Tennessee Ghosts and Legends

Episode 6: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

May 26, 2022 Lyle Russell Season 1 Episode 6
Tennessee Ghosts and Legends
Episode 6: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis
Show Notes Transcript

Listen in as we explore the bizarre circumstances surrounding one half of the most famous American exploration duo in history, Meriwether Lewis. What happened to him at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace? Did he commit suicide, as the popular theories say? Was it an illness or overdose? Or was Governor Lewis murdered? Listen in and decide what you think happened.

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story, as well as a good history legend. On today’s episode, I’ll share with you the strange circumstances behind one of America’s most recognizable names in its early exploration and try to shed light on the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis.

The Legend:

Shortly before sunrise on October 11th, 1809, at the age of 35, Meriwether Lewis took his last breath. Mrs. Priscilla Grinder, proprietor of Grinder’s Stand, a makeshift tavern and inn on the Natchez Trace, was likely the last person to see him alive. According to her account given to Lewis’ traveling companion and Indian Agent James Neelly, the famed Governor of the Louisiana Territory, military Captain, confidante of President Thomas Jefferson and heralded explorer of the western frontier arrived alone at Grinder’s Stand in a deranged state. His behavior left her feeling unsafe, so she gave up the larger cabin for his sole use and slept in an adjacent kitchen building with Lewis’s servants taking up residence in the stable nearby. No one occupied the main cabin except for Lewis.

At around 3am, Mrs. Grinder was awakened by the cracking sound of two gunshots from the main cabin. She woke his servants to investigate, and in his report from interviewing Mrs. Grinder, Neelly wrote “He had shot himself in the head with one pistol and a little below the breast with the other—When his servant came in, he says; I have done the business. My good servant, give me some water. He gave him some, he survived but a short time.” This is the account that was hastily written by Agent Neelly and sent to President Thomas Jefferson to inform him of his friend’s death.

A few months later, another friend of Lewis’s, an ornithologist named Alexander Wilson, was traveling near the Stand and decided to inquire about the circumstances of his friend’s death first-hand. He took a room at the inn, the same one Lewis died in, and arranged to meet with Mrs. Grinder. In this account, she gave much more detail that either she failed to tell Neelly or details he felt unnecessary to include in his report. Nevertheless, this new interview revealed additional detailed information. Wilson is credited with conducting the first real investigation of Lewis’s bizarre death.

She told Wilson that Lewis arrived alone that night but assured her that his traveling companions and servants would be along soon and he would need one night’s lodging. In the tavern, he ordered spirits but drank very little, and at supper time, he ate even less. She stated he would frequently have conversations with himself, sometimes violently, only occasionally addressing her with kindly pleasantries, such as “What a sweet evening it is,” and, “Madam, this is a very pleasant evening.” She said he took his pipe and paced the floor, continuing to speak to no one but himself. 

She then told Wilson that she offered to set the bed for him, but he politely declined, claiming he was only comfortable sleeping on the floor. He requested his free servant, named John Pernier, bring him his buffalo robe and bearskins. She left the main cabin to him and retired to another one nearby with her children and servants. 

Mrs. Grinder said that Lewis’s disturbing behavior kept her awake most of that night. She claims she could hear him pacing the floor in the neighboring cabin and talking to himself “like a lawyer.”, She had finally dozed off when the sudden crack of gunfire startled her awake, along with Lewis’s scream of “O, Lord!” Then, just a moment later, a second shot rang out. Immediately after, Lewis came pounding on her door shouting, “O Madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!” but she did not unbar the door out of fear. Weakened and bleeding, she watched Lewis stagger his way back into his room. At sunrise, she sent her children to fetch the servants from their beds in the stables to investigate. They found Lewis still alive lying on the bed in frightening condition. One of the gunshots had torn away part of his forehead, leaving his brain exposed but with surprisingly little blood. He was conscious enough to raise his shirt and show the servants the second wound in his side. He reportedly begged the servant to take up his own rifle and finish him off. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong; so hard to die.” They could not bear the thought of doing any such thing, and Lewis mercifully passed away shortly after.  Some versions of this tale also say Lewis was cut to ribbons by his own straight razor he apparently used in a haphazard attempt to remove the bullets himself, speeding the loss of blood and his death.

The second version offers more details, though it is difficult to say why Agent Neelly would be so negligent in his report of such an untimely and awful death and omit so much. There are some who believe he may have been short on details to spare such a vaunted person as Meriwether Lewis the indignity of a gruesome end. Not all are convinced his motives were pure and that he had a hand in Lewis’s demise, keeping his report short to obscure his involvement, but more on that later. Now comes a third account, related by Mrs. Grinder some thirty years after that tragic night to a schoolteacher from the Cherokee Nation inquiring about the infamous and mysterious death. Many of the details were the same, though significant parts of the story had changed, making the already bizarre tale even more so.

In this account, there is an addition of three unknown men who arrived on Lewis’s heels and a confrontation ensued. She said Lewis drew his pistols and admonished them to leave, which they did. The rest of the story stays relatively the same until the fateful moment where she now claimed there were three pistol shots instead of two, and that she did not send her children to wake the servants as they were already in Lewis’s cabin. She now claims she was surprised to see them coming from the stables to Lewis’s aid where she thought they’d shared the cabin with him, leaving her to question why they left the cabin. She was also surprised to see Pernier wearing Lewis’s clothes; in fact, the very same clothing that Lewis was wearing when he arrived. She said he told her that Lewis had given him the garments, but he did not know why. Then, discovering that Lewis was gone, they departed to search along the Trace for the missing governor, only to find him wounded on the trail wearing Pernier’s tattered clothing and badly wounded.

Whether or not the changed parts of the story are hidden truths emerging over time, a poor accounting of the tale by the schoolteacher, or the poor memory of an aged Priscilla Grinder is unknown. Historians agree on one thing: there is little in this entire story that they can agree on. The popular theory is this whole affair was the tragic suicide of an American icon who suffered from depression, but there are others who believe this tragedy to be a murder most foul. To determine which theory is most plausible, we need to establish why Meriwether Lewis was traveling the Natchez Trace in the first place.

After his astounding three-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, one of Meriwether Lewis’s life goals was to arrange his extensive journals of the trek into a publication that would satiate the ravenous public that was eager to consume the chronology of the expedition’s adventures. Lewis wanted to beat the speculative publications to print and reveal the tale from his point of view, not some printer with wild imaginations. He struggled to reach this goal because his pesky official duties got in the way. To compound his frustrations, the bureaucracy in Washington, even in Lewis’s day, was more hinderance than help, and they refused his expense reports while debating his honesty in reporting. These personal affronts irritated him so badly that he decided a face-to-face confrontation with those who denied his integrity was the only way to restore his reputation. In addition, he would use this trip to finally present his papers to the Philadelphia publishers for publication. Lewis became a man on a mission.

His journey started from St. Louis by river heading for New Orleans, where he planned to by sail around the Florida straits and up the eastern seaboard, but that’s when things turned sour. Lewis became seriously ill shortly after departure. Upon stopping at Fort Pickering near modern-day Memphis, the fort’s commander demanded Lewis stay, in the commander’s words, “until he recovered, or some friend might arrive whose hands he could depart in safety.”

Lewis was the medic for The Corps of Discovery and carried an extensive medical knowledge as well as a medicine chest for every occasion. He still religiously kept a journal of this time and writes about having a “bilious fever”, and mentioned having access to laudanum, opium, and tartar pills. Some historians think he may have developed an addiction to opium that led to his steep mental decline. He wrote to then-President James Madison, informing him that the heat and concern over his personal journals falling into the hands of British spies changed his travel plans. He would now take horses to Washington overland through Tennessee; a decision that turned out to be fatal.

In 1809, the fledgling United States was again on the brink of war with England, and New Orleans might not be a welcoming city for him since former Louisiana Territory Governor and General James Wilkinson’s treasonous acts alongside the Spanish Government were discovered. Wilkinson was holed up in New Orleans with American troops under his command, which also gave him command of passage in and out of the Mississippi River. Many historians agree that Lewis, having access to Wilkinson’s gubernatorial papers, likely found out about the former governor’s bribes taken from the Spanish government and was more afraid of falling into Wilkinson’s hands than the British. In any case, while waiting to recover enough to continue his journey, Agent Neelly arrived at Fort Pickering on his way to Nashville and agreed to accompany Lewis’s party at least that far. After ten days of rest, they loaded two of Lewis’s four trunks of journals to a pack horse and left two stored at the fort to be shipped later. On September 29th, Lewis, along with his servant Pernier, Neelly and his servant, and several friendly Chickasaw Indians, departed the fort. Ten days later, Meriwether Lewis would be dead.

After the ghastly events at Grinder’s Stand, John Pernier immediately departed straight for Virginia to find Thomas Jefferson and report what had happened. Jefferson received Pernier’s report with a sad acceptance of the cause of death being suicide, relating that Lewis, “had from his early youth suffered from hypochondriac afflictions inherited by him from his father.” Jefferson took the news hard. He always thought of Meriwether Lewis as the son he never had. Once Pernier delivered his report to Jefferson, he visited Lewis’s family to deliver the sad news and receive his final wages. The family was not so convinced of the suicide story and accused Pernier of killing his master.

About seven months after Lewis’s death, Pernier met his end, with the tale saying his throat was cut ear to ear. However, a man who was boarding with him informed Jefferson the Pernier, facing accusations of murder, took his own life by consuming a full bottle of laudanum. We know Jefferson took this news just as hard, as Pernier was a former servant of his before going to work for Lewis, and said in a later writing to a friend, “You will probably know the fate of old Pierney, Lewis’s servant, who lately followed his master’s example.” Jefferson believed his death was a suicide, but much like Lewis’s demise, many others believe it was more sinister.

The Likely Truth: 

On a beautiful Fall morning in October of 2019, my youngest son and I made the nearly 2-hour drive from Tullahoma to Hohenwald, Tennessee, where nearby, there is a National Parks site along the Natchez Trace Parkway dedicated to the final resting place of Meriwether Lewis. The Park is a beautiful section carved out of an even more beautiful wilderness. Hardly a landscape you would think would be the home to such a gruesome scene as Lewis’s death. The Park is small in size but grand in history. A recreation of Grinder’s Stand sits nestled among the trees next to the remains of the original building, now reduced to a few stones of foundation left in the clearing. At the back of the park, a connecting driveway circles a large cemetery, appropriately named Pioneer Cemetery, that holds the unmarked grave of Meriwether Lewis, among other local pioneers that settled the area.

There is a granite monument for Lewis, even though his grave in the cemetery is unmarked. For years, many have petitioned the Parks Service to allow an exhumation of Lewis’s body to solve the mystery once and for all on how he died. The theories vary wildly, from suicide to murder to madness to disease. 

Some historians believe Lewis’s strange actions could have been from a severe bout with Syphilis, which if left untreated, can lead to mental disorders as well as brain and neurological damage. There is speculation he may have also contracted malaria, as indicated by his bout of “bilious fever”, in Lewis’s words, when he stopped at Fort Pickering. Malaria, if left untreated, also leads to bizarre behavior and dementia. Critics of this theory cite his hypochondriacal tendencies as the answer to his death coming from disease. They believe Lewis would never have let an illness or infection go without some treatment to counter the effects.

If that argument is true, could his cause of death have been from his ample stocks of medical opium? If he had hypochondriacal tendencies, as Jefferson said, he could very well have fallen victim to a chemical dependency in trying to stave off a real or imagined illness. According to the Mayo Clinic website, side effects linked to opium include confusion, hallucination, mood and mental changes, nervousness, sleeplessness, and disorientation among many others. Mrs. Grinder described observing Lewis exhibit several of those symptoms on that fateful night.

Perhaps the easiest answer is that he committed suicide. He was no doubt under severe stress and pressure from his fame and position, and if that was compounded with opium or untreated Syphilis, the toll may have been too much for him to bear. It is said that near the end of his life, Lewis regularly took to the bottle to drown his sorrows. It is also believed that even though the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a resounding success, he often felt the trek was a failure, citing the primary reason for the whole trip was to find the Northwest Passage, and even though they made it to the Pacific Ocean with only one life lost, they did not find the passage. To add insult to the injury, all their hard work in establishing trading outposts crumbled even before the Corps of Discovery returned home. Finally, after such a grand adventure and raucous homecoming, Meriwether Lewis was not thrilled with the drudgery of what amounted to a glorified desk job.

Or after all of that, could he have been murdered? Lewis’s own mother believed that to be the case. At the time of his travels, the Natchez Trace was not a safe or hospitable road. Bandits and highwaymen roamed the area preying on anyone who carried valuables. It’s possible that word of the famous explorer’s route preceded him, and some of these scoundrels looked to profit from robbing or kidnapping the famed Meriwether Lewis. One version of this theory states an infamous bandit on the trace named Tom Runions may be the murderer. Runions was known for violent behavior toward anyone who dared speak about his illegal dealings. Some believe maybe Robert Grinder plotted against his famous guest for his money, putting his wife up to spinning the tale of suicide to throw off any suspicion. When the monument at the park was erected in the 1840s, his exhumed body was examined by a coroner’s jury committee who noted that it was probable that he died at the hands of an assassin but did not complete the documentation as to why they believed that. Records of that committee’s findings would have been filed in the judge’s docket book, which seems to have been lost to history. No one knows what was in their final report to the judge.

Perhaps the danger of his predecessor’s treason was greater than previously thought. If Lewis was carrying evidence of General Wilkinson’s foul deeds, was Lewis assassinated to cover up the crime? Or was Indian Agent James Neelly involved in a murder plot? His own journals call some of his decisions on the Trace that week into question, such as sending his servant forward with Lewis and remaining behind to look for a missing horse. Some think it peculiar that a man traveling with a servant would take on a task so menial. A few years after Lewis’s death, Neelly was dismissed from his post for incompetence, and his lackluster account of Lewis’s death has always drawn suspicion. One critic of the suicide theory states that Lewis was no ordinary traveler and compares his presence to the celebrity level of Neil Armstrong returning from the moon. This same critic proposes an interesting question about the manner of death in citing that Lewis was an expert marksman. He argues how someone with Lewis’s skill could botch a point-blank suicide attempt with a weapon he would have been as familiar with as his own hand, not just once, but twice? 

At the end of the day, the answer is simply that no one knows for certain how Lewis died. Among the many efforts underway to exhume his body for a second time, scholars advocating in favor of examining his body again claim they could determine if his death was suicide or an overdose, or disease or murder. Others remain skeptical a new exhumation would reveal anything of value to solve the mystery. When I asked at the park visitor’s center, the attendant told me and my son that Lewis is not actually buried under the 1840 granite marker and was done that way intentionally. He told us the real grave is unmarked on the property due to lawlessness at that time on Natchez Trace. He then said the decision was somewhat prophetic with the renewed interest in digging him up again, just in case someone advocating for another exhumation decided to take matters illegally into their own hands. I’ve searched several cemetery records but cannot determine if that story is true, however, it makes some semblance of sense to me if there were concerns over grave robbers looking for a famous grave to dig up. 

Even over 200 years later, locals near the Park claim that Meriwether Lewis’s death is no mystery at all but an obvious matter of jealous rage. In one article I read, a local resident claims that, “everyone knows what happened. Robert Grinder came home that night and found Meriwether Lewis in bed with his wife and shot him. The rest of the story she just made up.”

Is that how one of arguably the most famous explorers of early America died? From the rage of a jealous husband? Or did illness overtake him? Perhaps an overdose? Or had he decided his burdens were too great and ended his own life? This Tennessee legend is likely one that will never be solved.

END

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. If you’d like to read more about this and other stories I’m working on, I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.