Monday, October 17, 2016

The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis-MTEP 14

MTEP 14-The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Mystery Tidbits Episode 14-The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis
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He was a field scientist. A man who was sent to chronicle botanical, zoological, meteorological, geographic, and ethnographic information. However to most people back in the early 1800's and today, Meriwether Lewis is best known as an explorer. He and William Clark led the Lewis and Clark expedition through areas of Americas center that, as far as we know, no one has explored, with the exception to the Native Americans of course. To put this in perspective-For those of you who were around when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first step foot on the moon and how big of an event it was, this was as big of a deal for Americans in the countries infancy as that. The expedition took them down the Ohio River, up the Missouri River, across the continental divide into the Pacific ocean. When they returned home they were treated as elites for accomplishing a major task that had been thrust upon them by President Thomas Jefferson.(1)

Lewis received payment for his efforts as well as 1600 acres of land. He was also made governor of the Louisiana territory in 1808. Oh, yes, and did I mention that he had accomplished all of this by the time he was 34 years of age?

I wish I could say that everything worked out for Lewis in the end, and that he lived a long and healthy life basking in the success of his valiant effort, however, I cannot. Lewis died a year after being appointed governor, in 1809, at 35 years old. To many historians his death is believed to have been a suicide, but there are many out there who are convinced that rather, he was murdered. Evidence exists for both claims.

Prior to Lewis's death he had planned a trip to Washington, DC in order to resolve some "issues regarding the denied payment of drafts he had drawn against the war department while serving as governor of the upper Louisiana territory leaving him in potentially ruinous debt." (2) For this specific journey he was to travel on a ship from New Orleans. He changed his plans and decided to take an overland route instead which would take him on the Natchez Trace and then East to Washington. On the evening of October 10, 1809 Louis and his two servants arrived at and inn known as Grinders inn. It was a poorly built cabin that took an overnight customers but nevertheless it was still a roof over their head. Mr. grinder was away therefore Mrs. grinder and her children were left alone to hold down the fort.

According to Mrs. grinder, after Lewis had checked in and settled down for the evening Louis had began to act quite strange, pacing in front of the cabin as if extremely nervous about something. She even stated that at dinner he started speaking to himself in a violent manner. He then lit a pipe, told Mrs. Grinder what a pleasant evening it had been and then proceeded to pace the yard. As Mrs. Grinder prepared Louis a bed he told her that since the Louis and Clark expedition he could no longer sleep on a feather bed and that he would sleep on the floor. His servants went to the barn for the evening and Mrs. grinder to the kitchen. She claimed that for several hours she could hear Lewis pace and speak to himself in the lingo that a lawyer might use. 

In the early hours of October 11, Mrs. Grinder heard a gunshot and then heard Louis fall to the floor and yell "Oh Lord". She then heard another gun shot. He had been shot once through the head and once through the chest. He had survived both gunshots managed to pull himself out of his room and say "Oh Madame give me some water and heal my wounds." Mrs. Grinder did not immediately go to the aid of Lewis but instead waited until first light and sent her children to go grab his servants. He supposedly told his servants that he tried to kill himself to deprive his enemies of the pleasure and honor of doing it and then proceeded to tell his servants to take his rifle and blow out his brains and that they could have all his money from the trunk. Shortly after this Louis passed away. (3)

It truly sounds like a suicide and perhaps most likely it was. Let's take a look at the suicide scenario. 

Lewis was young. Extremely young to have taken on what he did from the expedition to his governorship. Perhaps he was extremely stressed by these undertakings and not to mention he was in pretty bad debt as well. This alone could make A person question life, not knowing if constantly worrying about money is worth living.

There is one theory that persists which could have caused his stress to become amplified. We all know of the famous book or movie Alice in Wonderland and one of its most infamous characters, the Mad Hatter. We all know that the Mad Hatter is a little off...or crazy. Well this goes back to the days of fur hat making. Hatmaker's would use mercury to treat the fur and then they would shape the hats with bare hands. The mercury would be absorbed into the bloodstream and in most cases would cause mercury poisoning. Chronic low level exposure to such a metal overtime can cause many issues including aggressive behavior, memory loss, depression, irritability and learning deficits, not to mention physical problems such as liver and kidney dysfunction, fatigue, infertility and headaches.(4) So what does this have to do with Meriwether Lewis? Well, Lewis needed a fair amount of medicines for the expedition. His medical advisor Dr. Benjamin Rush told Louis the following "when you feel the least in disposition do not attempt to overcome it by labor or marching. Rest in a horizontal posture. Also fasting and diluting drinks for a day or two will generally prevent an attack of fever. To these preventatives of disease may be added a gentle sweat obtained by warm drinks, or gently opening the bowls by means of one, two, or more of the purging pills.The purging pill was generally known as "Thunderclappers". Rush felt that basically they were a cure-all. These pills were, unfortunately, composed of Calomel, A mixture of six parts mercury to one part chlorine and Jalep. This was the preferred treatment for syphilis which was used up until World War II when penicillin came to be.(5) To add more insult to injury it is said that Thomas Jefferson reported that Lewis's family history was said to have been filled with manic depressants, bi-polar disease as we know it today.(6) So with all of the evidence I just spoke of is it probable that suicide was the cause of death? Absolutely, however because conspiracy theories exist on the contrary it is important to discuss them as well.

Was Lewis murdered? 

If Lewis wasn't having a mental break down and as Mrs. Grinders account tells us that Louis was talking to himself before the gunshots rang out, then if it wasn't himself he talking to then who was is? A drifter? His servants? Perhaps Mr. Grinder came back unnoticed and after an altercation shot Louis Dead, told his wife to make up a story and then fled, after all it is said that John Grinder was later arrested and brought to trial before a grand jury for the murder of Lewis, however charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. According to historian Jon Guice, who is a retired professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and editor of the book By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, there is scant evidence for suicide and several possible motives for murder. He states that "There were many people in St. Louis who were unhappy with his decisions concerning property and mining rights and money" He also said that Lewis was in a bad neighborhood of Tennessee especially for someone carrying large amounts of cash guice also wonders where all of Lewis's money went because again according to Guice "When they inventoried his possessions, there was no mention of any money."(7)

Now this is curious to me because if you remember from earlier in the story Lewis had "told" his servants to take his rifle, blow out his brains and take all of the money from his trunk. Could his servants have a murdered him for his money? I suppose it's entirely possible, especially when stories of eyewitnesses don't add up.

Either way Lewis's ending was tragic, especially for a man who dedicated so much of his life to the exploration of America and service to America in general. One thing is for certain though, and that is that Meriwether Lewis will never be forgotten

(3)-From Undaunted Courage, Written by Stephen E. Ambrose, pg. 473-475
(5)-From Undaunted Courage, Written by Stephen E. Ambrose, pg. 89

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