The new series on the History Channel, Brad Meltzer’s ‘Decoded’, is a qualified hit for fans of history’s mysteries! After last week’s premier on the missing White House cornerstones, Brad and his team of investigators take on another 200 year old puzzle. Did Meriwether Lewis, famed member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, commit suicide in 1809 or was he in fact murdered? The information was interesting as the case unfolds.

Brad Meltzer Decoded Meriwether Lewis

President Thomas Jefferson is at the center of this mystery, along with some of his political opponents. Namely, Aaron Burr and his pal, General James Wilkinson. Meriwether Lewis had a very close relationship with Jefferson. Born not far from Jefferson’s home, Lewis was selected by the President to be his personal secretary once taking the White House. Lewis shared Jefferson’s interest in codes and ciphers, and the two are said to have developed a code to communicate among themselves. It should be noted that Thomas Jefferson invented a ‘cipher wheel’ that was used by the U.S. Army until World War Two.

When Jefferson picked Lewis to lead the expedition into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, he did so without consulting the top Army officer of the time, General James Wilkinson. He was close friends with Aaron Burr, whom Jefferson removed as Vice President. Rumors abound that the two men were possibly plotting to overthrow the government. Burr was also once accused of another plot to make the Louisiana Territory a separate nation, with him as it’s leader.

Shortly after returning from the expedition in 1806, Lewis was appointed as governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory by Jefferson. Yet another appointment which infuriated Wilkinson. But Lewis ran into trouble, namely over managing finances. He dabbled in some land speculation and lost money. He also had problems with official state finances, getting into disputes over license fees and other revenue sources. Soon, creditors began circling Meriwether Lewis, forcing him to take action.

Thus, Lewis set out to Washington, DC traveling along the Natchez Trail in Tennessee with a party of soldiers, led by Major John Neely. Lewis’ purpose for the journey, as history would tell us, was to defend himself and get the Federal government to pay the bills due in the Louisiana Territory, and possibly also to sell his own journal and papers from the expedition, in order to pay off his own personal debts. The trip did not go well.

According to Neely, Lewis was distraught, often getting drunk and possibly using laudanum, an alcohol-opium drug popular at the time. Neely also reported that Lewis was frequently sick and often complained of having headaches. On October 10th, while Neely was away on a legal matter in a courthouse in Franklin, TN, Lewis stopped for the night at the Grinder’s Stand, a small inn about 60 miles from Franklin.

The events of that evening are sketchy as the only ‘eyewitness’ was Mrs. Robert Grinder, wife of the innkeeper. She told at least three different versions of what happened. First she described how Lewis appeared deranged, often talking with himself, then later that evening, heard two gunshots and found Lewis with wounds in his chest and head. Another version she told was how she saw Lewis outside, crawling around on the ground like an animal, and then later heard the gunshots and found him dying. In a third version, she said she saw three men on horseback nearby, then after hearing the two gunshots, found Lewis dying but conscious and he spoke to her saying, “Oh Lord.”

Major Neely reported that he arrived the next morning by which time Lewis had died. The innkeeper, Robert Grinder, also apparently was not present at the time of the gunshots, though later, he was investigated due to a curiously large sum of money he mysteriously came into possession of. Lewis’ purse was missing. But no charges were brought against Grinder. The official story at this point was that Meriwether Lewis had committed suicide. This was further reinforced by a letter from Captain Gilbert Russell to President Jefferson. Russell commanded an outpost at Fort Pickering near Chickasaw Bluffs, where Lewis had been shortly before. The Russell letter describes how Lewis was distraught, had been drinking heavily and was suicidal.

However, the Lewis family has never accepted this explanation. While there was no proper investigation at the time, in 1848 a special commission by the State of Tennessee to consider building a monument to Lewis did examine his body. The physician on the committee wrote in his report that Lewis was most likely a “victim of assassins’. Brad Meltzer’s team attempted to recreate the wounds using a ballistics dummy and a .69 caliber horse pistol similar to that carried by Lewis. The damage caused was significant, leading to the assumption that either of the two wounds in the chest or the head would have killed Lewis immediately.

This brings us to an interesting point. If Lewis was trying to commit suicide, and was drunk, how could he possibly reload his pistol in order to perform the second shot to his own head? The ballistics test showed that even at close range, neither round exited the forensic dummy. So there is no case for a ‘magic bullet’ here.

But then a major breakthrough occurs when the team learns that an inquiry in 1996 determined that the Russell letter was a forgery. The handwriting did not match! They later discover that the handwriting did match that of none other than Major Neely, who apparently had lied in his own accounting of the event.

So was Neely covering up the murder of Meriwether Lewis? Who then actually did kill Lewis? Was it the innkeeper, Robert Grinder? Or did Neely himself do the deed? Who would have benefited from the death of Lewis? Brad Meltzer and his ‘Decoded’ team could not unravel all of the unanswered questions. Speculation is that perhaps Lewis was carrying to Washington documents showing that Wilkison and others were plotting a coup. But the trail of evidence in this 200 year old mystery is a faint one. The family of Meriwether Lewis wants to exhume his body for a real forensic analysis, but so far the National Parks Service refuses to cooperate. Until such time as the body is examined, we may never be certain what happened that night along the Natchez Trail.

450px Meriwether lewis monument

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