December 15, 1997
CONTACT: Karen Sibert
(202) 994-9023


Washington -- James E. Starrs, GW law professor and forensic scientist will be joined by scholars, scientists and descendants of famed American explorer Meriwether Lewis, leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, at a hearing on Tuesday, December 16 in Atlanta, GA, for reconsideration by the National Park Service of their request to exhume Lewis' remains.

The National Park Service had previously denied Starrs' petition to examine Lewis'remains, but granted this discretionary hearing for reconsideration of the exhumation application. The hearing will take place at the National Park Service Southeast Regional Office, Atlanta Federal Center, 100 Alabama Street, S.W.

Accompanying Starrs at the hearing will be Professor George Stephens, chair of the Geology Department at GW, Tennessee District Attorney General Joseph D. Baugh and Lewis' nearest living relative, Dr. William Anderson, great great grandson of Lewis' sister. In support of the exhumation application, Starrs will present slides, computer animation that demonstrates the likelihood of collapse of Lewis' monument and video of preliminary scientific work at the burial site.

Lewis died of gunshot wounds on October 11, 1809 along the Natchez Trace, 80 miles from Nashville. But historians are divided on the question of whether Meriwether Lewis was murdered or committed suicide. There were no witnesses to the shooting, the differing accounts of the killing are based on unsubstantiated rumor. No autopsy was conducted to provide a consistent account of the nature of the wounds that killed Lewis.

Lewis was traveling from St. Louis to Washington to settle questions surrounding the payment of vouchers to finance additional exploration and settlement of the Louisiana territory, when he met his demise. The promissory notes had been rejected by federal officials, leaving Lewis subject to personal liability for the payment. Some historians believe that Lewis' death was a suicide resulting from depression over his financial reverses compounded by rumored alcoholism or drug use to combat illness. Others note that bureaucratic haggling over bills was commonplace and contend that he was murdered during an attempted robbery.

Starrs maintains that the descriptions of Lewis' wounds do not suggest suicide. Lewis reportedly suffered two wounds -- one in the head and another in the chest. He probably carried with him two 1799 North and Cheney muzzle-loading pistols which are .69 caliber handguns. He was deftly experienced with firearms, so it doubtful that Lewis would have failed twice to kill himself with such a deadly and destructive weapon.

It is far more likely, says Starrs, that Lewis died at the hands of robbers along the Natchez Trace, an extremely dangerous place during that time. And there are other possible suspects; among them: Lewis' servant, John Pernier, who reportedly stole Lewis' money and horses and returned to Natchez; Major James Neelly, a U.S. agent to the Chickasaw Nation, who traveled with Lewis, but left the day before Lewis' death to locate two strayed horses; and Mrs. Grinder, proprietor of an inn who turned a deaf ear to Lewis' cries for help.

A coroner's jury was convened by Baugh in May 1996, which heard testimony from Starrs' team of historians, pathologists, psychiatrists, firearms experts, document examiners and other forensic scientists. The experts demonstrated the firing of a replica of the weapon believed to have inflicted Lewis' fatal wounds and through the use of handwriting samples, showed Lewis' mental condition at the time of his death was not disoriented. The jury recommended exhumation unanimously.

More than 150 years ago, the Tennessee legislature had Lewis' grave dug up to authenticate his remains before establishing a national monument at the site. The committee charged with the responsibility vouched for his remains and concluded that Lewis probably was murdered, but it is unknown what evidence they found to support their conclusion. Starrs believes that Lewis' story can be best be told by his bones.

For additional information, contact Professor James E. Starrs on Monday, December 15 after 7 p.m. at 707/751-9454 or at the Hampton Inn, 707/587-5161.

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