Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs
From 1804 through 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charted a course of 4,000 miles each way across the North American continent. President Jefferson instructed them to keep a log of weather conditions and a thorough description of their route. They were to report on the customs and languages of the Indian tribes that they encountered and attempt to win their friendship. Their great feat was to accomplish this perilous journey without losing a man.
Only three years later, on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis, 35, was dead. At the time, he was governor of the Louisiana Territory and had been traveling to Washington with his unpublished journals in order to plead for the government to pay debts incurred on behalf of the U.S. He set out on September 4 in the company of his servant, Pernier, and became ill along the way. He rested for a time and then left again on horseback September 29, accompanied by Major James Neelly, Indian Agent to the Chicasaw Indians. They arrived at a footpath, the Natchez Trace, on October 8, but when two of their horses wandered off, Neelly went to find them, so Lewis traveled on to the next white way station. He arrived on October 10 at Grinder's Stand, where Mrs. Robert Grinder offered him lodging. There he died.
The three accounts of his death vary, but many historians believe they all agree on suicide. In the first one, Mrs. Grinder reportedly told Major Neelly that Lewis had been acting in a "deranged" manner, and at 3:00 a.m., she heard two pistol shots. She and her servants found Lewis wounded, with one pistol wound to the head and one beneath his breast. But he was conscious and supposedly said to Pernier, "I have done the business my good Servant, give me some water." He lived only a short time after that and was buried there. The other accounts supported this, with a few added details.
Alexander Wilson reported that Mrs. Grinder said that Lewis had been agitated during the night, but conversed with her in a calm manner. He retired, but kept talking. At some point, she heard a pistol go off in Lewis's lodgings, followed by a thump on the floor and "Oh, Lord." Then another pistol shot was heard. Moments later, Lewis knocked at her door and said, "Oh, madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds." She watched through a chink as he groped his way to a tree, and then back to the house, where he tried to get water from a bucket. After two hours, she crewed up the courage to check on him. He was in his bed but awake. He showed her where a bullet had entered his side and she could see a portion of his brain exposed. He begged her or the servants to use his rifle to finish him off. They refused, so he lasted two more hours in great pain before he finally died. Only moments later, Neelly arrived with one of the stray horses.
Lewis' death was followed immediately by conspiracy theories around Tennessee, in part because it seemed incomprehensible to think that a man could shoot himself twice like that, as well as just let himself die a lingering death in great pain. Historians have deftly dismissed these concerns, but for people like Starrs, the case remains controversial.
He believes that Lewis's death is surrounded in sufficient "peculiarity" to warrant a more scientific examination. He views Mrs. Grinder's reported fear of Lewis as incomprehensible, given the context of her life in the wilderness, and he thinks it's possible that she may have been hiding from those who were doing Lewis harm. There are other scholars as well who believe that Lewis was murdered and that his death was pre-planned by those who wanted to rob him. In addition, there have been suggestions that he was assassinated, with Pernier's complicity.
"In honor of this man of bravery and genius," says Starrs, "the possible misstatements of history need to be corrected. His very bones might provide all the evidence needed to interpret his death definitively as homicide, suicide, or accident. One descendent has even permitted her blood to be drawn and preserved for a later DNA comparison to ensure that the remains said to be Lewis are in fact his remains." It's possible, of course, that the remains are too far gone by now to provide any definitive information, but the professionals who have examined the matter from a scientific angle believe it's worth having a look. One can still trace a bullet trajectory through bone, even bone that has deteriorated.
However, there is a substantial amount of resistance to the project. Lewis is buried on Park Service land on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Lewis County, Tennessee. The National Park Service has blocked all efforts to move forward with this process, citing that such an exhumation is unnecessary. Yet in 1848, the monument was constructed and reports from that time describe the remains being exhumed. They were described as being in skeletal condition.
In 1996, an official coroner's inquest was held in Lewis County to hear the sworn testimonies of historians and scientists on the subject, and the nine-person jury concluded that an exhumation should be carried out, because they believed that there was little tangible evidence on the ruling of suicide.
"The National Park Service did not comply," says Starrs. "We solicited the support of the governors of Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia, over 160 of Lewis's descendents, and Senator Frank Murkowski to persuade the Park Service to re-examine their position." To this date, unless there is a sudden tide of support from the public, the potential for an exhumation appears to be low.
Starrs hopes that the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition into 2006 may help to elicit more interest in the project. He believes that a man with the eminence of Meriwether Lewis deserves to have the circumstances surrounding his death resolved, especially if he was indeed murdered. He's an American hero and his story should be accurately told.
In A Voice for the Dead, Starrs writes: "The dead cannot speak for themselves but science, with my team and me as surrogates for the dead, can give them a voice. The scientist in me demands the truth for the dead. The lawyer in me says they deserve their day in court."