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By His Own Hand?: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis Paperback – August 21, 2006
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About the Author
John D. W. Guice, Professor of History, University of Southern Mississippi, and author of the Foreword, says of Everett Dick's The Dixie Frontier, that "persons interested in the American heritage should read it because it is a 'people' book-one about the daily lives of Southern men, women, and children who pushed into the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains."
James J. Holmberg is curator of special collections for the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, and editor of Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. Gary E. Moulton is editor of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He resides in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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In "The Case for Suicide," Jim Holmberg does an excellent job of setting out the evidence that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide in the early morning hours of October 11, 1809. The strength of Holmberg's essay is the overwhelming support of documentary evidence that the people closest to Lewis, including William Clark and Thomas Jefferson, believed he was in a suicidal frame of mind. Holmberg also points out that the supposed tradition of murder did not begin until the 1840s, many decades after Lewis died, when the residents of the area formed Lewis County and began to embrace the legacy of their most famous, if deceased, resident. William Clark's son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, may have also played a role in attempting to rescue his namesake from the stigma of suicide.
By contrast, those who believe Lewis was murdered have never been able to muster much evidence against any of the many suspects and rely heavily on the dubious supposition that Lewis simply wasn't the type to commit suicide. There are big holes in all the murder theories. Fictional accounts such as Frances Hunter's "To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark" can fill in such gaps, but no documentary evidence exists that can do so in real life.
Yet Guice's essay, "Why Not Murder?" is more valuable than the confused tales of murder in the night might suggest. Guice points out that, starting with Thomas Jefferson, there has been a long history of retrofitting Lewis's life and actions to point to a suicidal nature. Scholars often point to Lewis's 31st birthday journal entry. Written literally as the Expedition was poised to become the first Americans to cross the Continental Divide, Lewis seems to lament the fact that he's never accomplished a doggone thing in his life. But is this really evidence that Lewis was self-destructive or a raging depressive? And how about the missing journals, or Lewis's failures in politics after the Expedition? Might there be explanations other than mental illness?
Guice does a good job of showing that when interpreted through the assumption of suicide, Lewis's foibles seem much more ominous than they would otherwise. He also points out that the suicide tradition is based largely on hearsay, and calls for an exhumation of Lewis's body to search for forensic evidence that might settle the question once and for all. He notes that over 200 Lewis relatives signed a petition asking the National Park Service for permission to examine the remains, but the NPS denied the request.
I also appreciated Guice's defense of Vardis Fisher, whose Suicide or Murder? (1962) doesn't always get the respect it deserves. Fisher did yeoman's work in compiling the stories about Lewis's death, and his work on the subject remains the most complete on the subject.
There are some good primary source documents included in By His Own Hand?, and an excellent round-up of the arguments by Jay Buckley of Brigham Young University. This anthology is highly readable and well-edited and will be enjoyed with anyone with an interest in Lewis's sad fate.