How Meriwether Lewis Might Have Really Died Sunday is the bicentennial of explorer Meriwether Lewis's death. His death was ruled a suicide. Host Liane Hansen speaks to historians John Jackson and Thom Danisi about another possible explanation.

How Meriwether Lewis Might Have Really Died

How Meriwether Lewis Might Have Really Died

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Sunday is the bicentennial of explorer Meriwether Lewis's death. His death was ruled a suicide. Host Liane Hansen speaks to historians John Jackson and Thom Danisi about another possible explanation.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Much has been written about the life of Meriwether Lewis. He and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery west to the Pacific Ocean between 1804 and 1806. Much has also been written about Lewis's death. Conspiracy theorists say he was murdered. There's also a longstanding belief that he committed suicide.

Meriwether Lewis died 200 years ago today, October 11, 1809. A new biography of Lewis now offers a third theory of his untimely death. Joining us are the authors of that new biography. Thomas Danisi is in the studios of member station KWMU in St. Louis. Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS DANISI (Co-Author, "Meriwether Lewis: A New Biography"): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: And John Jackson is in the studios of member station KPLU in Tacoma, Washington. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN JACKSON (Co-Author, "Meriwether Lewis: A New Biography"): Glad to be here.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the conspiracy theories. Thomas Danisi, who would have wanted to murder Meriwether Lewis and why?

Mr. DANISI: The first problem is with the conspiracy theories, you have to come up with people that might have been close to Lewis or knew of Lewis. And the ones that you would think of are really friends of Lewis. And to then think that they were the ones that possibly murdered him would be to malign their persons. And so from that point of view, I'm not into maligning anyone.

HANSEN: Right. And he was alone that night. It was the grinder place in Natchez Trace.

Mr. DANISI: That's correct.

HANSEN: And the woman who was running this little way station came in and saw him. And there was a lot of blood and there were also stab wounds. So, then there was the theory - or the belief rather - that Lewis had committed suicide. What contributed to that belief that Meriwether Lewis would have committed suicide?

Mr. DANISI: Well, the problem is prior to this biography, nobody had any real information. And so all they really had were theories of why they would do something like that. The suicide theories came out of what a couple of people talked about. For instance, Gilbert Russell, who is the captain of Fort Pickering, said that Lewis was in a state of mental derangement. And the Chickasaw Indian Nation's James Neely also had made similar statements like that.

HANSEN: John Jackson, how did you discover and what is the theory that Meriwether Lewis was affected by the malaria? And could it have caused him to kill himself, even though it wasn't in the same way that, say, a depressed person would commit suicide?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, for one thing, he had a lifelong record of malaria attacks, because this is a parasite that does not go away. He may have even have had more than one of version of malaria. That's very painful disease and it affects, gives you really terrible headaches, for one thing, abdominal pains. If you're weak and suffering from this, you're not in a complete state of good mind.

HANSEN: How did you all come upon that theory that it was malaria?

Mr. DANISI: Well, the journals in November 13, 1803, Lewis says that he was seized with a violent ague. And ague, at that time today is known as malaria. So, what was interesting about it, of course, as he said, I was seized with a violent ague, and as is usual, was succeeded by a fever.

Now, anyone, especially with Lewis's stance, is going to say as is usual. It means that it's already been occurring quite a bit. And throughout his term in governor and all the way up to the time of this death, he was still experiencing these malaria relapses.

HANSEN: John Jackson, why do you think historians haven't picked up on the fact that his malaria would have caused his demise in this way?

Mr. JACKSON: The circumstances of his death were greatly exaggerated as the media reports passed from, you know, one newspaper to another. The possibility that there were some other circumstance that had entered into this didn't even begin to occur until, I think, I believe, 40 years after this death.

HANSEN: Was there evidence, perhaps even to support, I mean, the fact that he would've been depressed? I mean, he wasn't able to finish the journals that he wanted. He wasn't able to get money from the new administration in Washington. I mean, he did have a lot of things to be depressed about.

Mr. DANISI: Yes. The thing is, is that Meriwether Lewis, when he was on the trip and when he came back, he wrote these treaties on the Indian trade. It's close to 25 pages. And I can tell you, if somebody was depressed, they were not going to write something of this studious quality.

HANSEN: In the prologue, it's written that some in the community of historians did not want your book published. Why would that be?

Mr. DANISI: Well, it all…

Mr. JACKSON: (Unintelligible)…

Mr. DANISI: …yeah, it all started out with the article that was published and we proceeded on. That's the journal for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and was published in 2002. And I got a lot of flak for it. Various people were just totally against that idea that it could be malaria. And it sort of expanded from there.

So, we had sent the manuscript to a university publisher and they sent it out for review, and the reviewers just didn't like what we had to say about the malaria.

HANSEN: Now, the book has been published. And do you think it's a closed case or do you think the debate's going to continue?

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, I'm sure the debate is going to continue.

Mr. DANISI: Right. It's going to keep going for sure. But I think our case is pretty sound.

HANSEN: Thomas Danisi and John Jackson are the co-authors of "Meriwether Lewis: A New Biography." Today is the bicentennial of the explorer's death. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. DANISI: Thank you.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

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