CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Courage To Face The Truth

Wherever I go to talk about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, someone tries to talk me out of the idea that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. The other day, I was in Phoenix, and someone mansplained to me that Lewis could not have done it because how do you first shoot yourself in the head and then in the gut?

Everywhere I go, people who have never held the kind of pistol Lewis was carrying give me lectures on forensics. He could not have survived a bullet to the head. He would have been so stunned from the first discharge of the pistol that he could never have reloaded and fired a second time. If you dug up his remains, you would find powder burns on the skull that would prove he was murdered. And so on.

Nobody has ever put forward the slightest piece of credible evidence that Lewis was murdered. They say the Natchez Trace was notorious for banditry — ergo he was murdered. That thugs associated with the traitorous Gen. James Wilkinson wanted Lewis dead. That Jefferson himself may have had Lewis killed or that Jefferson helped cover up the murder because it would have revealed unsavory things about his administration. One historian who knows better said that Lewis was flirting with the proprietor of the crude frontier inn where he was staying, Priscilla Grinder, and therefore her angry husband shot him. A woman named Kira Gale argued that documents seeming to confirm the suicide, written by a frontier friend of Lewis, Capt. Gilbert Russell, were actually forged. The most ingenious argument was put forward by Lewis-lover Thomas Danisi, who is an outstanding researcher and was unwilling to accept Lewis’ suicide. He says that Lewis did indeed kill himself but that he did not commit suicide. Lewis was in such physical pain from a virulent strain of malaria that he determined to end the pain forever with a .69 caliber aspirin (twice) and therefore we should not call that suicide.

Say what?

Of course, it is possible that Lewis was murdered. It is also possible that somebody else killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. It is possible that Apollo 11 never happened and that what we saw on TV 50 years ago this summer was shot on a Hollywood sound stage.

All the evidence in the Meriwether Lewis case points to suicide, and none of it points to murder. His closest friend in the world, William Clark, someone who knew him better than anyone else alive, including President Jefferson, on hearing the news wrote:

“I fear O! I fear the waight of his mind has over come him.”

Not “No way, whatever else was going badly in his life, I know he would never commit suicide,” or “This just doesn’t ring true. I am going to start an investigation.”

Clark had seen Lewis about a month previously in St. Louis. He was filled with pity about Lewis’s disturbed and distracted state of mind. When he got the news, he was shocked but not surprised. Murder advocates say Clark may have believed this at the time, in 1809, but later in life — on reflection — he became convinced that Lewis had been murdered. But this is merely wishful thinking. And here I thought we were historians who worked from evidence.

President Jefferson never doubted that it was suicide. In fact, when he wrote the first biographical sketch of Lewis’ life in 1813, for publication with the expedition’s journals, Jefferson stated unequivocally that “about 3 o’clock in the night he did the deed, which plunged his friends into affliction and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens.” This is not the language of doubt: no “from the shadowy evidence we have, Lewis appears to have committed suicide,” or “while it seems likely that he committed suicide, I can assert, having known him intimately, that this was so out of character that we must doubt …”  Nothing to qualify the simple acknowledgement by President Jefferson that Lewis took his own life.

Why do we have such trouble facing what appears to be the obvious truth? I think there are two reasons. First, the social stigma attending to suicide continues to haunt our culture. Suicide is shocking. I have been close to several suicides in the course of my life. They shock and rock and roil the world around them like a big rock thrown into a placid pond. Close at hand, they are an emotional tsunami that overwhelms the people closest to the lost family member, spouse or friend. Most people close to the suicide never really fully recover. And the concentric circles of that rock, the ripple effect, cause everyone within range to ask, “What could I have done to prevent this?” Suicide is a taboo because if we made it socially honorable, probably many more people in sudden intense misery would take their own lives.

Second, lovers of the Lewis and Clark story cannot stand to think that one of the two great cheerful boy scouts who explored America between 1804-06 was actually miserable and emotionally broken at the end of his short life. How can it be a heroic story if one of the two leaders put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger?

To admit that Lewis committed suicide starts to call all sorts of things into question. Did Jefferson choose the wrong man to lead the expedition? How can this story be called triumphant and successful when just three years after it returned, its leader ended his own life? Did something happen out there? Is this a “Heart of Darkness” story in the manner of Joseph Conrad? Was Lewis’s suicide some kind of preliminary commentary on the whole project of leaving home forever to take the country away from its aboriginal sovereigns? Or as the great essayist Barry Lopez asks, “How far can you go out and still come back?”

It’s just easier to think that some desperado saw that Gov.  Lewis was an important man carrying things of value and just killed him to get that stuff, or that Gen.Wilkinson, who was a dark scheming self-serving man, an actual traitor, who was a secret agent of the Spanish colonial government, had some reason to have Lewis killed. If Lewis was murdered, then nothing about his end can be seen to cast a shadow on the great epic journey. It’s as if he completed a heroic mission and then, three years later, was hit by a bus. So much less psychologically messy, and that way we don’t have to ask the hard questions and actually think about the incredible complexity of American history.

It’s the Thomas Danisi story that bothers me most: that Lewis killed himself but we don’t have to call it suicide. This is what is known as “saving appearances.” Danisi is too good a historian to discount the obvious evidence before him. But he could not accept the sad trajectory of the story. So, he exonerates Lewis from the shame and stigma of suicide, but without — like so many other so-called historians — tampering with the facts to suit his preconceived conclusion. What bothers me so much about this is that it is born of the same impulse — to refuse to acknowledge that this great man Meriwether Lewis committed suicide on the night of Oct. 11, 1809, in a squalid frontier hut on the Natchez Trace about 70 miles from Nashville, Tenn.

We need to destigmatize suicide. More than that, we need to learn to be tough enough to wrestle with the truth, for Lewis’ suicide in 1809 is just one of many, many hard truths we Americans are going to have to face courageously in the 21st century.

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