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

3 responses to “Digging up Meriwether Lewis

  1. I am the co-author of a new book with Professor Starrs, The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation. I invite you to read it, as it will change your opinion about the “underwhelming” evidence for murder.
    The book has three parts. The first is the transcript of the coroner’s inquest organized by Starrs in 1996 which was held in Lewis County, Tennessee. Some of the most famous names in forensic sciences, including Dr. Bill Bass, the father of forensic science and a notable Tennesseean, testified as to what exhuming the remains might reveal.
    The jury requested exhumation, which was denied by the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the National Monument & Gravesite. The Park Service is now reportedly planning to conduct a hearing regarding the family’s request for exhumation and a Christian reburial at the National Monument. ( “Answers sought in explorer’s death,” USA Today, 6-21-09)
    The second part contains twenty documents–essentially the entire historical record relating to his death. One of the primary documents supporting suicide was identified as a forgery by the two document experts at the inquest–the so called Captain Russell statement of 1811. Its content is entirely contradicted by the two authentic letters Russell wrote to President Jefferson concerning Lewis and the circumstances surrounding his death. Captain Russell was in charge of Fort Pickering (today’s Memphis TN) where Lewis spent some of his last days. It is regrettable that only the spurious statement supporting suicide was published in Donald Jackson’s Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Other documents provide further evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate Lewis and blame it on suicide.
    The most dramatic evidence supporting the murder theory is the 1850 report of the Monument Committee, who exhumed Lewis’s remains in the course of building the monument which still stands over his gravesite. The committee reported that though it was commonly believed Lewis committed suicide, “it seems more likely he died at the hands of an assassin.”
    The third part of the book is my 85 page narrative, “The Case for Murder.” I propose that General James Wilkinson and John Smith T. organized his assassination to prevent Lewis from revealing their plans for a new filibuster expedition to invade Mexico and obtain control of its silver and gold mines. Wilkinson is considered America’s greatest traitor by historians and Smith T. was a notorious duelist and land speculator.

  2. mlynchhistory

    Thanks for your comment. Wilkinson was indeed a real scoundrel, but organizing an assassination seems pretty extreme, even for him. The book sounds pretty interesting; I’m going to have to read it.


  3. Good, let me know what you think!

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