Daily Archives: June 25, 2009

Digging up Meriwether Lewis

I ran across an interesting story via The Posterity Project.  Relatives of Meriwether Lewis are trying to persuade the federal government to allow them to exhume his remains, so they can settle the mystery of whether foul play was involved in his supposed suicide.  Here’s the website they’ve set up.  So far, the Park Service has blocked it, and I’m inclined to think that’s the sensible thing to do.

James Starrs, a forensic specialist who’s mentioned in the article, has been a vocal proponent of exhuming Lewis for some time.  Here’s what one writer said about him in an earlier story on this debate:

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.”‘

I beg to differ.  Historians have resisted an exhumation because the murder theory is pretty underwhelming.  I’m no Lewis expert, but from what I’ve read, there’s no compelling reason to doubt the accepted explanation that Lewis killed himself.

Something tells me this has more to do with our attitudes about depression and suicide than it does with history.  We’re eager to applaud someone like Lincoln who could overcome his inner demons, but we just can’t handle it when a remarkable man finally succumbs to them.  Before we start digging up our heroes, we should accept that when they fell into the emotional abyss, it wasn’t a sign of weakness—and it didn’t make them any less heroic.

(Lewis portrait from Wikimedia Commons)


Filed under History on the Web, Tennessee History