I can say with confidence that Meriwether Lewis was, at 35, an American hero. He had been the official leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition . And on his return in 1807 from that three year, 6,000 mile trek across the continent, President Thomas Jefferson had rewarded him with the governorship of the Upper Louisiana Territory. And just two years later he was dead, in an isolated hostel just over the border of Tennessee, shot twice and with knife cuts across his throat.
Before the march over the Rocky Mountains, before he even served as the personal aide to the President, Lewis exhibited all the indications of suffering with a mild form of asperger syndrome. He was socially inept. He was a painfully shy, solitary man, “touchy, opinionated, and quarrelsome”. Making friends was difficult for him, and he had the sorry capability of turning first-time acquaintances into instant lifelong enemies.
And then there had come the expedition, the greatest achievement of his life. But it had cost Meriwether more than is or was then generally understood. While on this three year adventure, not only had he repeatedly starved, been frozen, and nearly drowned several times, he had also been shot by one of his own men (by accident). And he had probably contracted syphilis (I assume another accident).
There is no unambiguous proof of this later affliction, of course. But the average incubation period for syphilis is about 21 days. And, “Six to eight weeks after the initial sore disappears the patient will feel tired, may experience a headache with a fever, have swollen lymph nodes and a sore throat. Some patients may even experience weight loss, hair loss and a skin rash...These symptoms can last for over three months, and sometimes as long as six months.”
We know from the private journals kept by its members, that on the 13th and 14th of August of 1805 Captain Lewis and some of the men from the expedition ‘partied’ with some Shoshone women. Twenty-eight days later, on September 19th, Meriwether Lewis became so ill he stopped writing in his diary for three months. And when the expedition returned to St. Louis in late September of 1806, they tarried there for six weeks without any reasonable explanation.
Today an infection of syphilis would be treated with a course of antibiotics. But in the 19th century the standard was a month's treatment with the poisonous metal mercury - taken either orally, applied as a balm, breathing in the vapors, or by a direct injection. Physicians at the time can be forgiven for thinking mercury could cure syphilis because in the normal course of the disease, the symptoms disappear and then reappear at random, perhaps with years between outbreaks. But even more misleading was that the symptoms of mercury poisoning – numbness and pins and needles in the hands and feet, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, mood swings, memory loss, impairment of speech and hearing and mental disturbance- are the same symptoms as advancing syphilis. It is not merely a case of the cure being worse than the disease. In this case, the cure reinforced the disease.
After his month long delay in St. Louis, the captain was feeling better. In March of 1807 he reported to the President in Washington, D.C. Jefferson then appointed the Captain to the governorship of the Upper Louisiana Territory, with its capital back in St. Louis. Then he released Lewis to visit with his family in Virginia, and prepare his journals for publication.
Then, unexpectedly, before Meriwether was ready to assume his new post, the President added to Captain Lewis’ burden. He asked him to go to Richmond to attend the trial of that lightning rod of Federalist politics, Aaron Burr.
Burr (above) was, depending on whom you choose to believe, either a hero seeking to strike a blow against the Spanish empire, or he was a traitor who had raised a small army to foster rebellion within the United States. Jefferson chose to believe the latter because he hated Burr.
After Burr was acquitted, Meriwether Lewis returned to his mother’s home, not far from Jefferson’s home at Monticello. He wrote to a Philadelphia friend, Mahlon Dickerson, in early November, “What may be my next adventure, God knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.” Many women were interviewed for the job, in Virginia and Philadelphia and even Cincinnati, but none were willing to move with Lewis to the distant frontier, even as a Governor's wife. Meriwether's relations with women were as clumsy and difficult as his relations with men.
By late November the still single Meriwether and his brother Reuben had arrived at the falls of the Ohio River, in Louisville, Kentucky (above). There Lewis hired Joseph Charles to run the newspaper he intended starting in St. Louis, and in early January 1808 he advertised for subscribers at $3 a year. It was a shrewd political move, making certain his side of political events made it into print, and had probably been suggested by Jefferson.
Lewis would need all the help and support her could muster, as in St. Louis he was walking into a den of thieves.
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