Missouri State Archives Presentation Videos


[ Transcript for: A New Perspective on the Death of Meriwether Lewis ]

A New Perspective on the Death of Meriwether Lewis Video Transcript


:01 Introduction

MR. THOMAS DANISI: We’re going to do a sound check for a moment to see if anyone can hear or not hear.

Is everybody hearing correctly?



Thank you for attending this evening’s presentation on Meriwether Lewis. My presentation is divided into two sections. The first will deal briefly with Governor Lewis’s financial meltdown that some historians claim was his own fault.

The second section examines Lewis’s death, which is based on new research that I completed over a four-year period. My co-author John Jackson lives in Olympia, Washington, and his specialty is the American and Canadian fur trade. The backdrop of this book centers on Lewis’s business activity, which revolved around the fur trade and relations with Native Americans.

1:05 Governor of the Louisiana Territory

Meriwether Lewis, leader of the famous 1803 to 1806 expedition to the Pacific that will forever bear his name, returned to the east coast a national hero. His mentor, President Thomas Jefferson, rewarded him with a governorship of the Louisiana Territory. Once Congress approved Lewis’s nomination, his business activity switched into high gear, but he was unable to immediately go to St. Louis because of other responsibilities.

So Lewis sent his friend William Clark to the territory in the capacity as Brigadier General and Indian Agent. In the meantime, Lewis went to Philadelphia to orchestrate the planning and printing of the expedition journals and he remained there until the end of July 1807.

When Lewis arrived in Washington, President Jefferson sent him on an errand to Richmond, Virginia, to take notes on the Aaron Burr trial. That took Lewis to the end of September of 1807. Then he went home, looked after some business interests, visited with family members, invited his brother Reuben to St. Louis and packed.

2:20 Embargo against Britain

The journey took two months and he arrived in St. Louis in March 1808, but all was not well in the United States. In July of 1807, Britain had attacked an American ship anchored in an American harbor and imprisoned some of its seamen; this lead President Jefferson to enact the embargo where the United States ceased doing business with Britain.

The embargo became an economic disaster for the United States as exports dropped from 108 million to 22 million. The policy crippled the American economy, which impacted the funding of the territory governed by Meriwether Lewis. One example shows a new side of this well-known debacle that Lewis could not have prevented.

In 1806, Lewis & Clark had invited a Mandan chief to accompany them to Washington. In May 1807, a military party escorted the chief to his village, but was repelled by warring factions of Native Americans. About two years later, Lewis tabulated the cost of escorting the chief an expense of $7,000 and then tacked on an additional $1,100 for ammunition, presents and medicinal care.

The government approved the $7,000 but rejected the extra 1,100. Lewis was thought to have been frivolous with government money. But the reason why the government rejected the additional funds was because in May 1809 the Treasury Department reported that the United States was broke due to the embargo. We’re pretty familiar with that one.

4:11 Quarterly Estimates

In response to that report, the Treasury Department drastically cut expenses by recording -- by requiring quarterly estimates from the territories and from the Army and Navy budget. While it seemed that Lewis was the only one reprimanded, he was not.

Since Lewis had not submitted a quarterly estimate like other officials in distant parts of the United States the War Department simply rejected payment. Nobody seemed to care that the transit time for a round trip letter from St. Louis to Washington and back averaged the same amount of time for quarterly estimates.

Problems in St. Louis were an economic disaster for Lewis who was forced to wait for payment or if he couldn’t wait usually paid it for himself. In August 1809, Lewis began receiving correspondence from the War Department rejecting the payment of several drafts that he had made in the second quarter of 1809.

This unfortunate situation sunk Lewis’s credit. And he wrote to the War Department explaining necessity of those expenses. It has been my contention that Lewis did not write the most important letter of his life.

Now, we’ll see if this works. Nope. Okay. All right.

When he replied to the Secretary of War on August 18th, here’s the really important part: Was he too ill to write? Was he too ill to think or too mad to be legible? Lewis was the type of person that wrote every letter and here, of course, the most important letter he’s not writing at all. The sheriff of St. Louis, Jeremiah Connor, penned the letter. Don’t read the letter it’s just a sample of his handwriting. And this is an example of Lewis’s writing. Don’t read that letter either it’s just a sample.

In August 1809, Lewis decided to go to Washington and explain why the Louisiana Territory was costing more to operate than other territories. It was on this trip to Washington that Lewis unexpectedly died in Tennessee on October 11th, 1809. Since Lewis’s death, numerous accounts have been published about his tragic demise.

7:03 Theories of Conspiracy and Political Assassination

Within the last 50 years grand theories of conspiracy and political assassination have appeared backed not by evidence, but rather by inconsistencies and aberrations in the records. The claims of each side, the suicide theorists and the murder theorists have become more heated. The suicide camp claims that Lewis was a raving lunatic popping pills and drinking to excess, but the claims are without merit. The conspiracy advocates, equally wild, and have gone so far as to implicate William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilkinson in Lewis’s murder.

In this presentation, I offer a new account. An account founded less on psychological aberrations or far-fetched conspiracies and more on the possibility that a physical disease may provide an understanding about the nature of Lewis’s death.

The descriptions of Lewis’s character and death written by Thomas Jefferson, William Clark and Captain Gilbert Russell while damning to the national hero are also 200 years old. On the bicentennial of Lewis’s death a new look is appropriate.

8:28 Testimony Concerning Lewis’s Death

Historians have relied upon several individuals for their testimony concerning Lewis’s death, but three of them will suffice here. James Neelly the Chickasaw Indian Agent wrote that Lewis had committed suicide, although, Neelly arrived after Lewis died. Captain Gilbert Russell, the captain of Fort Pickering wrote to Thomas Jefferson and stated that when Lewis arrived at the Fort on September 15th, he was in a state of mental derangement. The boat crew had also informed Captain Russell that Lewis had made two attempts to kill himself.

But Thomas Jefferson’s description is the most powerful indictment for Lewis’s demise. He wrote: “Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition and all of the nearer branches of the family of his name. While he lived with me in Washington I observed the time seasonable depressions of mind.” Jefferson also repeated his view to Captain Russell.

“We have all to lament that a fame so dearly earned was clouded finally by such an act of desperation. He was much afflicted and habitually so with hypochondria.” Jefferson’s description of Lewis’s hypochondria has always been assumed by modern historians to be the basis of a mental cause. Regardless, of what historians gleaned from the historical record; is it possible that the hypochondria Jefferson described two centuries ago does not have the same meaning today?

10:21 Derivation of Hypochondria

Another group of modern scholars known as psychiatry historians have researched the derivation of hypochondria and the related phrase hypochondriac affections. In the usage of the time hypochondria described a set of physical symptoms; derived from the Greek -– derived by the Greek, the first part of the word hypo equaled under andchondrolysis meant cartilage. And it referred to the area immediately below the ribs.

The anatomical region below the ribs was called the hypochondrium. And the hypochondria included the cartilage, viscera, muscles and organs located there. When aliments were ascribed to the hypochondrium the physical illness was known as hypochondriasis. As late as 1850, physicians were still calling the abdominal area the hypochondriac region. All that we need now is a little evidence from the man himself.

11:44 Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Remedy

In May of 1803, when in Philadelphia Lewis consulted with Dr. Benjamin Rush about a long-standing illness. Rush wrote to President Thomas Jefferson and differentiated his remarks for Lewis and also suggested precautions for the men under Lewis’s command.

Rush wrote 11 instructions for Lewis and prescribed his own pills as a remedy. Rush’s instructions and his pills signified that Lewis was under the care of a physician. Rush stated that Lewis suffered from a bilious condition which meant a certain type of fever accompanied with painful discharges of bile. Three months later on September 14th, Lewis gives us more information about his illness, which is an arcane name that is used today. Descending the Ohio River he wrote: “The fever and ague and bilious fevers here commence their baneful oppression and continue through the whole course of the river with increasing violence as you approach its mouth.” This is how you pronounce ague or ague, take your pick.

One has to wonder as Lewis travels down the Ohio, on the biggest adventure of his life, why he begins to write about a specific and serious illness. Instead of contemplating about future geographical wonders; he dwells on a grim aspect of his life.

13:23 Lewis Becomes Ill

Then on November 13th, when Lewis departed Fort Massac, a fort on the Ohio River, he suddenly fell ill. Now, I’m going to show you this first slide is the exact words that he wrote in the journal. What you see, first of all, is that you can’t make out the dates. And, of course, there’s a lot of blank space. What’s he leaving blank space for? You don’t really have to read it because I’ve transcribed it in the next slide so you’ll be able to read it. But what’s interesting about it, it means only that he wrote this transcription later. He didn’t write it the night that he was ill.

So on -- this is what he wrote, he said: “Left Massac this evening about five o’clock, descended about three miles and then camped on the southeast shore. Rained very hard in the evening and I was seized with a violent ague, which continued for about four hours and as is usual was succeeded by a fever which, however, fortunately abated in some measure by sunrise the next morning.”

14:40 The Ague

The phrase “as is usual” implied that Lewis suffered from a longstanding illness. And as a marker of a disease today that is periodic and/or episodic in nature. The ague was the name of an old disease, but in the late 18th Century it was a fever accompanied by a shaking or shivering fit. At some point in time, ague and malaria became synonymous.

The Greeks knew it as intermittent fever and its classical presentation begins with a fever, skull-splitting headaches, intense chills and prodigious sweating. The attack usually lasts 12 hours and a period of convalescence follows, which can take days to fully recover unless the sufferer experiences another attack which can occur everyday or every third day for a period of months.

Historians claim that Lewis became infected with malaria at some point in his life, but they don’t elaborate. What they fail to say was that once Lewis had contracted malaria he had it for the rest of his life. It was incurable and untreatable during his lifetime.

Malaria went by a dozen archaic names like autumnal fever, bilious fever, remittent fever, intermittent fever, bilious remittent fever, the chills and fever or simply the ague. Those names were used in different parts of the country because malaria is not a single disease, but as Dr. Margaret Humphries, a malariologist, states is a family of four different diseases caused by four different parasites.

16:33 Hypochondriasis

Given these parameters, did Lewis’s hypochondria have a connection to the ague? Using Jefferson’s own description and evidence from America’s foremost physician of that date Dr. Benjamin Rush we can assign a physical cause to Lewis’ illness which was known as hypochondriasis. The malarial parasites are microscopic and live in the gut of a mosquito. The bite or sting of the mosquito transmits the parasites into the blood stream, which then make their way to the liver.

The parasites may remain dormant for a time or morph into to several stages of maturity until they burst out of the liver in great numbers and invade the red blood cells. In the act of eating these cells for nourishment the body’s defense mechanism switches on and results in the characteristic stages of fever, chills and sweating.

Once the disease becomes chronic a reduction of red blood cells is common, which puts a great strain on the spleen causing it to enlarge. A healthy spleen weighs barely five ounces, but after repeated malarial attacks the spleen can occupy the entire abdominal cavity and weigh up to ten pounds. The spleen and liver are located in the hypochondrium.

Most malarial Americans were silent victims because the ague was not a localized illness. A French engineer visiting St. Louis in 1798 attributed the sickly summer conditions to recurring fevers which, quote, lower your resistance leaving you for some time during convalescence in a sort of melancholy stupor, close quote.

In November 1803, Captain Amos Stoddard reported that the upper Louisiana populations suffered from intermittent fever. In August 1808, the Chickasaw Indian Agent had an attack of ague and fever, which he battled for six weeks, but the fever turned more severe and he died.

A year later on August 26th, 1809, and three weeks before Meriwether Lewis arrived at Fort Pickering, Captain Gilbert Russell told the Secretary of War, “such has been the unhealthiness of the season that with the troops I have as yet been unable to make improvement to Fort Pickering. Out of 48 officers and men I have, but eight or nine fit for duty.”

By the time Captain Lewis became Jefferson’s secretary and then Governor in St. Louis he had traveled great distances for a man of his time. Military and private life had taken him from Georgia to Michigan and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific coast. Those wide travels meant that Lewis probably exposed himself to several mosquito genotypes and a likely candidate for what is called mixed infections, where more than one malarial parasite invades its host.

Examples when Jefferson, Lewis or Clark wrote about their illness are few because they did not recognize the features of malaria. However, one example shows how sick malaria made them. Historians have characterized this example as a humorous situation where everyone in the presidential mansion caught a cold. In retrospect, historians have completely misunderstood the seriousness of this radical malarial outbreak.

20:14 A Synchronous Attack

In March 1807, several persons visiting President Jefferson jointly experienced what is called today a synchronous attack. Beyond demonstrating that malaria can strike in the middle of winter as easily in the summer months the parasite depends upon the hosts’ circadian rhythm which signals the opportune time to proliferate.

On March 2nd, President Jefferson reported that his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph had succumbed to a chill and fever although a week earlier he had experienced the first attack. Jefferson had hoped that Randolph’s fever that morning was so moderate that it might be the last one. However, the fever returned that evening.

Four days later, Meriwether Lewis was attending to Randolph along with Dr. Jones and the president’s secretary Isaac Coles. Jefferson remarked that he had caught a very bad cold, which prompted historians to conclude that everyone at the president’s house had caught his cold. The illness that affected several persons at the same time was a classic presentation of the ague.

On March 11th, Lewis wrote that he had been indisposed and took some of Rush’s pills. Jefferson complained of a periodical headache. That was his way of explaining the agues in the head that are also described today as a retro orbital headache, a sharp pain behind the eye.

Historians believe that the periodical headache was a migraine. However, one of the foremost physicians of the upper Mississippi Valley, Daniel Drake, recognized in 1827 that the periodical headache was a symptom of the ague. Historians have blamed Lewis for not arriving in Philadelphia sooner now we know the reason. He was physically ill during the month of March.

Lewis finally departed Washington and arrived in Philadelphia the first week. Jefferson departed the second week in April for Monticello to recuperate and return the third week of May. The President had actually been sick with malaria for almost three months. While very little documentation exists from Lewis, during March of 1807, Jefferson was very ill, too.

Let’s review some of his letters throughout the month. March 6th, “I caught a very bad cold that laid me up with fever one day.” March 16th, “the remains of a bad cold hang on me and for a day or two past some symptoms of periodical headache. Mr. Coles and Captain Lewis are also indisposed so that we are, but a collection of invalids.”

March 20th, to Treasury Secretary Gallatin, “I have but a little moment in the morning in which I can either read, write or think being obliged to be shut up in a dark room from early in the forenoon till night with a periodical headache.” March 20th, to his daughter, “I am now in the seventh day of a periodical headache and I write this in the morning before the fit has come on. The fits are by no means as severe as I have felt in former times.”

March 21st, “I am writing under a severe indisposition of periodical headache but scarcely command enough to know what I write.” March 23rd, “my fits of headache have shortened from nine hours to five.” March 24th, “I have been detained by the illness of my son-in-law and now by an attack of periodical headache. This leaves me but an hour-and-a-half each morning capable of any business.” March 27th, “my fit of yesterday was so mild that I have some hope of missing it today.” March 30th, “I have no actual headache, yet, about nine o’clock every morning I have a very quickened pulse, a disturbed head and tender eyes not amounting to absolute pain.” People should just wonder what he means about absolute pain. It goes off about noon and is doubtless an obstinate remnant of the ache.

On March 20th, Jefferson described a specific aspect of his illness. “I wrote this before the fit has come on. The fits are by no means as severe as in former times, but they hold me very long from nine or ten in the morning till dark.” What are these fits that Jefferson is referring to?

25:12 Paroxysm of the Malarial Fever

The fit is a paroxysm of the malarial fever. When Lewis returned from the expedition and established himself as Governor of St. Louis, Jefferson said that Lewis was in a paroxysm when it rendered him necessary to return to Washington. The term paroxysm may seem to describe a mental condition, but then the usage of the 17th and 18thCenturies it denoted a fit or rigor meaning tremors induced by chills.

That was understood to be a stage, an affection or symptom of malaria. The paroxysm or fit was divided into three different stages: the cold, the hot and the sweating stage. Priscilla Grinder the proprietor of Grinder’s Inn on the Natchez Trace and the foremost eye witness to Lewis’s death confirmed that Lewis experienced a fit on that fateful evening. She said that when supper was ready Lewis sat down, but did not eat much when he began speaking to himself in a violent manner. At these times she observed his face -- his face the flush as if it had come on him in a fit.

26:23 Evidence from 3 Physicians

I will now offer evidence from three separate physicians unrelated to Lewis and living in different time periods and locations. We will see that they were commenting on the same affliction that tormented Lewis.

Captain Gilbert Russell the officer who cared for Lewis at Fort Pickering reported that when Lewis arrived he was in state of mental derangement. This derangement suggests mental incompetency but a Dr. Alibert remarked that every paroxysm of intermittent fever was evidently marked by a derangement of intellectual functions that a violent delirium could continue the whole day. At one point a patient snapped out of the delirium, spoke rationally for a few minutes, but soon relapsed again in to such deep delirium that he could scarcely be kept in bed.

Alibert hints that the patient he was treating was being restrained. A more alarming reason for the restraint was to prevent a patient from committing bodily harm. A factor which, English physician, John Pringle noted when describing soldiers who had succumbed to the first stage of the ague.

“There were some instances of the head being so suddenly and violently affected that without any previous complaint the man ran about in a wild manner and were believed to be mad to the solution of the fit by a sweat and its periodic returns discovered the true nature of their delirium.” Pringle, a military camp physician for 25 years, may not have known the modern term for malaria, but he knew the sequence.

Pringle continued, “that a few returns of the paroxysms reduced their strongest men to so low of a condition as to disable them from standing. That some became at once delirious and would have thrown themselves out of the window or into the water if not prevented.”

Like many malarial sufferers Lewis had to be restrained. Lewis wrote to President Madison in a pretty shaky script. He had changed his mind about going to New Orleans. Lewis said it was on account of the heat in the lower country. Reports coming from the barges on the Mississippi advised to stay clear of New Orleans and ague and fever epidemic was killing the inhabitants and Army personnel. By November of that year more than 1,000 soldiers had died there.

On September 29th, Lewis, James Neelly, the Chickasaw Indian agent; Pernier, Lewis’s servant and Neelly’s packer departed Fort Pickering. A few days later Lewis became ill again and the party rested for a couple of days. On the day of departure one of the horses had run off in the night and Neelly had to search for it. That meant that Lewis, Pernier and the packer finally arrived at Grinder’s Inn on October 10th. Upon his arrival, Priscilla Grinder could see that Lewis wasn’t well. They finally retired Lewis to his room, Grinder to an adjacent room and the servants to the barn.

A few hours later, Priscilla Grinder was suddenly awakened by the sound of gunshots. Too terrified to be of any assistance, she peeked through the lodge of the unshanked (ph.) house and could see Lewis struggling to his feet. He moved to the door explaining aloud his thirst.

In 1828, Dr. John Macculloch, another English physician tending to ague patients wrote about their pain and suffering. “The patient feels a species of antipathy against some peculiar part of his body where he longs to commit the act by wounding that particular point. The impression is if the offending part could be exterminated or cured by the injury the patient would then be well.”

Lewis’s actions in his final hours are consistent with Macculloch’s observations. He wrote: “There is also a particular part of the body affected by an uneasy but indefinable sensation such that the mind constantly reverts to it as a source of suffering or a condition of absolute pain always returning to that one point under the same stage of the fever or delirium. When as it is not unusual it is seated in the head. It is even distinguishable by a dull pain or a sense of ‘buzzing’ in one fixed place. And that while a pistol would be the only acceptable mode there would also be no satisfaction unless that were directed to this actual and only point.”

31:40 Acute Attack of Malaria

When Lewis directed the pistol at his forehead he aimed at such angle that when it fired the bullet did not penetrate the skull. Satisfied with the results he then may have decided to eliminate another pain near the hypochondrium. The pistol ball entered below the breasts and once again did not kill him. Lewis performed these actions on himself in the midst of an acute attack of malaria. Every other known treatment that Lewis had tried for his malarial symptoms had also failed. In the early morning of October 11th he survived the wounds and lived for several hours. He died as the rising sun topped the trees.

As a historian, I see my job as requiring me to follow the evidence to see where it leads. In the case of telling the story of Meriwether Lewis’s death, I have done just that. I have taken the commonly noted distressed descriptions of his illness and have found them to match not a psychological condition, but a physiological or medical condition of his day, namely the ague or malaria.

Nowadays, forensic television programs have created the illusion that we can discover the reasons for a person’s death that is the why of his/her death. Rather forensic science addresses how someone has died. They give us facts. Sometimes more facts, like, the direction of a bullet. Forensic science does not address the fundamental question, why. The fundamental question for us is: Why did Lewis shoot himself?

The evidence points to various facts; on that fateful night Lewis was experiencing a severe malarial attack and as such he was in a deranged state of mind and in intense pain. Today we do not fully grasp what Thomas Jefferson and John McCullough called absolute pain.

Given the advances in our -- in modern medicine, technology and drugs we have actually lost the ability for compassion for those persons who have suffered and endured agonizing depths of pain covering a long period of time say 15 years. Given Lewis’s absolute pain; what does the other evidence tell us about Lewis’s death?

34:07 Traditional Theories

For the conspiracy theorists who advocate the idea that Lewis was murdered there is simply no evidence to back up that claim. There may be inconsistencies and aberrations in the historical record of Lewis and Lewis’s symptoms, but there is no evidence of foul play or conspiracy that exists. And there is no clear motive for taking the governor’s life.

For those theorists who advocate the view of Lewis as a suicidal mad man, there is scant evidence to prove it. Moreover, the extremes to which some historians emphasize it tends to obscure the underlying physiological or medical causes of Lewis’s problem.

True enough, Lewis did drink alcohol as did almost all individuals on the frontier. He also ingested various medicinal potions prescribed to him for his illness, yet, there is no evidence that their excess usage killed him.

35:06 A New Theory

In contrast of these traditional views, I found that Lewis was suffering from an acute physiological illness that is the ague or malaria. And as such, that acute illness was the cause not only of his erratic behavior, but also his radical and violent actions performed upon himself in October 1809.

We all might wish to get into a time machine traveling to that fateful morning to witness in detail his final hours, but we will never have that chance. Short of that, we have to accept not only the evidence that survives, but also the evidence arrived by scholarship and we have to draw a conclusion that mirrors that evidence.

I hope that you can find something of value in my interpretation of the evidence surrounding what remains one of the most mysterious events in our nation’s history. And so my conclusion as a historian is: Historians in the past have claimed that Lewis killed himself, I am claiming -- I am claiming that Lewis did not mean to kill himself in his malarial attack rather he meant only to treat his absolute pain.

Thank you.