servants an attempt to find solitude, or was it part of a plan based upon suicidal impulses? Was his letter of September 1809 to William Clark as close as he came to a declaration of his desire to leave this world?
We probably will never know the answers to these questions, but the best evidence is found in the contemporary reports concerning Lewis's postexpedition life and death. What do they reveal about Lewis and how convincing are they that Lewis took his own life? Those with Lewis in his last days as well as those who knew him best commented on the tragedy. Some of their views provide the sad details of the great explorer's downward spiral. From the accounts of Priscilla Grinder, James Neelly, John Pernier, and Gilbert Russell—all of whom were with Lewis in his last tortured weeks—to those of Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, and others who met the news of his suicide with sad acceptance, the contemporary sources tell a compelling and convincing story of a man who lost the battle with his inner demons and took his own life. An examination of this contemporary evidence results for most researchers in a conclusion of suicide. Documenting his difficult postexpedition life and spiral downward, ending in that isolated inn, is not pleasant, but it is where the evidence leads us.
When Captain Meriwether Lewis returned from the Pacific Ocean, he was one of the greatest heroes in the young nation's history. He was the subject of admiration and flattery. He even had a poem written about his exploits and fame. As Clay Jenkinson has so cogently written, Lewis was the unchallenged commander of a military unit for almost four years. His word was law. He perceived himself as the most important and interesting man in his world. In short, he had been a complete sovereign where no man—including William Clark—was perceived as his equal. But then came reentry into American society and politics. It was an adjustment Lewis couldn't make. Jenkinson and others have made the analogy of astronauts readjusting to the frustrations, tedium, and normalcy of life after having been to the moon—the "Buzz Aldrin syndrome." After all, when you've been to the moon, what's left? For Lewis it was much the same. After he and the Corps of Discovery had accomplished their mission, after what they had seen and experienced in the American West—its people, dangers, and wonders—what was left? For some there was plenty. For others, like Lewis, there was not.
Lewis's failure to adjust and his tragic death can be traced to his procrastination in the East after having been appointed the governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, to his failure to form a serious romantic relationship, and to his failure to write the expedition history. To these can be added his political and financial setbacks, which served as the catalysts for a mental collapse. The arguments used by historians and medical professionals to explain what went wrong with Lewis after his return from the West include aspects of his personality and his mental profile. This information is crucial, for his perception of and reaction to events and people around him became the factors that pushed him to suicide. While we must be careful in assigning modern diagnoses to Lewis's documented symptoms, it is also appropriate that we do so. Theorizing that Lewis's hypochondria and melancholia would be diagnosed today as manic-depressive disorder helps explain why he turned a brace of pistols and a razor on himself.
The Corps of Discovery arrived in St. Louis on 23 September 1806. After discharging the men and wrapping up other duties, Lewis, Clark, York, and other corps members reached Louisville on 5 November. Lewis continued on without Clark from Louisville, spending Christmas with his family in Charlottesville and then reaching Washington by late December. He received a hero's welcome along his route. Washington society and the government lauded him and his accomplishments. He was honored with dinners and toasts. In early March 1807 he was appointed territorial governor of Upper Louisiana. Jefferson personally anointed him the person to write the expedition history, a work that in its concept would be one of the great contributions to science and travel literature. Consequently, Lewis arrived in Philadelphia in early April to arrange for work on the scientific findings and illustrations and to hire a publisher. Though he made a good start on the project, he stayed in Philadelphia longer than necessary. He knew he needed to return to Washington and then take up his new post in St. Louis. So why did he delay? Was he taking a holiday? Was he courting a prospective wife? Was he simply trying to recuperate—physically and mentally—from the rigors of the past four years? Lewis definitely enjoyed a busy social life. He attended three meetings of the American Philosophical Society and spent many an evening on the town. Both his accounts and the diary of his friend Mahlon Dickerson document drinking and social activity. The ladies also were an object of Lewis's attention, but nothing came of these dalliances. Jefferson expected Lewis to return to Washington by 4 July. Instead, it was late July before he left Philadelphia. His tendency to procrastinate had been apparent from time to time on the expedition, when unexplained delays occurred. Was he again procrastinating? Was he trying to get the journals and notes in order so that he could begin writing the expedition narrative? Did he suffer from writer's block and put off the work? From the time he returned from the expedition until days before his death, Lewis talked of writing the book. But as far as is known, he never wrote one page of the manuscript. Why?
The publication of the expedition account and scientific discoveries would have assured Lewis's place in history and been lucrative financially. But others were beating him to it. Robert Frazer and Patrick Gass both advertised their forthcoming accounts of the expedition. Lewis had given Frazer permission to publish his journal but then reacted defensively and with hostility when Frazer actually moved ahead with plans for publication. (No publication ultimately appeared.) Gass's journal was published in 1807 and became an international best-seller. Apocryphal accounts also appeared using Lewis's and Clark's published reports and letters as well as excerpts from other travel accounts (not necessarily from the American West). Did the explorer believe that these works diminished the public's interest in his account? Did he believe the chance for even greater fame and rewards had been denied him? Was his sense of urgency to produce the history gone?
To this must be added the pressure of being Thomas Jefferson's handpicked author of the account. Its success lay in Lewis's hands. The president had definite ideas about how such a publication should be accomplished. He undoubtedly transmitted these opinions to Lewis. Jefferson was one of the most learned and accomplished men of his time. Did Lewis fear he would disappoint his mentor? It would certainly be intimidating to have someone of Jefferson's stature and ability critiquing your work. The president wrote to his scientist friends touting the importance and value of the work. He clearly was eager for its publication. But he was also the chief executive and had many other duties to occupy him. And he could be something of a dilettante. Did Jefferson lose some of his interest in the West after his curiosity had been satisfied and the Northwest Passage disproved? There was so much to be learned that Jefferson could have kept busy for years, but the initial energy had certainly waned. Did Lewis somehow perceive this and take it as a personal affront or rejection by his mentor?
The loss of expedition artifacts might have impeded progress on the book, causing Lewis more psychic damage than suspected. While Lewis was in Philadelphia, he received a letter from Jefferson, dated 4 June 1807, advising him that a shipment of expedition artifacts he was having transported from Washington to Richmond (and then on to Monticello) had been sunk and "every thing lost which water could injure." One can imagine Lewis's reaction to the news. His response to the president was moderate, but the sense of loss was palpable. "I sincerely regret the loss you sustained in the articles you shiped for Richmond," he wrote Jefferson on 27 June. "[I]t seems peculiarly unfortunate that those at least, which had passed the continent of America and after their exposure to so many casualties and wrisks should have met such destiny in their passage through a small portion only of the Chesapeak."
The loss of these materials aside, Lewis's best course would have been to engage the services of an editor to assist him in writing the narrative. Not only would it have assured a style suitable for reading by the general public but doing so would have taken an immense burden off of him and gotten that fundamental part of the work started. Instead, he apparently always intended to write the account himself, something he obviously found impossible to do. Did he believe that he was the only one capable of writing the expedition history? Did he find it impossible to let an editor have the journals? Did he begin despairing by this time that he could actually write what Jefferson, his fellow members of the American Philosophical Society, and the public were clamoring for? He and Clark were bearing the financial burden of producing the book. Did the monetary demands with their consequent worries affect Lewis? Would things have turned out differently if Lewis had remained in the East until the book was done? Would he have produced a manuscript if he had been able to remain focused on the history's publication instead of taking up the responsibilities of territorial governor? Perhaps, but Jefferson needed someone he could trust in St. Louis, and Lewis was due a reward for his expedition success. In the end, that reward proved to be an important factor in the man's undoing.
Still needing to write the history, Lewis headed west in the winter of 1807–1808 to take up his duties in Upper Louisiana. In March 1808, when he arrived in St. Louis, all the work on the expedition history was apparently being done back in Philadelphia. That summer Lewis talked of returning east to finish writing the book. And for the next twelve months, he kept talking. Instead of working with the journals he had with him there in St. Louis, he continued to procrastinate. Even William Clark, who saw their financial opportunity fading, was unaware of Lewis's lack of progress. Queries from Jefferson about the progress of the book apparently served only to further immobilize him. There are many possibilities as to why Lewis failed to produce the expedition history but no definite answer.
Another factor cited in Lewis's postexpedition decline was his inability to find a wife. This failure seems puzzling. He should have had no shortage of marital prospects. Instead, women seemed to run from him. One woman actually left town to avoid him. Was he too intense in his attentions? Were his expectations too high? Did prospective mates dread life on the frontier? Lewis mentioned several women in regard to his determination to get a wife. Were any of these relationships truly serious? Some have theorized that he compared all women to his mother and found them lacking in some respect. Or that he talked about finding a wife but deep in his heart he did not want one and always found a reason to reject any possible mate. This might or might not be true. It seems that a loving and supportive mate would have been important in helping to ground Lewis. He should have been able to find someone. But in the end he found no one.
Lewis's need to spend some time in the East before taking up his duties in St. Louis is understandable. But spending more than a year defies reason. Granted, there was much to be done before again turning westward. Debriefing Jefferson and other government officials, preparing the expedition history, and attempting to find a wife are all cited. Still, Lewis didn't reach St. Louis until March 1808. By contrast, William Clark, after he was appointed brigadier general of the Louisiana territorial militia and chief Indian agent of the territory in March 1807, was in St. Louis the following month. He had begun courting his future wife by January 1807 and was officially engaged by March. Clark would have long absences from St. Louis during his career, but he wasted no time in getting back to the West to plunge into his duties. It would seem that Lewis should also have been in a hurry to take up his duties. The territory was riven by factions competing for power, land, and riches. There was increasing unrest among the Natives as more traders and settlers ventured into Indian country. Lewis's territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, had acted as governor since his arrival in April 1807 and had built his political base. Lewis obviously had many reasons to be in St. Louis as quickly as possible. Instead he tarried in the East. For stretches of that time it is not known what he was doing. After his initial burst of activity regarding the book, he apparently did little, if anything. His letters to friends and associates were much fewer than would be expected. He reported bouts of illness, and it is known he was drinking. Was he slipping into that "habit" of alcoholism that Jefferson later lamented? In August 1807 he attended Aaron Burr's trial for treason in Richmond. He started west in November, passing through Fincastle, Virginia, where he visited Clark's fiancée, Julia Hancock, and her family and made one more failed attempt at courtship. He didn't arrive in Kentucky until January and spent at least a month there. It is almost as if Lewis was avoiding his new life in St. Louis. Did he sense that this chapter in his life would be his last? Were his mental problems increasingly affecting his ability to function? Did he need more time to rest and recover from his journey? Was he overwhelmed by all that lay before him? There seems to be no single answer.
Excerpted from By His Own Hand? by John D. W. Guice. Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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|Introduction : Meriwether Lewis's mysterious death on the Natchez Trace||3|
|Ch. 1||"I fear the waight of his mind has over come him" : the case for suicide||17|
|Ch. 2||"It seems to be more probable..." : why not homicide?||73|
|Ch. 3||A postmortem trial concerning Meriwether Lewis's controversial death||106|
|App||Varying views of Meriwether Lewis's death||161|