Suicide . . . or Was It Murder? Forensic Sleuth Seeks to Unearth Mystery of Meriwether Lewis' Death

Article excerpt

The only way to tell if explorer Meriwether Lewis killed himself or was murdered 187 years ago is to dig up his remains, an anthropology professor said Monday.

"If we find an entrance wound in the back of Meriwether Lewis, then it's not suicide," Dr. James Starrs of George Washington University told an inquest panel. "If we find a .58-caliber ball and a .69-caliber ball, then something's wrong."

A prosecutor in Lewis County, which is named for the explorer, ordered an inquest after historians pushed for an investigation into the death. Lewis was 35 when he died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, along the Natchez Trace, a well-traveled route between Tennessee and New Orleans.

Historians have debated whether he was murdered, committed suicide or was shot accidentally. The prevalent belief is that Lewis - sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the frontier in the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 - killed himself with his black-powder pistol.

In a new book, "Undaunted Courage," historian Stephen E. Ambrose examines Lewis' death at some length. His verdict: suicide. Ambrose writes that Lewis suffered from alcoholism, opium addiction and probably manic depression.

Lewis' remains are buried under a 50-ton monument at a national park site seven miles south of Hohenwald.

Starrs, a forensic scientist who recently worked on identifying the remains of the outlaw Jesse James, believes Lewis was murdered and wants to examine the remains. …