Help Solve the Meriwether Lewis Mystery: Suicide or Murder?

 “It is so hard to die” Last words of Meriwether Lewis.

October 11, 1809 at the age of 35; National hero and Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory commits suicide off the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. His name: Meriwether Lewis.

Really? I think we should talk…

  • Lewis – Thomas Jefferson’s most trusted confidant and right-hand man;
  • Lewis – who just finished an incredibly famous expedition (hello Lewis and Clark); and
  • Lewis – the only one with the secret word (ARTICHOKE) to decode the pre-computer cypher that he and Jefferson exclusively used to communicate secrets at distance?

Is he the Kur(d)t Cobain of politicians, or was it something more (side note: he may have been suffering from syphilis)? Something tells me, and my favorite weirdo historian Brad Meltzer (main source of this post) that every ounce of evidence points to this case being MURDER.

Lewis’ original course was to ride from St. Louis to New Orleans and back to Washington but something happened where Lewis decided it was too dangerous to make the journey and ends up in Memphis.  Congress begins to reject Lewis’ expenses and he makes his way down the South’s famous robber horse trail – the Natchez Trace – where he spends the last night of his life on October 10th at Grider’s Stand in Lincoln County, TN (Star map: Just East of Hohenwald – the home of Loretta Lynn).

Here are the major players in this seemingly 1990’s era soap opera drama:

  1. General James Wilkerson – Governor of the LA Territory for seven years when Jefferson removes him and gives the position to Lewis. Revenge is the most powerful motive of all.
  2. Major James Neeley – protector of Lewis on his journey, but “happened” to be hired by General James Wilkerson – Lewis’ enemy. Wrote Jefferson to detail the events of Lewis’ suicide.
  3. Robert Evans Griner and Priscilla Knight Griner – Inn Owners at “Grider’s Stand” (The Inn’s official title being “Griner” but colloquially known as “Grider’s Inn” which stuck). Robert accused as key witness to possible murder, and Priscilla the only witness. Many think they have been hired by Wilkerson to murder Lewis.
  4. Gilbert Russell – wrote to Jefferson that Lewis was suicidal before he came to Grider’s stand so the suicide seemed plausible to Jefferson.

However, handwriting analysis speculates Russell’s letter to be a forgery. Further, Neeley was actually in court in Franklin, TN on the day of Lewis’ death, not Grinder’s Stand – on the day he “wrote” of Lewis’ suicide.

A couple of things stand out as to why this may not have been suicide:

  • The weapon used was a 65 caliber flintlock pistol with lead balls weighing as much as a AA battery.  All accounts by Priscilla (there are THREE…) say that she heard at least two or three gunshots. Lewis sustained two verified gunshots – one to the chest and one to the head. Now, is it really plausible that he shot himself in the chest and with a coke can sized bullet hole, reloads and shoots himself in the back of the head?
  • The doctor who examined Lewis’ body in 1848 wrote that his death may have been that of an assassination.
  • Rumor has it that Lewis was carrying a list that ranked soldiers by order of threat and James Wilkerson was first on the list. Could this have been the motive?

But who killed Mr. Body?

And perhaps the biggest mystery is why the National Parks Service will not allow the body to be exhumed. A mere 200 yards from Grinder’s Stand, a monument (erected 1848) to Lewis stands where his grave is thought to be. The descendants of Lewis have filed to have the body removed; however, the Parks Service will not allow a body to be posthumously disturbed.

Even wilder is that YOU can help solve this mystery! Visit Solve the Mystery to learn more about how you can help advocate for the exhumation of Lewis’ grave and close this chapter in history once and for all.

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