The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 30, 2003

UI Professor Concludes Meriwether Lewis Death Likely Suicide

In 1806, when Meriwether Lewis and colleague William Clark returned from their expedition across the western United States, they were hailed as national heroes.

President Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the expedition, rewarded Lewis with -- among other things -- the governorship of the newly acquired Territory of Upper Louisiana.

It should have been the beginning of a happy ending for Lewis. But just three years later, deeply in debt and emotionally exhausted, Lewis died in a roadhouse along the Natchez Trace after being shot twice, once in the forehead and one in the chest.

For nearly two centuries speculation has abounded as to whether Lewis was murdered -- perhaps by a band of brigands -- or whether he died at his own hand. While most historians subscribe to, and have written extensively about, the theory that Lewis committed suicide (Jefferson said as much in public comments) until now there has been little assessment within an explicitly psychological framework of the facts leading up to his death.

This summer, in the year marking the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, University of Iowa counseling psychology professor John S. Westefeld and graduate student Aaron Less have produced "Meriwether Lewis: Was it Suicide?", which seeks to shed further light on the tragedy. Their conclusion? Lewis very likely committed suicide.

The article has been accepted for publication next year in "Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior," the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology.

Westefeld, Ph.D., a professor in the UI College of Education's Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations, used a risk factor model for suicide assessment developed by Heriberto Sanchez. Westefeld and Less found that the preponderance of evidence -- including Lewis' previous attempts to take his own life -- indicates that Lewis was susceptible to suicide.

Westefeld, who has studied suicide previously, especially among college students, says in his study -- citing other sources -- that Lewis, born in Virginia in 1774, was a man of contradictions.

"On the one hand, he was good in a crisis, wilderness-wise, energetic, a leader, self-disciplined, and he worked closely with his men," Westefeld writes. "On the other hand, he had a quick temper, was impetuous at times, a poor politician and a person who in reality did not view the expedition as a success by the time he died. Near the end of his life, he also sunk into extreme debt."

The assessment checklist used by Westefeld and developed by Sanchez addresses five areas relevant to suicidal tendencies: historical risk factors (such as substance abuse, major medical problems and past suicidal behaviors); personal risk factors (personality, cognitive style and coping patterns); psychosocial-environmental risk factors (life events and environmental difficulties that negatively impact an individual's well being and ability to cope); clinical risk factors (behaviors that suggest planning for suicide, as well as dramatic changes in mood and mental state) and protective factors (aspects of a person's life that lower the risk of suicide, such as a social support system or marriage).

One of the most notable factors that led Westefeld and Less to their conclusion was Lewis' suicidal tendencies. In 1809, after assuming the governorship and after a series of financial problems, Lewis headed to Washington to ask for assistance. By the time he had reached Fort Pickering (now Memphis, Tenn.), Lewis had reportedly attempted twice to take his own life and was described by witnesses at the time as "in very bad health" and, even, "deranged."

Lewis left Fort Pickering with James Neeley, a Native American agent, as well as Lewis' servant John Pernier and a second scout. On Oct. 9, 1809, the party stopped at Grinder's Stand for lodging. That night there was the sound of firearms, and Lewis was found dead. (Some supporters of the suicide theory suggest that the initial gunshot to the head merely grazed Lewis' skull and that he was forced to pick up another weapon and shoot himself again, in the chest, delivering what would be the fatal shot.)

While his psychological assessment of Lewis points strongly to suicide, Westefeld says he still can't rule out murder as a possibility. Grinder's Stand was located along the Natchez Trace, a passageway that some historians say was home to bandits and outlaws who frequently committed robbery and violence. And money was reported missing from Lewis' trunk.

"Although it is easy to think of Lewis in tragic terms, his life and death can be seen in another way," Westefeld says in the conclusion of this paper. "When Thomas Jefferson described him as a man of 'courage undaunted,' he was likely referring to Lewis' bravery throughout the expedition. That he accomplished what he did while most probably struggling with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness indicates a level of courage of which even Jefferson was unaware."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007,