Magazine article Newsweek

Lewis's Mysterious End

Magazine article Newsweek

Lewis's Mysterious End

Article excerpt

Was the great explorer a suicide or murdered? The answer maybe unearthed with his bones.

HERE'S A STORY FIT FOR HALLOWEEN. Meriwether Lewis (as in Lewis and Clark), the first white man to see and describe most of North America, lies quietly buried in Tennessee. But the mystery of his death-and a fight over whether his bones should be dug up to resolve it-- won't go gently into the ghoulish night.

Lewis either killed himself (the prevailing view) or was murdered near Hohenwald, Tenn., in 1809. His grave is on federal land outside town, tended by the National Park Service. The Feds, along with some eminent historians, insist Lewis should rest in peace. But James Starrs, a George Washington University law professor and forensic expert, thinks the truth's worth digging for and that the government needs a science lesson. "I've seen what goes on with rodents tunneling underground," says Starrs. "Trust me, 'Rest in peace' is a ridiculous phrase."

The historical debate hangs on different ideas of the man himself. Was Lewis, by the age of 85, an alcoholic and pill-popping manic-depressive? Had nagging debts and dismay over the failed search for an all-water route over the Rockies to the Pacific led him to take his own life? Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the best-selling Lewis biography "Undaunted Courage," thinks so, but argues that it subtracts little from his genius: "He was the first great American celebrity after the Revolutionary War--a superstar in today's terms." We do know that Lewis, governor of the Louisiana Territory, set out in the autumn of 1809 from St. …

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