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Printer Friendly Dated: 5/19/2009

Was Meriwether Lewis Murdered?
Should his body be exhumed and his bones examined?

Historians have frequently stated that Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame, committed suicide in 1809. Usually, they say it was because of continuing bouts with depression coupled with his political problems as governor of the Northern Louisiana Territory. It is less common to find an historian who correctly states the situation surrounding Lewis` death, that equally compelling accounts of suicide and murder have been documented, and that no one can be sure which was true.

Meriwether Lewis` death might have been a 200-year-old murder mystery or it could have been an example of how someone can spiral down into tragedy. If it was murder, the evidence might be visible on his bones or it might not. If Lewis was murdered, his image has been tarnished without reason and his legacy would be considered much differently. However, the more important aspect would be to place the blame for his murder on the appropriate people. Not only would that change our perspective view on history, but it might change other things as well.

Perhaps many of you could care less about a possible murder from so long ago, but the question of murder has never been satisfactorily resolved, and it is about time it was. Lewis was an important man in US history and deserves to be treated with the respect. If he did not commit suicide then someone murdered him. It is our responsibility to define the truth about his death and to handle it as a murder, if necessary. There is no statute of limitations on murder, whether or not the murderer is still alive.

From the very beginning, the expedition undertaken by Lewis & Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory galvanized the mind of everyone in the Americas. The names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark became quickly household words. Today, every school child learns about the exploration of the Louisiana Territory and it was worthy to be remembered, a shining moment in US history with all the heroic elements of a classic tale of mythology. Lewis & Clark were similar to Jason & the Argonauts in many ways, with each going out on a voyage of discovery into unknown territory, each having the threat of death, and each with the promise of great fame and riches. The Lewis & Clark expedition has become an example of one of the most successful exploratory efforts ever made. However, the story of the people involved in it did not end there. Few people are familiar with the rest of it, but some know that Lewis went on to become a governor of the territory that he helped to open up. Fewer people still are familiar with the details of his strange death.

Many historians are adamant that Lewis committed suicide; these people will not even accept the possibility that any other possibility exists. Although suicide became the official version of what happened, at least one official body since has disagreed, and disagreed strongly. There are actually two competing claims of what happened and both of them could have been true. There is a body of compelling evidence that supports each theory. However, the death of Meriwether Lewis was a sad day in US history, and the continuing question of whether or not Lewis committed suicide or was murdered should not be allowed to continue without resolution. From what we understand of the evidence supporting the possibility of murder, it is quite possible that Lewis` bones show damage inconsistent with suicide, if accounts circulating at the time of his death were accurate.

To be fair to the historians who believe it, he could have committed suicide. However, many people have cast doubt on Lewis having had a continuing problem with depression. If he did have that sort of problem, it appears it did not affect his ability to lead an expedition, and therefore should not have been a major problem later on. However, depression might have had an effect whether or not it was documented, and might have played a role in his death. Doubt can be cast on both of the two witnesses who wrote accounts of Lewis` death that supports a theory of suicide, and the doubt is reasonable. The woman who was there told three varied stories of the murder, and the last one strongly hints of murder.

The case for murder is no more believable or documented. At the time of his death, it was rumored he had been murdered and it appears that at least a portion of the coroner's jury believed he had been. The rumors did not diminish as time went on, they increased, and the only group of independent men who have had the opportunity to view Lewis` bones provided additional support for his murder many years later. We will not be able to answer the basic questions that surround Lewis' death, but we can detail the evidence available.

Several people were there when Lewis died. Lewis' assistant and servant, John Pernier, a freed black man, had been one of them, and a black slave had been with him. Mrs. Griner, the tavern owner's wife had been the other. Maj. Neelly should have been there, but he was out looking for missing horses. Although Mrs. Griner and Maj. Neelly made the only written statements at the time, and they agreed on the main details that support suicide, at least one another person made a later statement that was very different from that of the other two. Although John Pernier told Thomas Jefferson about Lewis` death, he made no written statement, and we can only guess at what he felt had occurred.

It is clear that the official opinion at the time was that Lewis had committed suicide because of his political problems. Thomas Jefferson stated that he believed Lewis had done so in several documents written afterwards. Jefferson evidently found no flaw in the account he heard. Even though Jefferson had appointed Lewis as his representative in exploring the Louisiana Territory, and saw Lewis fit enough to act as governor two years after he returned, , ex-President Jefferson was willing to believe that Lewis had self-destructed in his job as governor a year or two later.

Lewis' body was exhumed and examined by a group of men at the time Tennessee placed the monument over his grave. According to their written document, they had concluded that Lewis had been murdered. However, they did not state why they had made that conclusion. Those historians who believe that Lewis committed suicide must have felt that the group's examination of the governor's bones had not given them any special perspective on the matter. If the wounds had not correlated to the original statements about his death, the group never stated it as a fact, and historians seem to have ignored it. So what should have been a concluding chapter in the controversy has just added to the controversy.

A few years ago, some people attempted to force the Parks Department to exhume the body of Meriwether Lewis and have it examined by qualified forensic pathologists. Many prominent historians testified that they believed Lewis had committed suicide and that no question murder existed. The evidence was clear; Lewis had been suicidal for some time and had finally been successful. The pertinent evidence was provided by two of the three people who were there at the time or who arrived shortly afterward. Their statements provided the only source that the historians felt had been accurate. It was sad, to be sure, but there was no need to disturb Lewis' remains.

There was opposing opinion, and even a few historians disagreed with their contemporaries. However, the court concluded that Lewis' remains would be left alone, and the status quo for historians on that topic was maintained. The controversy did not die down, and at least two books detail the questions that still have no definitive answer. Although it is far from sure that Lewis was murdered, it is far from sure that he was not. Both of the polarized groups who believe in different answers to the question of how Lewis died have substantial arguments and facts to support their opinion. So we are left with the unanswered question: did Lewis commit suicide or was he murdered?

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, to Robert Lewis and Lucy Meriwether, but Meriwether never knew his father. Robert Lewis died a month later at the Battle of Yorktown, and his widow later married Capt. John Marks. The couple lived in Georgia and Virginia. John Marks died in 1792 when Meriwether Lewis was 18 years old, and suddenly the young man found himself in control of an estate of about 1000 acres of land. Although Thomas Jefferson was much older, Lewis and Jefferson lived in the same area, became very close friends, and Jefferson appointed Lewis as his private secretary during his tenure as US President. Jefferson appointed Lewis to explore the new territory that the US had acquired because of that friendship.

Lewis & Clark were very successful in their exploratory efforts, and brought everyone back alive with the exception of one person who died from a burst appendix. If you think about how many expeditions came back with just about everyone alive and with equipment intact, you will probably know of very few.

Lewis was somewhat out of place once he returned from the expedition. He was still a close friend to Thomas Jefferson, who was still the US President, but Jefferson was in his last two years in that job and things had changed since Lewis had been Jefferson's personal secretary prior to heading for the Pacific. When the opportunity arose, Jefferson awarded Lewis the opportunity to be the governor of the northern portion of the area he had helped open to US settlement, Louisiana.

Louisiana

Lewis had been appointed the governor of the northern section of the new territory of Louisiana on February 26, 1807, by then-President Thomas Jefferson, but he did not arrive there until March 3, 1808. He replaced James Wilkerson who had been the first governor for the northern portion. Frederick Bates replaced Dr. Joseph Browne, the secretary of the territory, in 1807, also. Bates hated Lewis for some reason and was generally derogatory towards Lewis, refusing to form any real relationship. Part of it might have been that Bates had assumed his role as territorial secretary long before Lewis arrived to assume the job of governor, and Bates had acted as governor during that time. If there was a negative side to Lewis, Bates would have documented it, so we should look in what Bates wrote to find any negative facts that might pertain to Lewis` death.

General James Wilkerson, whom Lewis had replaced as governor, was an interesting individual and has a special place in US history. He had been closely involved with the 'Burr Rebellion', where a group of individuals lead by ex-Vice-President Aaron Burr attempted to take over portions of Mexico and the US, but even today the type of involvement he had remains hard to define. The event is strongly controversial. There is a great deal of confusion in the historical record about many of the plans the group made and what they did. There was no question the group intended to conquer Mexico, or at least a portion of it. Some people at the time felt the conspirators intended to use this as a base and attack or occupy portions of the United States, including perhaps a coup de grace to put Aaron Burr in control of the US government. However, there is some doubt that Burr believed or wanted that.

Wilkerson had some role in the conspiracy. He exposed the conspiracy, and related that he did nothing but act as a spy to discover what the conspirators were doing, then reported it. It is improbable that his role always fell into that category, however, there was no evidence to support the theory he had been more deeply involved. From documentation, it appeared that Jefferson might have felt that Wilkerson was involved in the conspiracy to some extent. Possible deep involvement in the conspiracy might have been one of the reasons that Lewis replaced him with Lewis. As an example, a letter written by Don Manuel Gayoso, Spanish Louisiana Governor, said General James Wilkerson had received payments from Spain and he was acting as a secret agent for the King of Spain. The letters stated that Wilkerson had offered the King the US state of Kentucky. All of that remains controversial and it was perhaps hard to prove that he was doing anything but sustaining his role as spy. Probably Wilkerson provided Spain information about the plans of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Spain used that information to send out a force ordered to kill everyone in the expedition. It was lucky that the Spanish force never found the explorers.

Wilkerson met with Aaron Burr just after being appointed Louisiana governor at a spot 40 miles north of where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, and they reportedly made plans to invade Mexico. Wilkerson later reported what the conspirators were doing to the US government. Aaron Burr and others were implicated and Burr was tried, however, it was never fully established what the group had been really doing and whether or not it presented any threat to the US.

James Wilkerson had moved his power base to New Orleans once Lewis replaced him as governor. Once Lewis arrived in the territory, he became aware that Wilkerson was maintaining interests there, and what Wilkerson was doing had the potential to cause trouble for the new governor. The two men did not get along without question. Lewis felt that Wilkerson was out of grace with Jefferson and had deserved it. Wilkerson was somewhat worried about how much proof Lewis possessed about Wilkerson's many land fraud deals. Wilkerson had been actively working these deals since January of 1804. What was perhaps more important, there is no evidence to show that he stopped them once he moved into the southern area. Researchers believe that Lewis was aware of the fraud, but no one can be sure what proof Lewis might have had.

Ornithologist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Lewis, felt uncertain enough about the statements made about Lewis' death that he personally traveled to the Trace and interviewed Mrs. Griner. It had been over a year since Lewis` death when he interviewed her, but that does not account for the differences in the account she gave. Mrs. Griner provides her second version of Lewis' death in his documented statement. She did not really embellish the tale by adding detail; the details she gave outlined a slightly different account of the event. Many years later, Mrs. Griner told an entirely different version of what had happened, complete with a conspiracy, hidden intrigue, and tragedy. That last version was very similar to the statement made by mail rider Robert Smith, whose original story had differed from the others by so much. It was several years later when the State of Tennessee installed the monument over his grave and people had a look at the bones there.

Obviously, there are documented elements that conflict with each other. It was by no means sure that Lewis had committed suicide, although that was accepted as the official one. We must ask strong questions about how he really died because of the problems with the data we have. If he committed suicide, it was an ignoble end to a great man. However, if he was murdered, the connotations are much broader in scope and much longer in pertinence. If Lewis was murdered, we have wronged the memory of one of America's greatest heroes and allowed a murderer to escape to claim the benefits of the crime.

Governor Meriwether Lewis

Although there were many who believed that Meriwether Lewis did a fine job as the governor of northern Louisiana, there were probably just as many that thought otherwise. That was especially true for those who attempted to take advantage of the situation and steal land from the native Americans or from other settlers. There was no doubt that some of the individuals in the Louisiana Territory at the time, even some of those in a position of authority, were attempting to make whatever cash they could.

Although Lewis` actions as governor were reasonably and he was generally successful in what he tried to do, some people did not like Lewis for a number of reasons. No one can be sure exactly why Lewis' own secretary did not like him, but there must have been a significant reason. In any case, Lewis conflicted with many people who had money and influence in Washington DC, and others who lived to the south along the Mississippi River. As time went on, accusations were made in Washington against him and the situation became serious. President James Madison replaced Jefferson and Lewis lost the strong belief in his integrity and capability that Jefferson had shown. President Madison was not as familiar with Lewis as Jefferson had been. Madison probably believed that the accusations made could be true. Many people at the time thought the accusations were made solely to discredit the governor, which would allow certain people to continue making money outside the law. The claims were found to have been false after Lewis died.

Lewis` problems actually began when President James Madison succeeded Thomas Jefferson as US President in March 1809. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn under Jefferson had been a friend of Lewis`, but that changed when William Eustis replaced Dearborn under President Madison. Eustis did not like Governor Lewis, and refused to honor a monetary draft for $19 in July of 1809, forcing Lewis to pay the amount from his own pocket. Eustis froze payment on all monetary requests from Lewis at about the same time. Tobacco and trade goods purchased by Lewis for native American relations were challenged by Eustis. Expenses from an expedition to return a Mandan chief to his village required by a promise made earlier "cannot be considered as having the sanction of the Government of the United States." From factors such as these, it should be clear that the attempts to discredit Lewis were being very successful in Washington and Lewis had a serious problem to deal with.

Journey Towards Washington DC

Lewis concluded, quite reasonably, that he needed to return to Washington and clear his name. He cleared up his obligations, turned his property over to William Clark and two other individuals so they could pay his outstanding debts, and he left for Washington on September 4, 1809. He had announced his trip in the newspapers well before he left. Lewis told the newspapers that he was going to New Orleans, from where he would take passage on a ship sailing to Washington DC. His intentions were clear; he would clear up the accusations made against him and take care of the problems that had been created for him. Exactly what that entailed was not so clear, since Lewis had acquired a lot of information about what was going on in Louisiana that was not known in Washington DC. The Rule of Law was not as common in the territory as those in Washington would have believed. Those who were getting money from the lawless enterprises could not have been sure if Lewis' trip endangered them.

Clark wrote his brother Jonathan if "his mind had been at ease I should have parted cheerfully." He also said, "I think all will be right and he will return with flying colors to this country." Many knew that Lewis was preoccupied with the accusations made against him and was disturbed by it. We do not know how deeply the affects ran and whether they might have been enough to cause him to cross over into dementia.

With him down the Mississippi went his servant, John Pernier, a freed black man that he had hired in July of 1807. He carried some cash, some secretive "state papers" with unknown contents, two saddles and bridles, three rifles, pistols, tomahawks, and knives. He traveled by boat down the Mississippi River. It appears he had an attack of malaria just north of Chickasaw Bluffs, and perhaps had other problems. He made his last will and testament at New Madrid, 200 miles south of St. Louis, showing that he felt that there was some possibility that he would not make it to Washington DC.

At Chickasaw Bluffs, he left the boat and remained in Fort Pickering for about a week. The circumstances of his stay were controversial. Major Gilbert Russell was in command of Fort Pickering, the army post at Chickasaw Bluffs on the Mississippi. Russell had previously left the US Army, but was returned to active duty in 1808 on the recommendation of General James Wilkerson. Wilkerson promoted him, then put him in command of Fort Pickering, a key location on the Mississippi River. Fort Pickering was under the strong influence and direct command of James Wilkerson, who lived in New Orleans several hundred miles to the south. Like Lewis at the time, Russell had felt that 'malicious charges' had been made against him in Washington DC. Russell saw the opportunity provided by Lewis' appearance and need to request permission from Wilkerson to accompany the governor to Washington. Wilkerson refused, but that did not alleviate Russell's concerns. (At the time and for a period after Lewis left For Pickering, Russell's documentation showed no evidence that Lewis had any mental problem or had attempted to commit suicide.)

General Wilkerson was in trouble at the time. Lewis was heading for Washington and he might have been carrying evidence that would have proven Wilkerson was involved with land speculation in the territory. A scandal concerning Wilkerson's land speculations was already underway. Wilkerson had recommended the Terre Aux Boeufs army site because of the profit he would make, not because of its suitability, and many solders had already died from disease caused by the local environment. In addition, newspapers had published the facts concerning the bribe he had received from the Spanish. If Lewis had reached Washington, General Wilkerson would probably have faced additional scandal and perhaps criminal charges. The facts that Lewis might have been able to prove would probably have supported accusations made against him concerning the Terre Aux Boeufs army site. He must have expected Lewis would expose his fraudulent land deals. Had Lewis actually reached Washington, it is reasonable that Wilkerson would not have survived the increased scandal and attention. He barely survived as it was.

Major Russell later said several people on the crew of the boat that had carried Lewis had told him that Lewis had been drunk much of the voyage and had twice tried to kill himself. The crew gave no details about the attempts. Lewis was not physically hurt at that point, but appeared to be somewhat infirm. As far as we can tell from the documented facts, Russell told Lewis to stay for a week to recuperate. First he stated Lewis had been sick because he had over-consumed alcohol. Later, he stated that Lewis` sickness had been "mental derangement". To Wilkerson, he said he felt that Lewis was on the verge of suicide and requested permission from the General to accompany Lewis. Wilkerson again refused. It was at that point that Lewis wrote a letter to Amos Stoddard and stated "An explanation is all that is necessary I am sensible to put all matters right." Although all we have extant is a rough copy, it appeared that he also wrote a very lucid and well-structured letter at that time to President Madison, explaining that he was traveling overland instead of through New Orleans as he had originally intended. The written items we have from Lewis do not show any obvious mental derangement.

All of the documentation that came from Major Russell many months after Lewis died was at odds with Russell's original detailed report submitted to Jefferson a couple of months after Lewis` death. In it, he mentioned no mental illness, suicide attempts, depression, or drunkenness. Four weeks after the first report, he sent another report to Jefferson that said drink had been a problem for Lewis while at Fort Pickering. Other accounts state that Russell had said after Lewis died that the governor's death had been murder and that Neelly's statement that Lewis had borrowed money from him had not been correct; Neelly had not had any money to loan.

Lewis may have had an additional reason to choose to travel overland, since James Wilkerson was headed to Fort Adams. the Fort would have been one of Lewis` stopovers on his trip to New Orleans. Wilkerson and Lewis were not friends. Lewis felt that Wilkerson was guilty of at least some land fraud, and Wilkerson knew it. As Wilkerson was the military area commander and carried some strong political power, Lewis might have felt it reasonable to avoid what might have been a fatal confrontation. Since Major Amos Stoddard , one of Lewis` close friends, was at Fort Adams at the time (or so Lewis thought), it would appear that Lewis had a strong reason to go there. Instead, he wrote Stoddard a letter, and elected to travel overland. It was possible that the trip overland had been intended all along and Lewis had told others of his plans to go down the Mississippi to hide his true intentions.

Major James Neelly was a federal agent to the Chickasaws, assigned under the command of General Wilkerson since August 9, 1809. He had been tasked with taking a prisoner to Nashville from the Chickasaw Nation, but he paid a month's salary, about $90, to Jeremiah Love so that he would do it for him. Once he had freed his time up, he went directly to Fort Pickering, where he offered Lewis his services as guide for the journey to Nashville. Major Russell was surprised to see Neelly show up, and later said that Neelly "seemed happy to have it in his power to serve the governor." Neelly told Lewis he could lead him across Chickasaw lands to the Tennessee River, then up the Natchez Trace to Nashville, where he could continue on to Washington DC. Lewis accepted his services. (Neelly began his trip to Fort Pickering at about the same time that General Wilkerson was denying Major Russell's request to accompany Lewis.) Russell wrote later that Lewis "waited six or eight days expecting that I would go on with him but in this we were disappointed and he set off with a Major Neely [sic] who was going to Nashville."

From those facts, it should be clear that Lewis had been waiting at Fort Pickering for Major Russell to accompany him. If the first report sent by Russell was correct, Lewis was not in ill health and so it would have been the only reason he waited. We cannot be sure how Major Neelly knew that Lewis was at Fort Pickering, but it appears that the news traveled to him within a few days of Lewis` arrival. The fact that Neelly paid a month's pay for the opportunity to accompany Lewis points to Neelly having some potential personal benefit from going along.

It is unknown how deeply the bad feelings ran between Lewis and General Wilkerson, however, it was reasonable for Wilkerson to have conspired to remove the problem that Lewis represented using physical force. When Lewis accepted Major Neelly as guide, he probably never thought about any relationship that might have existed between Major Neelly and General Wilkerson, but actually, Neelly was under Wilkerson's direct command. Lewis was traveling through territory under Wilkerson's control. In many ways, Lewis was at the mercy of Wilkerson`s military forces and civilian friends.

Lewis, his servant, and Major Neelly left Fort Pickering on September 29, 1809. Lewis carried about $120 in cash, a small fortune in those days, and a traveler's check signed by Russell for $99.58. Lewis left two trunks behind at Fort Pickering and told Russell to keep them there. (The content of the trunks has not been detailed.) The group traveled to the Chickasaw Agency at Big Town (main native American camp), where they connected with the Natchez Trace. They remained at the Agency for two days, leaving on October 6th, and traveled up the Trace towards Nashville. Neelly later wrote "And on our arrival at the Chickasaw nation I discovered that he appeared at times deranged in mind."

The Natchez Trace was a trail that was little more than a cleared path that ran from Natch on the Mississippi River for about 550 miles, ending at Nashville on the Cumberland River. It ran generally northeast in direction. It was a very dangerous trail in 1809, and was considered to be 'swarming with outlaws'. Criminals were known to target individuals and even groups traveling on it, robbing and killing without great risk. Lewis and the rest of his party covered 50 miles per day for two days after leaving Big Town. Although the group was not large, consisting of Lewis, Neelly, Perrier, and another servant, they were not accosted by any local criminals and there was no evidence documented that showed Lewis was overly concerned about their danger.

Fateful, Mysterious Night

The party crossed the Tennessee River on October 8th or the morning of the 9th, riding on the ferry boat of George Colbert. On the night of October 9th-10th, they camped at the head of the Green River. The following morning Neelly told Lewis that two of their horses had wandered off in the night, Neelly's horse and one of Lewis`. Lewis told Neelly to go and find them. Neelly said that Lewis should travel on and he would meet them at Grinder's Stand, a tavern about 50 miles further on. Lewis continued on, riding horseback, with Pernier and the servant behind him on foot. Throughout the 10th, they traveled on and finally reached the place known as Grinder's Stand just before dusk.

The tavern/farmhouse known as Grinder`s Stand was well known in the local area, but it was far from what you would expect from an inn at the time. It was a traveler's inn of sorts, yet it was two miles off of the Trace. The Trace turned east two miles to the south of the Stand, so most of the travelers would bypass it. That does not seem to have affected the Griner family who ran it very much. The Stand consisted of two log buildings that the Griner family owned, and a barn about 200 yards away from the house to reduce problems in smell. People had called it Grinder's Stand from the time the tavern had been established, even though the family name was actually said to have been Griner2. The Griner place was 72 miles from Nashville, the last white person`s house before the travelers entered indian country. The Chickasaw Indians had deeded a 40-mile wide strip of land along the Tennessee River's north bank to the US Government. Grinder's Stand was located within this strip. Being two miles off of the Trace may have meant that Griner was selling bootleg whiskey to the native Americans instead of just entertaining travelors. The local people where somewhat afraid of Griner and felt he had ingratiated himself with the Chickasaw Indian Tribe. If Griner was selling liquor to the native Americans, Major Neelly was probably aware of it and knew of any danger a travelor would face going there.

Robert Griner and Priscilla Griner lived there and operated the 'inn'. Robert Griner was 42 years old at the time. Mrs. Griner had given birth to her eigth child about 4 months prior to Lewis' death. According to Mrs. Griner's account, she had two daughters, 5 sons, and 2 slaves at her house the night that Lewis died. However, Robert Griner was not home when Lewis and his party arrived and had not returned that night. Although some members of the coroner's jury suspected he had killed Governor Lewis, no proof could be found.

The night of October 10-11 was moonless, and probably quite dark. The new moon had been at 1:30 AM the previous night and moonset on the night that Lewis died was at 6:21 PM. Lewis arrived at dusk. Mrs. Griner later stated he had arrived on horseback with his clothing covered by a duster, in a very aggitated condition. He had checked his gunpowder supply carefully and had taken his saddle with him to bed. She allowed him to sleep in a small external building that was not connected with the main house. A board walk ran between the two buildings. The servants slept in the barn that night.

There are generally considered to be four sources of data on what happened that night:

  • Nashville weekly newspaper (may have seen the coroner's jury report).
  • Letter from agent Neelly to Thomas Jefferson.
  • Letter from Nashville Army Officer to Thomas Jefferson.
  • Series of interviews with Mrs. Priscilla Griner.

Mrs. Griner's account remains the most important documented at the time. Major Neelly was not there when Lewis was killed; Lewis was dead when he arrived. John Pernier never made a written statement. It is important to note that Mrs. Griner never stated that Lewis had committed suicide in any of her accounts. It was Major Neelly who stated that. Both Neelly's and Mrs. Griner's statements were used in the inquest, but documentation from the coroner's jury has disappeared. Only a few statements made later by members state any facts about it.

Ornitholgist Alexander Wilson, who had been a friend of Lewis', interviewed Mrs. Priscilla Griner about 18 months after Lewis' death. Mrs. Griner gave him the second version of her story, similar to the first but with slight variations. Her husband was supposed to have been away, working on the harvest at Duck River Farm, 20 miles away, and her story never waivered on that point.

She said Lewis had arrived alone on horseback with his clothing hidden by a duster, had been extremely aggitated, and checked his gunpowder supply. He stated two servants were just behind him. Lewis asked for spirits and drank some, and the servants arrived shortly afterwards. One servant was a negro. Lewis then asked the two servants for some white powder that they were carrying in a cannister, but the servants did not reply.

He kept walking back and forth in front of the door talking to himself. When supper was ready, he ate a few mouthfuls then spoke to himself in a violent manner, his face flushing as he spoke. After dinner, he lighted his pipe and spoke directly to Mrs. Griner, "Madam this is a very pleasant evening." He smoked for a while, then resumed his pacing, then stated he would sleep on the floor and asked his servant to bring bear skins and buffalo robe. After they were spread out in the outer building, Mrs. Griner went into the kitchen in the other building and the two servants went to the barn 200 yards away.

He had taken his saddle with him to bed. However, Mrs. Griner noted that Lewis remained awake for several hours, pacing back and forth and talking aloud, "like a lawyer," Mrs. Griner stated. She had heard a shot then something heavy hit the floor, a second shot, and then she had heard Lewis attempting to get into the lean-to kitchen door where she had been. She watched through the cracks in the wall, but did nothing.

He said, "O Madam, give me some water, and heal my wounds." The logs in the kitchen wall were open, with no plaster in the cracks and Mrs. Griner watched him through the cracks in the wall. She said and did nothing to help. Shortly afterwards, he fell against a stump that lay between the kitchen and the room he had been sleeping in, came back to the kitchen door and tried again to get water from the empty water gourd. Mrs. Griner was afraid, so she waited for about two hours until the sun came up before she acted. She sent two of her children to the barn to get Lewis` servants. The servants found Lewis lying on the bed, alive, with a wound in his side and part of his forehead blown off, his brain partially exposed. He wanted them to kill him and offered them all of the money in his trunk. Several times, she reported he had said "I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die." It was still two more hours before he died.

Mrs. Griner's last version was told in 1838, 29 years after the event, but she said she remembered the events well enough to tell the story. She had been alone except for two daughters and a nursing baby, and was concerned why Lewis showed up at the Stand, since it was two miles off of the Trace. She said Lewis was quite sociable and asked to spend the night. He then said that two men were behind him on the trail and that they would spend the night, also. Although she was alone, she conscented. A few minutes later, two other men rode up and put away their horses. She said three riders rode up about dark and Lewis challenged them. Lewis then drew two pistols to told them to ride on. They left. Super was served not long after that, but Lewis ate little and appeared to be deep in thought. Mrs. Grinder thought that he was mentally deranged. When Lewis and his servants went to bed, she thought all of the men had gone into the other room. Several hours later, two or three hours before daylight, she heard three pistol shots from the other building. First one, then two more. She heard someone fall and exclaim "O Lord! Congress relieve me!" Lewis was at her door a few minutes later asking for some water. She did not open the door and she heard him fall. Through the cracks in the wall, she saw him scrambling across the road on his hands and knees. The wounded Lewis fell out of her view in the trees.

After daylight, Pernier and the servant showed up, coming from the stable, and Pernier was wearing Lewis` clothes and carried his gold watch. When she asked him about the clothes, Pernier said, "He gave them to me." Pernier and the servant searched for Lewis and brought him back to the house still alive, wearing old, tattered clothing. Pernier told her that Lewis had no ammunition, however, she found several balls and powder scattered over the floor of the room where Lewis had been sleeping. According to Mrs. Grinder, Pernier and the servant told her that he had killed himself. She said she sent for help but Lewis died before it arrived, and Major Neelly was sent for. When Neelly arrived later that day, he and Pernier buried the governor's body.

Neelly did not show up at Grinder's stand until late on the day that Lewis had died. He had only been able to find one of the missing horses. He had not been a witness to how Lewis had died, but Mrs. Griner had told him about it, so much of what his statement read came from her account. In his statement, he stated "... when his servant came in he says; I have done the business my good servant give me some water." It was in Neelly's statement that Lewis was judged to have killed himself. Mrs. Griner only told events and never stated Lewis had killed himself. Neelly reported that he only found one shilling on Lewis` body, so the money Lewis had been carrying was known to be missing at that point. He buried Lewis, and reiterated that Lewis had wounds a little below the breast and in his head, but made no mention seeing any knife or razor wounds.

Another version of the story was told by Polly Spencer, a servent of the Griners` who died about 1850, many years later. Her account stated that Lewis had been shot once not long after dinner and was dead when they reached him. She thought he had been shot by Robert Griner, Mrs. Griner`s husband who was supposed to have been working in the faraway fields at the time. She believed that Griner`s motive had been the money that Lewis had been carrying, and which was missing when they searched his dead body.

Still another version was told to John Moore by Malinda, who had been the black slave of the Griner`s at the time of Lewis` death. Moore interviewed her in 1885, many long years after the event, about events that occurred when she had been 12 years old in 1809. However, she said she remembered the events clearly. Lewis had walked back and forth, and stated, "They have told lies on me and want to ruin me." she remembered that Pernier had not wanted to stay in the room with Lewis, and had chosen to sleep in the barn, several hundred feet from the external building where Lewis was to sleep. Mrs. Griner chose to stay awake all night because she considered Lewis` behavior to be dangerous, and they heard two shots ring out just before daybreak. Pernier came up to the house at that time and accompanied Mrs. Griner to check on Lewis. They found him lying on the floor, still alive. Mrs. Griner asked Lewis why he had shot himself, and Lewis answered that if he had not someone else would have. He drank water, and remained alive for some time, dying about noon that day.

Mail rider Robert Smith later told people that he had come up towards Grinder's Stand on the day that Lewis died and had seen a man's body laying beside the trail not far away. He saw clearly the man had been shot from behind the head into the lower trunk. That was consistent with a scenario that had the man kneeling when the shot was fired. The body was lying a few hundred yards from where a group of men were discussing the death, and Smith thought he had been the first to find the dead man. Smith's account was at odds with those that came from Mrs. Griner and Major Neelly.

Questions remain about Lewis` personal papers, and we cannot even be sure what Lewis had been carrying, let alone where it ended up. It does not appear that Major Neelly kept anything of that sort. Pernier carried some personal papers to Washington DC. It was probable that some of the possessions that Lewis had with him when he died were lost. The items mentioned in the official documentation at the time included guns, saddles, horses, knives, and things of that nature. Those individuals involved with his death in Tennessee made no mention of holding any papers of the governor's, yet we have no mention of any documentation that Lewis might have used to clear his name or to accuse Wilkerson in any wrongdoing. If Lewis was carrying such documents, they vanished just after he died.

Lewis was carrying cash and a check when he died. None of that money was recovered. No official in Tennessee took possession of it, and there was no record that any funds made it back to Lewis` family, so someone at the time of his death must have taken it. That money is extremely important, and we need to look carefully at what might have happened. Any theory of suicide became difficult to believe once the loss of the money was taken into account.

Both Pernier and Neelly knew that Lewis` was carrying money, and Mrs. Griner would have known that he was carrying some money. Travelers had to carry money to pay expenses. Also, Lewis had contracted for lodging and food, and there must have been some discussion of payment. So everyone at the place that Lewis died was aware that the governor had money. Neelly said he only found one coin on Lewis' body, so the money must have been taken before he arrived at Grinder's Stand.

The disappearance of the money was more than suspicious. Anyone who ended up with it must have been allowed to keep it by the others involved. Pernier had every right to take possession of it for the family, but he did not, nor did he make a complaint that someone had taken it. Pernier never spent money that could not be accounted for, so he did not keep it for himself. If Pernier allowed someone else to take it, there must have been a very good reason. Since the Griner`s purchased some land a few years later with a great deal of money ($380), it was possible that they kept it. However, they could not have done so unless Pernier and probably Neelly were aware of it and allowed it. The only scenario where that was possible was if the Griners were being paid for something. Had Neelly kept the money, the same situation existed. In either case, Pernier had only to report the theft once he was out of the physical control of those involved, and he did not. He never mentioned the money officially, leaving its fate in doubt, and so we must direct a certain amount of suspicion at him. Suicide meant that no one had leverage to convince the others involved that the money should be theirs. Only murder would have given someone the ability to take the money without anyone complaining.

You might think that someone took the money in a circumstance where it was impossible to prove who had taken it, but that was improbable; Pernier should have reported the money to be missing, and such a fact points away from a simple suicide. It would support a theory of murder for profit, and should have changed a great deal of the events that were occurring.

The Aftermath

Newspaper accounts at the time said that Lewis' torso had visible severe knife wounds, but it was impossible to tell how accurate that account was. The coroner's jury that handled Lewis` death was conducted by Mr. Samuel Whiteside, Justice of the Peace, who lived about two miles from Grinder's Stand and would have been friendly with the Griners. They probably heard testimony concerning the governor's death, but most of what they might have done has been lost because of lack of documentation; no one has found any record of the coroner's jury proceedings or conclusions. Robert M. Cooper was a member of the coroner's jury. Later, when Lewis' body was disinterred in 1848, he helped identify which body was the governors. Another member of the coroner's jury, Cooper Frierson, later stated that all of the members of the jury believed that Robert Grinder, Mrs. Griner's husband, had murdered Lewis, but they were afraid to say so because Griner was thought to be murderous and he was very close friends with the Chickasaw tribe. According to Frierson, the jury had felt it had not been suicide and they had found no powder burns on the front of Lewis` body or clothes. Frierson said the jury concluded Lewis had been shot from behind.1 If that is so, it was at odds with the official, published account.

William Clark had started east with his family on September 21, 1809 and had arrived at his brother Jonathan's home near Louisville, KY, on October 12th. He left again on October 26th, and ended up reading the newspaper account of Lewis` death on October 28th while passing through Shelbyville. He then wrote a letter to Jonathan that said he felt sure that Lewis had killed himself. Since Clark had known Lewis` disturbed state of mind when governor had left Louisiana, his acknowledgement that Lewis might have killed himself was important.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "We have all to lament that a fame so dearly earned was clouded finally by such an act of desperation. He was much afflicted & habitually so with hypocondria. This was probably increased by the habit into which he had fallen & the painful reflections that would necessarily produce in a mind like his." The habit he mentioned was drinking excessive alcohol. However, that was not a problem when he had sent Lewis out to Louisiana, so he was relying on stories of Lewis` activities that had returned to him. There was no good documentation to support the theory that Lewis was habitually drinking to excess while Governor.

Major Russell, who entertained Lewis at Chickasaw Bluffs, was finally required to travel to Washington DC in 1810 because federal government. officials had refused to pay some of his bills. He remained there until November 1811. The US Army later arrested Russell and discharged him, but no documents remain to explain the reason.

Experts have examined many of the documents produced at the time that Lewis had been staying at Fort Pickering. The letters that Lewis wrote while at the Fort were consistent with his other writings and showed no evidence of any affect caused by an over-consumption of alcohol. (However, that does not prove Lewis had not been drinking heavily.) It was in the case of documents associated with Major Russell that questions arise. Dr. Duane Dillon in 1996 analyzed the document from Russell that stated Lewis was deranged and announced that both the signatures and the documents were not authentic. Document expert Gerald Richards substantiated that finding. That was not to say that Russell had not had a secretary produce the letters, but it does mean the documents might have falsified later to help support the idea that Lewis had killed himself.

A reported rumor that circulated just after Lewis died was that an outlaw named Thomas Runions had actually killed Lewis. The rumor was widely reported and believed, however, there was no clear source for the rumor and no evidence to support it. However, like Robert Griner, Thomas Runions had been half Chickasaw Indian and he later married Parthenia Grinder, a relative of Robert Griner. It was possible that he was in the area at the time.

Dr. E. G. Chuinard, who had analyzed the descriptions of the wounds that Lewis was said to have inflicted, concluded that the ball shot through the chest, intestines and that exiting the back should have killed him almost immediately and found that such a wound indicated a kneeling position. His analysis supports a theory that Lewis had been killed, having been shot from behind; it was not impossible that such wounds could have resulted had Lewis knelt while shooting himself.

One investigator who came to believe that Lewis had not killed himself later wrote, "But the fact that Jefferson selected Lewis as his private secretary and dinner companion, and then to lead the expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, tells more about Lewis than anything I could write." To that, I might add, not only did Lewis lead this expedition, he returned with every man alive other than one man who died from a burst appendix. He was successful in meeting the goals of the expedition. He formed many strong associations with the native Americans along the way. He brought back a large amount of scientific specimens and knowledge. Although Clark carried a great deal of responsibility for the content and success of the mission, Lewis was person who defined what it would do and how it would do it. His interaction throughout the expedition was as strong as Clark's had been. Any person who had strong periods of depression could not have held the expedition together. It appears to be improbable that Lewis, who had went through extreme physical and emotional stress during the long expedition, would have lost his reason under the circumstances documented.

Major Neelly was the source of much of the information about Lewis` derangement of mind that supported the suicide theory. He convinced Captain Brahan in Nashville that Lewis had killed himself, and Brahan stated, "Major Neeley [sic] informs me that he discovered some days previous to the death of Governor strong proofs of a derangement in his mind." However, at least some of the people on the coroner's jury did not believe that explanation. If rumors were true, Robert Griner intimidated a portion of the coroner's jury, and some believed he had killed the governor.

Neelly kept Lewis` horse, rifle, dirk, and pistols. Neelly bought a farm in Duck River Country not long after Lewis` death. John Marks, Lewis` half-brother, went to Neelly's farm to get Lewis` property back in January 1812, but was only able to get one horse and one of Lewis` guns. Neelly only remained in his position for a couple of years more. He was fired for an undocumented reason in June 1812. After he left the job, he vanished into history. No researcher has been able to find what became of him.

John Pernier said Lewis had owed him two years back wages when his employer died, for a total of $271.50. That meant he could not have received any wages since he had been hired in 1807. That was doubtful, but since Lewis was dead no one who could prove otherwise. He had worked for Jefferson before Lewis had hired him. On November 26, 1809, Pernier visited Jefferson for about four hours and told the ex-President about Lewis` death. He also asked for help in getting his back wages from President Madison. Jefferson dutifully sent him off with a letter to Madison requested that the freed black man be paid those back wages. John Brahan was later supposed to provide Pernier with funds, but he refused to give any large sum. He said he was "fearful it might cause him to drink as I discover he has a propensity at present." He speculated that the 'propensity' was because it came "from distress of mind at the death of the governor." Since he would have had no reason to feel guilty about Lewis having committed suicide, was it reasonable to suppose that Pernier's sudden 'propensity' for overconsumption of alcohol to arise from that cause?

Pernier did not long survive Lewis. He first stayed with John Christian Sueverman, a former servant of Jefferson who operated a boarding house in Washington DC. On April 29, 1810, he killed himself with an overdose of laudanum. However, some accounts at the time said he had actually cut his own throat.

Robert Griner and his wife moved away not long after Lewis` death. No one was sure where Griner got the money, but he purchased a thousand acres of prime river bottomland near the Duck River in Hickman County. Since he was probably involved in selling liquor to the native Americans and may have supplemented his income with fleecing travelers on the Natchez Trace, no one can be sure if any of his money had been taken from Lewis. It was possible that Griner had killed Lewis and taken his money without Pernier being involved, but there was no reason why Neelly and Pernier would report that Lewis had committed suicide in that situation. If any portion of Griner's money came from Lewis, the possibility of murder was increased. If Griner did not end up with the oney, who did?

In 1843, Tennessee named Lewis County after the dead governor. In 1848, the State of Tennessee contracted with Lemuel Kirby to build a tall headstone over Lewis` grave. It was completed in 1848, at a cost of $500. You can see it today at Tennessee SR 20 and the Natchez parkway.

Those people involved in locating Lewis` body found three bodies in the ground and no one was sure which one was that of Governor Lewis. Lewis was a large man, and so a special coffin made out of split logs was required to bury him. Special nails were required to construct that coffin. The brothers of Robert Smith's brother-in-law, Hamilton Cooper and Robert Melville Cooper, had forged the nails. Robert Melville Cooper was still alive and available in 1848, and he identified Lewis' coffin from the special nails used. Cooper later stated he had seen Lewis' bones and there had been a large hole in the skull as he had been told about. If that was accurate, the accounts made by Mrs. Griner and Major Neelly could not be correct.

A group of individuals who examined Lewis` bones at the time the monument was being constructed concluded Lewis had been murdered. However, they did not identify what drew them to that conclusion. Although it was probably the condition of the bones, there were persistent rumors that Lewis had been murdered circulating, and they might have affected the group. The committee that examined Lewis` bones wrote "...the upper part of the skeleton was examined." Oral tradition said there was a hole in the back of the skull that could not have been a self-inflicted wound. The committee stated, "The impression has long prevailed that under the influence of disease of body and mind...Gov. Lewis perished by his own hand. It seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin." We cannot be sure what their words mean. The skull or other bones might have shown wounds that proved murder but we cannot know for sure. In my opinion is that the committee concluded Lewis was murdered because they had some definitive proof.

A small cemetery lay just behind Lewis' grave. Robert Smith, the man who had reported he had found Lewis` body along the trail, was later buried near Lewis, and Smith's wife was buried with him. Family tradition stated two infant sons of Smith's were also buried there. The US Government made the monument a National shrine and moved the old cemetery, reburying the bones around the monument. Marble stones identified the new graves, but they only put the initials of the known deceased on them. As a result, Lewis does not sleep alone.

Researchers have proposed several theories about Lewis` death, involving a range of possible medical problems or conditions. One thought Lewis had contracted Syphilis in late 1804 from a Native American girl and that it had affected his mind. Most modern researchers have concluded it was highly improbable that the disease could have been in its final stages by 1809. Doctors who studied the drugs Lewis purchased in St. Louis and comparing them to the symptoms reported concluded he might have suffered from malaria. That was quite possible, but it would hardly explain the obvious jump into dementia reported by Major Russell and Major Neelly.

Several doctors have questioned the accuracy of Mrs. Griner's account of Lewis having been shot twice, having moved about, and remained alive for a period. She said Lewis had been shot twice. He would have been penetrated by lead balls over a half of an inch in diameter and weighing 568 grains (1 and 1/3 ounces), coming from a gun that had a muzzle velocity of about 600 feet per second. Each ball would have had the striking energy of 454 foot-pounds. Mrs. Griner described Lewis staggering around after the second and fatal shot. Dr. E. G. Chuinard said he felt that was not possible. "As a surgeon, I do not believe that Lewis could have sustained the second and fatal shot with the injury to his vital organs, and live for two hours and do all the moving about related by Mrs. Grinder." Dr. Chuinard also questioned why, if Lewis was in such pain and wanted to die, he did not reload his pistols and try again?

Final Analysis

As you can see from the data above, there were many conflicting accounts made at the time and afterwards. The official verdict was probably provided by the inquest. The account published conformed to the two principal accounts at the time, provided by Mrs. Griner and Major Neelly. However, the official version was not the only one that circulated at the time. Since we must rely solely on the documentation that people produced in the 1800's, the accuracy of the documents is imperative. However, the documentation conflicts and there are questions about the validity of some of the documents.

It sounds like a conspiracy theory to conclude that people falsified documents in the 1800's in order to promote the idea that Lewis was going insane. However, there are reasonable candidates for people who would have benefited by Lewis' death, most notably James Wilkerson. Murder for gain cannot be excluded from the possibilities. There are many elements of doubt brought up by examining the evidence. Although the data does not establish Lewis died from murder, enough doubt was cast by evidence that a verdict of suicide cannot be proven.

We expect historically events to have no secrets, no hidden agendas, and accounts given by honest people. Such events tend to be clear-cut; there tends to be little room for rumors that compete with the documented record. Lewis` death was far from clear-cut. The undertones of rumor and accounts that differed from the official verdict gave the impression that things might not be as they were reported.

The evidence does not prove conclusively that Lewis killed himself or had his life taken from him. However, the bones of Meriwether Lewis might hold the definitive proof that the official account was not the accurate one. Until a qualified forensic pathologist has examined Lewis` bones, we can never be sure that proof of murder cannot be found there. The court case brought against the Parks Service failed to get Lewis` bones exhumed and examined that time; however, the attempt must be made again and again until it succeeds. During the last court proceeding, historians who felt Lewis had committed suicide, and who would have had their reputation tarnished had it been found to be untrue, testified against exhuming Lewis` remains. However, the reputation of historians or the assumptions that historians have made are not reasons to have this question remain unanswered. It is our responsibility to find out if Lewis was murdered. If he was, it is also our responsibility to do what we can to find his murderer. It has been nearly 200 years since Lewis died, yet the responsibility remains the same today. Isn't it about time this question was answered?

by Sherman A. Meeds, Jr.
Copyright 2009
Notes:
1Text of jury's remarks found in Lewis Scrapbook of the Tennessee State Archives.
2Robert Evans Griner had actually come from the Grinder family, but spelled his name differently for some reason. Documents show his name as Griner, but his relatives are listed as Grinder. This has caused some confusion.
Bibliography:
Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases, by Dale L. Walker, Forge Books, 2006.
B By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, edited by John D. W. Guice, Oklahoma University Press, 2006.
C Jefferson Conspiracies, by David Leon Chandler, Morrow, 1994.
D Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Death of Meriwether Lewis, by Troy Taylor, 2004.
E Did Stephen Ambrose Sanitize Meriwether Lewis` Death?, by Reimert Thorolf Ravenhold, MD MPH, 2002.
F The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, by Reimert Thorolf Ravenhold, MD MPH, 2002.
G The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Crime-Scene Investigation (website).
H The Meriwether Lewis Story, Compiled from the papers of Jesse Eugene Cooper, Grandson of Robert O. Smith and Robert M. Cooper, and other records and letters in the Cooper family.
Copyright 2009 by Sherman A. Meeds Jr.
Meriwether Lewis - Painting
Meriwether Lewis.

 

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