A highly unusual coroner's inquest ruled Tuesday that the body of explorer Meriwether Lewis should be exhumed to attempt to determine whether his death almost 190 years ago was murder or suicide.
Next comes the task of persuading the National Park Service to allow anthropologists to unearth the body. But the local superintendent for the park service, which controls the Natchez Trace land where the namesake for Lewis County is buried, said park service policy prohibits such exhumations.After deliberating less than 90 minutes Tuesday in a classroom at the National Guard Armory here, the coroner's jury of laymen said that, "because of the importance of the person in question to the history of Lewis County, we feel exhumation is necessary for closure of this matter."
Thus ended a dramatic inquiry that brought together a combination of specialists in the arcane arts of 18th-century firearms, pathology, psychology, public health medicine, history, forensics and anthropology, as well as Lewis' ancestors and local people with a folklore connection to the case.
Jurors heard 10 witnesses Monday and three Tuesday. After the formal testimony, Lewis' great-great-great nephew, Dr. William Anderson of Williamsburg, Va., took the podium to praise the seriousness with which the inquiry into the traditional suicide theory and the rival murder possibility were reviewed.
With so much national attention on Lewis because of a best-selling biography just out this year, and the media interest, he said, "I was not sure what I was in for."
Coroner Richard Tate said the inquest found "very little tangible evidence for this jury to base a credible ruling as to the matter of murder or suicide."
Lewis, leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific from 1803 to 1806, was returning to Washington via Memphis when he met his untimely death on Oct. 11, 1809. Tradition and witness statements say he shot himself in the head and chest and is buried under an 1848 monument of rough-hewn stones on the Natchez Trace, about seven miles from Hohenwald.
After the verdict was rendered, Natchez Trace park superintendent Dan Brown, reached in Tupelo, Miss., reiterated that under current National Park Service guidelines, "an exhumation of Meriwether Lewis' remains would not be permitted." Brown said he was not surprised at the verdict given the current interest in tackling historical questions with the tools of science. But he added that "human values" should also be brought to bear on the mystery.
George Washington University law professor James Starrs, the impressario of the inquest conducted by Tate and two district attorneys general, said after the ruling that he will proceed "diplomatically" with the park service, indicating he may appeal.
Starrs, who had the body of Jesse James unearthed last year and has been involved in several other high-profile investigations of suspicious deaths, said any Lewis exhumation could not occur before next spring.
The coroner's report will be forwarded to the Circuit Court clerk for Lewis County.
District Attorney General Joseph Baugh said he was "very satisfied" with the verdict.
"I think we've probably gone as far as state government and the county can go to resolve this mystery," he said. If the National Park Service does resist efforts to go forward with the exhumation, it's fine with him.
The second day of testimony took on aspects of a medical peer review panel, with Dr. Reimert Ravenholt of Seattle making a compelling case that Lewis was in the throes of late-stage syphilis when he killed himself. Anderson, the physician and relative of the explorer, dismissed that argument as "pure speculation."
Ravenholt, a medical doctor formerly associated with the U.S Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control, wrote a treatise on Lewis' underlying illness in May 1994 and reprised its high points before the panel and an audience of about 90 spectators.
Others speculate that Lewis was attacked and killed by thieves on what was then a feared Indian trail, the Natchez Trace, or was murdered by someone else.
Summing up the case, Starrs said, "I think it's clearly undecided, but a strong case could be made for murder."