I believe the death of Meriwether Lewis could have only been murder if it was plotted by a spidery super villain at the center of a vast web of conspiracies. And amazingly, there was just such a genial traitor with “pleasing voice and charming manners”. His name was James Wilkinson (above), addicted to flashy uniforms and money, and a keen judge of human weakness. By the age of 30 Wilkinson had been trained as a doctor, then enlisted to fight in the American revolution, made a small fortune profiteering in war bonds, been forced to resign his commission in the Continental Army - twice - accepted a $7,000 a year salary as Spanish secret agent 13, while serving as the second highest ranking officer in the American Army – his third commission. It was Brigadier General Wilkinson who alerted the Spanish to the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. And that was Wilkinson's first attempt to kill Meriwether Lewis.
On Monday, 8 August, 1796, a cannon at Fort Massac blasted an iron ball across the bow of a flatboat struggling up the Ohio River, just above its joining with the Mississippi. The shot had been ordered by Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Pike's orders, from Major General Anthony Wayne, the highest ranking American officer, were to stop any suspicious vessels, and if they found Thomas Power, an agent of Wilkinson's, on board, Pike was to search the boat for money and documents. All Captain Pike found was salt, sugar and tobacco, bound for Wilkinson's properties in Kentucky. But, as Wayne later pointed out, shipping tobacco to Kentucky was like “sending coals to Newcastle”. If Pike had just looked beneath the top layer of tobacco leaves, said a crew member, he would have found Wilkinson's pay in Spanish silver. Instead the boat and Power were quickly released. The next year the suspicious General “Mad” Anthony Wayne was dead, either from an ulcer or arsenic poisoning, depending on your suspicions.
Agent 13 maintained his cover through what today's spies would call careful trade craft. “He rarely met his handlers. He communicated through a wide range of ciphers and codes, some of which remain unbreakable...He took pains to ensure that his payment in silver dollars...was laundered through banks and real estate deals...he had a watertight cover story backed by forged documents and false testimonials showing them to be the outcome of commercial deals.” (“An Artist in Treason”, by Andro Linklater) And, it was generally suspected he murdered any and all who threatened to reveal his betrayal. So good was Wilkinson's cover that even while many suspected him of complicity in General Wayne's death, Federalist President John Adams named Wilkinson to replace Wayne. And Wilkinson promptly promoted Captain Pike to Major.
Wilkinson supported the Democrat-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson (above) because they favored a weak central government, which matched the wishes of Wilkinson's Spanish paymasters. And he did everything he could to ensure the election of Jefferson as President, in 1800.
But in that election Vice President Aaron Burr (above) earned Jefferson's hatred, and Jefferson promised to block all of Burr's future domestic ambitions. That left Burr looking for more unconventional options, which lead him, naturally, to General Wilkinson.
In 1805 Wilkinson had been named Governor of the new Louisiana Territory, headquartered in St. Louis, with Aaron Burr's brother-in-law serving as Territorial Secretary. It seems likely that Burr's plan to capture Spanish Florida either originated with Wilkinson or was at least was encouraged by him. But the thought of losing $7,000 a year dissuaded Agent 13 from taking any overt action. And when Federalist newspapers caught the scent of “Burr's Conspiracy”, Wilkinson found Burr of more value as a sacrificial offering to Jefferson, than a co-conspirator. It was Wilkinson who had Burr arrested.
Burr's treason trial in Baltimore (above) allowed Meriwether Lewis, newly named Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, to observe his predecessor on the witness stand. Lewis came away believing Wilkinson was far more involved with Burr than he admitted. But because Wilkinson was “a good Democrat-Republican” President Jefferson merely reduced "the most unscrupulous character in all of American history" to Governor of Lower Louisiana, headquartered in New Orleans.
But as he had done in Detroit, Wilkinson left behind in St. Louis, a web of business partners he had ensnared, including partnerships in lead and tin mines with the new Territorial Secretary, and Meriwether Lewis' new enemy, Fredrick Bates (above).
Thomas Power had been caught in Wilkinson's web, although perhaps he thought he was just collecting profits from Wilkinson's investments. In 1808, when Gilbert Russel went broke in land speculations, he sought to reenlist in the army. General Wilkinson signed Russell on and gave him command of Fort Pickering - the future city of Memphis - where Governor Meriwether Lewis was carried ashore in early September of 1809. And when James Neely, “a man who enjoyed playing the fiddle, dancing and strong drink” lost his money in land speculations, he borrowed from General Wilkinson to repay some of his debts.
Then in July of 1809 General Wilkinson recommended Neely's for the $90 a month job as Agent to the Chickasaw Indian nation, which occupied land adjacent to the Natchez Trace. Potentially it could be a very lucrative position. And it was James Neely who fortuitously showed up at Fort Pickering just as the ailing Governor Lewis was recovering.
Perhaps all these “friendships” of James Wilkinson's added up to a large conspiracy, and perhaps not. Perhaps it was simply that by using his fortune to make others indebted to him, and with each of his debtors acting in their own self interest, they all generally acted in Wilkinson's best interest as well. But webs must be maintained if they are to feed the spider. And it is while tending to their web that spiders are most vulnerable.
On 21 May, 1804, when Meriwether Lewis left St. Charles, on the Missouri River, to begin the great transcontinental expedition, the American officer who saw him off was Captain Amos Stoddard (above), first Governor of Louisiana Territory. It was common knowledge the two had become friends, and before leaving Lewis had entrusted Stoddard with handling his meager finances. The men kept up a regular if spotty correspondence for the rest of Lewis' life. But in September of 1809, when Stoddard saw Meriwether Lewis at Fort Pickering, he was shocked.. Amos told a friend, Captain James House, that the Governor was in a state of “derangement”. The word at the time usually meant Delirium tremens, aka, the DT.'s.
A pharmaceutical website identifies the at risk patient for the DT's as someone who drinks “over one pint of a distilled beverage every day”. Another site describes the symptoms as “hallucinations... severe panic attacks, trouble making complete sentences and paranoia....usually brought on by the patient's surroundings” According to the web site “Medscape”, “Dts...occur 3-10 days following the last drink.”” And the DT's may be “triggered by head injury, infection, or illness in people with a history of heavy use of alcohol.” Governor Lewis was brought ashore at Fort Pickering suffering from a recurrence of malaria.
Was Meriwether Lewis in early September of 1809 suffering from a recurrence of malaria, or the DT's? Medical guides insist, “Major withdrawal (hallucinations) occurs 10-72 hours after the last drink”. That time line seems to disabuse any diagnosis of the DT's. But how close of a look at Lewis did Stoddard get? Or could the explorer's condition have been yet another outburst of syphilis? Would Stoddard by looking, have known the difference between malaria, syphilis or delirium tremens? It is an important question because Stoddard told his shocking story to Captain House at a meeting along the Natchez Trace, and when he arrived at Nashville, House recorded Stoddard's comments in a letter, dated at least 11 days before Meriwether Lewis' arrived at Grinder's Inn.
There seem so many good reasons to believe Meriwether Lewis died of natural causes or suicide , and only one to suspect that he was murdered by agents for the spider Agent 13, James Wilkinson. But the only reason to suspect that Wilkinson was responsible for Lewis' death, is that no one has ever argued that morally, James Wilkinson would not have done such a horrible thing. And that is damning evidence against the man.