The great explorer furnishes perhaps the earliest example of what became a great American tradition: the beloved celebrity whose ignominious, untimely death spawned conspiracy theories intended to restore some of the hero’s dignity.
Lewis’s apparent suicide at a remote inn off the Natchez Trace in October 1809, when he was only thirty-five years old, ignited a slowly simmering cauldron of alternative explanations. By the conspiracy-happy 1990s, these included assassination by agents of General James Wilkinson, with a cover-up orchestrated by Thomas Jefferson himself.
A soldier by occupation, the Virginia-born Lewis was Jefferson’s private secretary for a time before achieving international fame by successfully leading an expedition to the Pacific and back between 1803 and 1806.
Firming up the U.S. claim to the just-completed Louisiana Purchase and laying the groundwork for later expansion into the Pacific Northwest while also bringing back a wealth of scientific information, Lewis and his colleague William Clark became the new nation’s first real celebrities, probably surpassing many of the founders themselves. President Jefferson rewarded his protégé with an appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory he had just explored, a post that Jefferson regarded as the second-highest in the land.
Despite his experience as Jefferson’s presidential “staff,” Lewis was no politician, and found his post-expedition life deeply disappointing. Delaying his move to the territorial capital for almost a year, Lewis searched for a wife and planned to publish the journals of the expedition, but never managed to get either project off the ground.
Once ensconced at St. Louis, Lewis performed terribly as territorial governor, clashing with more experienced politicians like Territorial Secretary Frederick Bates, who called his superior “a big baby,” and getting the affairs of his office muddled enough to have some expenditures rejected by the War Department. In September 1809, Lewis set out on a trip to Washington to clear his name and see his publishers.
Southern Death Trip
The trip did not go very well. Although conspiracy theorists point out that little was said of it while Lewis was alive, Jefferson, William Clark, and others admitted after his death that the new governor had developed serious psychological problems, including intense, habitual hypochondria, for which Lewis often medicated himself; a terrible drinking problem; and what we would call today depression. Alcoholism was a common affliction in the frontier military and seems to have worsened in Lewis’s case under the stress of his political and personal failures.
Only two hundred miles into the journey, downriver from St. Louis at New Madrid, Lewis had to be taken ashore from his boat and treated for some real, imagined, or self-induced illness. He made out his last will and testament and only reembarked on the voyage when earthquakes broke out in the area, leading his fearful valet to have his master put back on the boat.
At his next port of call, Fort Pickering near present-day Memphis, Lewis arrived in a state of “mental derangement,” inebriated and suicidal. The fort commander, Major Gilbert Russell, had Lewis removed from his boat and detained him for two weeks, restricting his alcohol intake to “claret and a little white wine” and posting guards to prevent the explorer from doing violence to himself.
Lewis recovered his senses and promised never to touch intoxicants again. He borrowed money and horses from Russell, and set out for Washington overland, via the Natchez Trace, on 29 September 1809.
Apparently Lewis fell off the wagon rather quickly during his last journey. His traveling companion after Fort Pickering, Indian agent James Neelly, found him “deranged” again as they crossed the Chickasaw Nation, where they had to stop and let Lewis rest for two days.
Shortly after, Neelly brought the suspicion of generations of conspiracy theorists on himself by going after some lost horses and sending Lewis on alone, planning to meet 50 miles farther up the Trace, at the home of a white family that accommodated travelers in a place called Grinder’s Stand in present-day Lewis County, Tennessee.
Lewis appeared at the Grinder (also spelled Griner) house on the evening of 10 October 1809, and though the accounts of what happened there differ in some particulars, all agree that the governor was in a highly agitated state of mind. Priscilla Griner, the lady of the house and the only witness to give testimony, remembered Lewis pacing back and forth in the room where he was lodged talking loudly to himself “like a lawyer.”
In the wee hours of 11 October, Griner heard two pistol shots but was too frightened to investigate. Through the cracks in the log building, however, she saw that Lewis had blasted away part of his own skull, shot himself in the side, and also tried to cut his own throat with a razor, but none of it was enough to bring immediate death.
Cowering with her children, Griner heard the explorer asking for water but ignored his pleas out of fright and saw him crawl off moaning. There are several variations of Lewis’s last words, but one appropriate remark recurs: “How hard it is to die.”
Few questions were raised about Lewis’s death at the time, but beginning in the 1840s, stories began to circulate that he was murdered, especially in Tennessee. Even then, according to historian Dawson A. Phelps, the story did not receive much public comment for another half century, by which time the murder interpretation had become an established tradition among the locals and the Lewis family. From the 1890s on, it began to receive occasional endorsements from Lewis and Clark scholars.
Even this tradition was not necessarily a conspiracy theory. Those distraught by the pathfinder’s pathetic end may have taken comfort in the idea of murder-not-suicide, but the few concrete ideas they circulated about who might have killed him or why were vague and rather mundane in nature.
The leading explanation was Lewis had been killed by robbers, perhaps his own servant Pernier. The evidence for a conspiracy or even murder is thin to nonexistent, resting largely on legend, rumors generations removed from the source, and the willing disbelief of later admirers that the great man could have been capable of such degrading and desperate behavior.
Some have fingered lone eyewitness Priscilla Griner as an accomplice who lied to cover up for her supposedly absent husband Robert and unknown others. The legends tell of Robert being tried for murder but acquitted for lack of evidence.
It is certainly true that Mrs. Griner’s credibility as a witness is less than total, but that actually undermines the conspiracy theory further. Priscilla embroidered her original story for an interviewer twenty-nine years after Lewis’s death, adding material that made the events look more suspicious.
Her later account included the claim that two men came to the house looking for lodging and quarreled with Lewis, along with other conspiratorial details: three shots instead of two, meaning that Lewis’s two pistols (the kind that had to be loaded after each shot) could not have done the job; and an apparent exchange of clothing between Lewis and his servant sometime in the night.
The most thoroughgoing Lewis conspiracy theory was propounded by muckraking popular historian (and Pulitzer Prize winner) David Leon Chandler in his 1994 book, The Jefferson Conspiracies. Departing from the usual practice, Chandler endorsed Mrs. Griner’s revised 1838 account in full, and surmised that Lewis was murdered while trying to escape in his servant’s clothes, possibly by or with the help of his erstwhile companion Neelly.
As the title of the book made obvious, Chandler was eager to be the Woodward and Bernstein of the early American republic and trace the murder all the way back to the White House, or at least Monticello.
Recounting the history of the Aaron Burr conspiracy and the treasonous activities of General Wilkinson (a Spanish spy and Burr crony as well as the ranking official in the frontier army), Chandler theorized that Lewis carried some sort of evidence against Wilkinson and was hunted down by the general’s henchmen, who then fabricated the tales of drunkenness and suicide that became the official interpretation.
Chandler was able to give Jefferson himself only a small role in the titular conspiracies. His major accusation was that the just-retired president helped forestall further investigation by accepting the suicide explanation too quickly and lending credence to the idea that Lewis was an alcoholic.
Jefferson’s alleged motive was to avoid exposing Wilkinson, whose integrity Jefferson had publicly certified by maintaining him in an important military post and by using him as the star government witness in Aaron Burr’s recent treason trial.
Although Jefferson’s confidence in Wilkinson was politically calculated and extremely misplaced, Chandler’s theories hold very little water. Resting the crux of his argument on the half-hearted nature of the investigation, he echoed the modern assassination conspiracy literature, but begged the question of what sort of investigation could possibly have been conducted at so remote a location at such an early date.
If one accepts the far-fetched premise of hired political assassins stalking the American woods in 1809, to kill a national hero, then Lewis’s best friend and fellow explorer, William Clark, also has to be included in the conspiracy. No man knew Lewis, got along with him better, or respected him more, but Clark accepted the official account just as readily as Jefferson.
The “Jefferson conspiracy” against Meriwether Lewis is best considered as anachronistic speculation that tells us more about late-twentieth-century popular culture than it does about Lewis or Jefferson.