Death of Meriwether Lewis: Murder or Suicide

Like many individuals who become psychologists, I have had a lifelong interest in history and a desire to know and understand people and their life stories. Following my doctoral training at CSPP and licensure in 1991, I began training in Adult Psychoanalysis at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Center in 1996 to continue to grow and learn about myself and others from an in-depth perspective. 1996 was also the year that the book Undaunted Courage, by New York Times best-selling author Steven Ambrose was published about the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806. Reading it piqued my curiosity to explore this great American adventure story on a deeper level, especially after learning that Ambrose lived in Helena, Montana, for half the year – the same area where my husband David and I were building a log cabin (also located close to the site of his grandparents’ farm). After sending a fan letter to Ambrose through his publisher, Simon and Schuster, about how much we enjoyed his book and informing him that we spent time near Helena on summer vacations, we didn’t expect to ever hear back from him. We were surprised to receive a return letter with an invitation to meet Steve and his wife Moira, who we learned were also building a log cabin near the Little Blackfoot River, about fifty miles northwest of Helena. Thus began our treasured friendship with them until Steve died in 2002 and Moira passed in 2009. 

Much of the Lewis and Clark trail traverses the state of Montana and has multiple historical sites which are essentially unchanged in appearance from what Lewis and Clark would have seen. As the years passed, our love of this famed expedition evolved and included Ambrose’s encouragement of David, a physician, to write a book about the medicine of the journey. The result was the publication in 2002 of David’s book Or Perish in the Attempt: Hardship and Medicine in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with the Foreword written by Moira Ambrose. The publication of this book coincided with the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and we continued to ride the wave of our love for this historical event by traveling to many sites along the same trail followed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark 200 years earlier.

A tragic part of the Lewis and Clark story is that three years after Lewis returned from the expedition, at 35, he was found dead from gunshot wounds in a small inn along the Natchez Trace in southern Tennessee. These are undisputed facts. What continues to be debated, however, is whether his death was caused by murder or suicide. In the years between Lewis’s death on October 11, 1809, and the present day, numerous authors have set forth their various ideas and theories about what occurred. Those who believe Lewis killed himself concur with the reports widely circulated in newspapers and accepted by two men who knew him the best – President Thomas Jefferson and his co-leader William Clark. Within this group of “suicidists”, there have been different precipitants for suicide presented. Various authors, primarily historians, have speculated that Lewis shot himself due to multiple proposed medical conditions such as malaria, mercury poisoning, or syphilis. 

What convinced us to write about our theories was the awareness that historians were writing about medical and psychological topics of which they had no formal training or expertise and thus had made significant errors in their conclusions.

 As medical and mental health professionals, my husband and I present information from the perspective of our professional backgrounds that we believe would capture a more accurate understanding of the events surrounding Lewis’s death. Hence, in October 2021, we published “So Hard To Die”: A Physician and a Psychologist Explore the Mystery of Meriwether Lewis’s Death. We chose this title because it was based on words that Lewis reportedly spoke as he lay dying – “I am no coward: but I am so strong – it is so hard to die .”While David explained medical issues that other authors have proposed affected Lewis, I wrote several chapters which covered topics such as how mental illness was viewed and treated during the historical era in which Lewis lived. In one chapter, I conducted interviews with Lewis, like the ones we would provide to any new patient who might come into our office seeking mental health treatment. Although the interviews are fictional, I created the content for them by including sources such as entries from the journal Lewis kept while on the expedition and what other individuals who knew him wrote about him. Medical information obtained from these Lewis “interviews” reflects the medical thinking of that era. Finally, I created a psychological profile of Lewis based on the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, second edition (PDM-2), coauthored by psychoanalysts Nancy McWilliams, Ph.D., and Vittorio Lingiardi, M.D. For those unfamiliar with this manual, it provides an alternative to the DSM system of emphasizing symptoms and more comprehensively looks at the person who has them. Dr. McWilliams, who has written several books on psychoanalytic diagnosis and case formulation (and is scheduled to give a presentation on her latest book Psychoanalytic Supervision through the Extension Division of the San Diego Psychoanalytic Center in February 2024), was kind enough to review and provide editing of my chapters on the psychological aspects of Lewis. 

If you are a history buff who would enjoy an in-depth analysis of medical and psychological issues, the cultural context in which they occurred, and how they influenced the death of an American icon, our book is available for purchase online @ Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, or for order at your favorite local bookstore. I welcome any feedback and comments you might have once you read it!