The Forgotten 2-shot Suicide of Meriwether Lewis

How does one shoot himself twice with a large caliber, muzzle loading pistol? Thomas Jefferson, amongst others, believe that's exactly what Meriwether Lewis did at age 35 during the height of his fame

Two Shot Suicide?

Two Shot Suicide?

On This Date in History: One thing is certain and that is that famed explorer, Meriwether Lewis, died on this date in 1809. What is unclear is how he died, though there are reports that his ghost still roams.

Well, he died of two gunshots. One to the head and another to the chest. Weapons of the day were single shot firearms typically of a large caliber that required the use of a ram rod to reload.  I have yet to read any account that suggests Lewis had two pistols.  One account from the woman of the house (Mrs. Grinder) that Lewis called out to her to help heal his wounds.  Does that sound like a suicide to you?  That is what the official account was and the suicide story of Meriwether Lewis was accepted by Thomas Jefferson, William Clark and the one accepted by most historians. On the surface it sounds pretty fishy.

Grinder Inn Replica in Lewis County, TN Where Lewis committed suicide by shooting himself twice...quite a feat

Lewis had been appointed as Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. He had replaced General James Wilkinson who had been implicated in a plot to establish a separate nation in the Louisiana Territory  along with that infamous Vice-President Aaron Burr. Lewis was traveling back to Washington with a bunch of his papers that he hoped to have published in a book. He came down with malaria and he and his servant, John Pernier, stayed in Fort Pickering (now Memphis) for two weeks. They were then joined by Major James Neeley, an indian agent for the Chickasaw Indians, and the pair with their two servants went on their way. Shortly after they left there was a big rainstorm and two of the pack horses ran off. Neeley went to look for the horses while Lewis and the two servants went on.

General James Wilkinson: Got Even with Lewis?

On the night of October 10, 1809 Lewis was shot twice and died the following morning. How the 35 year old explorer came to that condition is in question because the story kept changing. The captain at the fort and Neeley said that Lewis had been acting drunk and deranged. Yet, twice while at the fort, Lewis wrote very detailed and lucid letters to Jefferson. On the night in question, Lewis had gone to the home of John Grinder. He was away but his wife let Lewis in. From that point, things get shadey because Mrs. Grinder changed her story several times. She says that she heard Lewis pacing around and talking to himself and then heard two gunshots. Yet, neither Lewis’ nor Neeley’s servants heard any shots. Mrs. Grinder claimed at one point that Lewis had shot himself in the head and a little below the breast with two pistols and said “I have done the business my good Servant give me some water.” Later she said that Lewis had crawled into the woods and the next day Pernier arrived wearing Lewis’ clothes. Pernier died suddenly just 7 months later in Washington.  Rumors at the time said that Pernier’s throat had been cut from “ear to ear,” but the man with whom Pernier boarded said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that Pernier had also committed suicide.  The man claimed that Pernier deliberately took an overdose of laudanum

Would've Solved the Mystery


John Grinder was brought up on murder charges but was acquitted due to lack of evidence and motive. Why he was brought up on charges is a mystery because if there was a motive for murder, it was with Neeley. Neeley is said to have had no money when he left Fort Pickering with Lewis but Lewis had $120. There was no money found in Lewis’ possession yet, Neeley was able to give Pernier $15 to travel to Virginia to make a report to Jefferson. Further, Neeley and the man in charge of the fort, who both reported that Lewis was deranged had both been appointed by Wilkinson, the former governor and conspirator.  Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David L. Chandler wrote that  Lewis discovered certain secrets about General James Wilkinson, his predecessor as Governor of Upper Louisiana. These secrets if revealed, would destroy not only the reputation of General Wilkinson, who was the highest ranking officer in the US Army at the time,  but also that of Thomas Jefferson, who was no longer president. Chandler believed the real reason for Lewis’ trip to Washington was to expose the plot in order to collect his money. The  most efficient way to make certain that no scandal arose was to keep permanantly.  Other suspects would be those who supposedly were helping Lewis in his final days like Major Neelly and Captain Russell.   Whatever the case, Lewis was dead and somehow history has recorded his shots to the head and to the chest with two different guns to be the result of a suicide. Too bad Lt. Columbo wasn’t around.

9 Responses

  1. that had the program ‘Decoding’ presented the fact that in the 1848 findings, when a doctor examined Lewis’ remains, there had been three gunshot wounds, not just the two you have mentioned. Two holes were found within the head (in the front and in the back) and one in the frontal area of Lewis’ body. The areas in which these shots were fired into Lewis’ body would have been impossible for Lewis to have inflict himself ane this program activily proved this with three individual going through the actions of shooting these bullets into a body. Then, the note that Neely was supposed to have written in 1808, that went to Jefferson of Lewis’ taking his own life was examined. What was found in regards to this note about Lewis’ actions, of supposedly killing himself, that went to Jefferson, the place where the ‘accident’ that Neely decribes as suicide, Neely was proven to have not been there at the time of Lewis’ death place at the time as Neely said he had been; but it was concretely proven that Neely was at another place, twenty hours away (measured by time it would have taken to get to point A to point B by a horse, which was the mode of travel at that ponit in history if Neely had been at that murder scene) because Neely’s signature was found on two Tennessee court documents that had been signed that same day, that was twenty hours away ( a whole day’s ride away from Lewis’ murder scene) within an entirely different geographical place within a court room. Thus, the document that has gone down in history as how Lewis died, by his own hand was a forgery and an untrue statement sent to Jefferson, by a man who had said he’d been there to see this, who in reality hadn’t been there at all. It was surmised that Wilkerson hired Neely to murder Lewis, who was going to be riding with Lewis to Lewis’ destination, to murder Lewis; remember Jefferson dethroned Wilkerson as governor of Louisana, and gave the position to Lewis when Lewis arrived at Montecello after his grand exploration of the new world. It was also believed that Russell and Mr. Grinder assisted in this murderous incident because he and his wife received a large sum of money thereafter and moved from this specific area where this death took place immediately thereafter. As an added note, while Grinder’s wife was living at Grinder’s Inn too, at this particular time period and when asked for her take of this death, she told three versions of what she saw about Lewis’ death to three different persons. This I thought was interestingly for these three stories to have been recorded in history of Lewis dying, which all three versions contradicted each other when all three versions were pooled together and examined. General Wilkerson is believed to have masterminded this murder because of Jefferson taking the governor ship of Louisiana from him and giving it to Lewis. Someone had ‘to take the fall’ or blame and John Grinder was the ‘fall guy’ since Neely and Wilkerson did not want to be implicated, with of course, Grinder and wife left with a large amount of money afterwards which allowed him and wife to leave the area after the trial, which is historically recorded. Interestingly there were three holes in Lewis’ body, not only two which were observed by doctors in 1848 when examining Lewis’ remains. Originially, when I began researching who General Wilkerson was in our American history, I found out that he and Arron Burr had had thoughts about taking over the colonies and turning it into ‘their own’ domain. My connection/interest in this, through my family genealogy, I have found through my family research that one of Lewis’ first cousins is a direct family member that ultimately leads me to the early development of state of Kentucky.

  2. I saw the “Decoded” program on the death of Meriweather Lewis, last night on the History Channel. It confirms my own opinions formed many years ago–before even the FBI analysis that showed that the infamous “Russell Letter” (the only thing to claim Lewis’ “derangement”) was a complete forgery. Funny how Mrs. Grinder also used the same terms to describe Lewis as the forged letter did, and how her story kept changing… I learned a long time ago that when a person’s “story” keeps changing, it means he or she is lying–unless he or she has been seriously brain damaged recently and is also on drugs and being “coaxed” by someone else. Either way, it sure as heck isn’t a truthful eye-witness account. Also, Neely wasn’t even there when Lewis died–he was in Franklin County, TN in court–as per documents just discovered, but arrived at Grinder’s tavern a few days after the murder. I’d sure like to know who was the commanding officer at the fort and what his ties to Wilkinson were and what his handwriting looked like. Someone close to Wilkinson forged that “Russell Letter” and I’d bet that person’s handwriting is still around somewhere…
    Here’s another thought, though. I wonder what the records will EVENTUALLy show of Henry Paulson Jr.’s REAL relationship with COMMUNIST China (trust me, there is one…) and his treason in orchestrating the wrecking of the U.S. financial foundation and manufacturing base (including our own ability to make most of our own war materiel) for the sake of the development of COMMUNIST China. My husband and I were the only couple in the entire world to hold GS to account for its very real crimes regarding our savings and our mortgage, in a federal court, and do it pro se. I’ve done a lot of research. Also, I’m the only American to ever have served as a director of 5 Chinese American organizations–including one formed by and run by “mainlander refugees,” and I know all about them. No, my opinion of them is NOT favorable, and I’m not likely to ever be welcome in China as long as its “communist.” I regard China as the enemy as it has declared itself to be many times and in many ways–just mostly not in English, especially when our rather lazy media might occasionally be listening or reading. Let’s put it this way: from what I already KNOW and have found documents about, if I were U.S. attorney general, Henry Paulson Jr. and about a dozen other former and current CEO’s and other key officers and directors of at least half a dozen of “our” financial institutions would have been arrested and prosecuted for treason long ago.

  3. It depends how much damage the .69 pistol can do upclose and far away. And there is a lot of evidence , decoding the mail Neely sent (History Channel/Website) and we believe that Neely murdered him if Meriwether Lewis was murdered. If he did suicide, a .69 pistol would do a lot of damage up close, I believe.

  4. To consider this death as suicide, after shooting oneself twice in both these specific areas of the body, from which Lewis would have died from at least once from either of these mortal wounds, how would anyone have any energy to shoot themselves twice? The second shot placed into Lewis’ body was ‘to make sure’ Lewis was dead. Jefferson’s reward to Lewis was supposed to have been given to Lewis, the political seat of Louisiana, that General Wilkerson already had under his control. Why won’t anyone with such a corrupt history which has already been established which breeds such greedy nature that has already been proven concerned Wilkerson through his actions, not have followed through with such an act of murder? Money talks, as we all can see today in our Congress and nothing is surprising when power and that green helps make their decisions to act which usually always is to their benefit, hoping no one will find out after they make this decision. Mortality and money go hand and hand. When is someone going to request that a forensic science expert look at these honorable bones of my Lewis? And what would be the correct proceedure to begin to stir up examination of some of this scared dust?

  5. Perhaps Lewis’ ghost (spirit) will come to rest, after the REAL truth is uncovered by forensic science. When and where would this be accomplished?

  6. There are two answers to the question…neither of which I know. First, there has to be desire to go to the trouble to go through with the effort. Second, there has to be abiltiy and I have no idea if there is still physical evidence sufficient for examination or if the science is available to make a definitive conclusion if there is. Thanx for contributing, Rhonda.

  7. The fact that these questions about Lewis’ death remain and are discussed, and keeps coming up to be discussed, there is a desire to know the truth. What is left is for those with the closest relationship to Lewis, which I would be more than happy to give support, to to go through with whatever the effort might be to take to get this event to take place. I know there is a way to do anything, if one wants to do something. It’s just takes finding the correct avenue or direction one needs to go, to get something to happen. There is always a way to find out if the bones that remain, which need to be seen so some examination can be performed. Once finding where the correct scientific agencies are located and what they require via the law, from for that agency and the law regards as a permission to perform this examination, and what the requirements are that are considered as sufficient for examination, for the science investigation to take place, something can happen to answer this seemingly, never ending historical question. I’ve learned that there is ALWAYS an answer if one keeps asking the question. It seems that the more questions asked, one eventually asks the ‘right question’ to get the correct answer, to their question that will solve this historical, unanswered mystery.

  8. While you make a good point, I’m not sure if forensic science, 200 years after the fact, can determine who pulled the trigger. Since that the story itself strains credibility, I’m just not certain if anything further can be added. Your desire to have the family have the desire to follow up would be wonderful to have come about. But, your or my desire for that outcome is not sufficient. Given that most of the time, such events reveal little, the family may not see any value. But, who knows…Bill Richardson as Gov of New Mexico not long ago seriously considered giving Billy the Kid a pardon and they did dig up Zachary Taylor to see if he was poisoned as was thought by many (without conclusions) so it may some day come about. Again, I appreciate your contributions.

  9. I was just reading about this tonight, and it fascinated me. Had read about 3 versions before finding your site. THANKS for a great article and the comments are super too. Going to come back and look around more when I can.
    Teresa of…

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