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CSI: Natchez Trace

As I believe I mentioned in a previous blog post, this fall will mark the 200th anniversary of Meriwether Lewis's untimely and weird death on the Natchez Trace.  To prepare for the momentous occasion, I felt the need to read up on the whole debate on the nature of his death: was it suicide, or murder, or something else?  Since at work I have the attention span of a gnat, I am having to keep my background reading cursory, and so my program consists entirely of reading By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, ed. John D.W. Guice (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).  A few weeks ago I read the chapter on the case for suicide, after which I firmly believed Lewis killed himself; yesterday morning I read the chapter on the case for homicide.  Unfortunately I have to say that I don't think that this second chapter is as well-argued as the first, but after reading it I will say that I'm not prepared to entirely dismiss the possibility of homicide.   Mostly because it seems a little hard to believe that someone could manage to shoot themselves twice with .69-caliber bullets, using a 14 1/2-inch-long pistol, then stagger around still alive for hours afterward.  I'm just saying.

Others are even more adamant in their skepticism about the suicide theory.  There was a recent article in the local paper about a group of collateral Lewis descendants who are petitioning the federal government to have Lewis's body exhumed and a forensic investigation performed on whatever remains, er, remain.  Lewis's grave lies inside the boundaries of a national park, and so far the government seems less than keen on allowing poor Lewis to be dug up.  I can't really blame them, I suppose - don't want to encourage all the distasteful furor and so forth.  Of course, it's already kind of a circus.  Maybe they should just give up and hire Geraldo to come and preside over the exhumation. Of course, then they're sure to open up the coffin and find nothing but a bunch of buttons.  Perhaps some whisky bottles.

One of the rather fascinating things about this debate is not necessarily the subject matter itself, but the people doing the arguing, their attitudes towards the whole thing, and how they're viewed by their opponents and others.  My basic impression is that, historically, the suicide theory has always enjoyed wider and more mainstream acceptance, while the murder theory has a bit of the wacky underdog about it.  The two sides were rather dramatically personified in one incident recounted in my reading yesterday - a rather snippy exchange of letters in the 1960s between Julian Boyd, original editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, and Vardis Fisher, author of Suicide or Murder?.  Boyd apparently took exception to Fisher's quotation of him in his work, or his criticism of Jefferson (maybe both).  Fisher retorted that Boyd had an "idolatrous attitude towards Jefferson."  (Er, he was kind of right there.)

Anyway, tune in next week, or whenever I get the chance, for my humble opinion on what happened to Meriwether Lewis, based on superficial reading and no subject expertise whatsoever!


ohisian319's picture
But your audience has a desire to know what your consensus is before next week (and is far too lazy to ask you in person). :P
ohisian319 (not verified)
Anna's picture
Patience, Grasshopper.
Anna (not verified)
Megan's picture
Personally (and not speaking for my organization), I favor suicide. The Library of Congress has a letter from Madison to Jefferson ( where Madison conveys the 'news' of Lewis' fate. I'm not saying that it's true because Madison wrote it, but if he did linger that long, he might have told someone he was murdered? Looking forward to hearing more from y'all. Megan B. at Montpelier
Megan (not verified)
John's picture
Stay tuned for more information from the Meriwether Lewis family's news conference July 8 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For details, visit
John (not verified)
Thomas Danisi's picture
Okay, the Madison letter to Jefferson is one where Madison read the death from a newspaper. As for the suicide angle, he lived a few hours after the gunshot wounds - so it;s not suicide. We have to have intent and there was no intent - read the newest biography on Lewis published by Prometheus Books, March 2009. The problem with the books mentioned above by Guice and Gale, they are so limited in their scope and so ripe with speculation that no reader can obtain a balanced view. I urge you, given the fact that Lewis is still a beloved American hero, to read this latest biography. I am one of the authors. I say that Lewis's death was accidental, neither suicide or murder.
Thomas Danisi (not verified)
Anna's picture
Ah, that's a third possibility that I have not heard mentioned before! We have your book in our library, so I shall have to have a look...
Anna (not verified)
Legacy NID: 


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