Monday, August 01, 2011

By His Own Hand?

By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. Edited by John D.W. Guice. Contributions by James J. Holmberg, John D.W. Guice, and Jay H. Buckley. Foreword by Elliott West. Introduction by Clay S. Jenkinson. 2006. University of Oklahoma Press. 208 pages.

From the foreword: In darker moments I sometimes wonder whether we require our most favored historical characters to die in particular ways. 

From the preface: Late in the afternoon on 10 October 1809 one of the nation's great heroes reined his horse off the Natchez Trace to spend the night at Grinder's Stand. The rustic homestead consisted of two rough-hewn log cabins a few paces apart and a distant barn. It was a pleasant fall day some seventy miles southwest of Nashville, Tennessee. What occupied Meriwether Lewis's mind we will never know, but we do know that shortly after sunup the next morning he died there. Who held the weapon or weapons that fired the fatal shots during the night? Did Lewis take his own life or did an assassin? After nearly two centuries, this remains one of the most fascinating, puzzling, and enduring questions in all of American history. 

I found By His Own Hand? a fascinating read, a true mystery.

In the first chapter, James J. Holmberg presents his case for suicide. He presents the facts of the case and argues that suicide is the most logical explanation, or the best educated guess for what happened that night. He examines several primary resources--letters, written accounts of oral testimonies or oral histories, etc. One of his main points is that Lewis' closest friends--those who knew him best, men like Thomas Jefferson and William Clark--believed that their friend took his own life. The information in the letters primarily comes from the account of Priscilla Grinder. Several men wrote letters recounting these events, but they got their story from talking to her. There were no other witnesses at the inn to verify what Priscilla Grinder heard or saw that night.

In the second chapter, John D.W. Guice presents his case for homicide. He goes over the facts yet again. He provides further context--in some areas--for readers. He argues that while it cannot be proven that it was not suicide, while it can not be thoroughly proven that it was in fact murder, enough questions remain that there is definitely reasonable doubt. Suicide may satisfy some, but for those historians on the other side, there are still so many unanswered questions that they can't just accept that it was suicide. They would need more facts, more answers. While the first chapter tried to argue that Lewis was in a bad state of mind, that he was depressed and suicidal and anxious, that he'd already tried and failed to commit suicide in the weeks leading up to his death, this second chapter tries to argue the opposite. They try to prove that while Lewis was human, while he had moments of doubts or anxieties, there were still plenty of indicators in his life to show that he had not given up, that he had every intention of living. And these rumors of previous suicide attempts are questionable. While one man writes of them, he does not give any clues at all as to the when or the where or the how. If he knew these attempts to be true, why not include at least some detail. If he really, truly thought this man was a danger to himself, why didn't he do something about it? And, of course, that is just one example. The chapter argues that the "witnesses" in the case are not infallible, and in some cases quite questionable. Priscilla Grinder's story changed, and changed quite a bit with each telling or retelling. And her story does not make that much sense even if she'd kept it the same. She claims that she heard two gunshots, when she went to investigate, she saw Lewis walking around begging for help, begging for water, begging for someone to finish the job. She did absolutely nothing...except wait for him to die. Many--if not all--primary accounts of Lewis' death depend on facts as shared by Mrs. Grinder. So William Clark and Thomas Jefferson learned of events second or third hand. Another point argued in this chapter is why would Lewis do such a horrible, horrible job at killing himself? Would he really do such a horrible job aiming twice so that he lingers for hours? Did he really linger for hours or was that Grinder adding drama to the story?

The third chapter by Jay H. Buckley is "a postmortem trial." Buckley provides summaries of the arguments from chapter one and two. He examines the strengths and weaknesses of the suicide theory and the strengths and weaknesses of the assassination theory. He does a great job in highlighting both sides. His goal, of course, is to get readers engaged, to challenge readers to think for themselves and decide which is most likely.

All of the chapters are well written. All are fascinating. Both sides argue quite well...
I really loved the mystery of this one. There are some things in history that are just mysteries. We don't know what happened--what really happened. And sometimes these mysteries are a bit hidden away. Some historians write what they think happened and leave it at that, taking some of the mystery out of life.

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


BRENT said...

Ah now this very interesting!! I recently read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage about the Meriwether/Lewis expedition. A fine read and Ambrose at his best before he became over rated with Band of Brothers.
Ambrose thinks he committed suicide. It is strange to think that such a public figure's death can be so shrouded in mystery isn't it?
I shall keep a look out for this book. For me I think he commited suicide because he had mental health issues for years previously. Apparently he is what we today would call a manic depressive.

Kailana said...

This sounds interesting. Thanks for the review!

JaneGS said...

Interesting book. I've been troubled for years at the thought of Lewis committing suicide, but had no idea that it was ever questioned. I love the format of the book as you describe it--it's on the list now!

DesLily said...

argh! Becky, you have to stop reading so much lol.. especially if they then wind up on my wish list! lol.. excellent review!!!

Louise said...

Looks fascinating, love the concept of having three different perspectives.

I've heard of Lewis, but being British he doesn't mean that much to me but certainly want to know more about him after this review.

Have you read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher?It seems like there is a similar theme of exploring a past event to solve a mystery.

ramya said...

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