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.
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.
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
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.