While reading Larry Morris’s great book, The Fate of the Corps, we were shocked to learn that Meriwether Lewis’s younger half-brother John Marks suffered a debilitating mental breakdown some years after Lewis’s death. He fled his family’s attempts to confine him, disappearing without a trace. You can only imagine the pain it must have given to their mother to lose a second son.
This puzzling detail adds to our speculation about Lewis’s own fate, and gives credence to the purported struggles with mental illness within his family. In 1812, three years after Lewis died along the Natchez Trace, his mentor Thomas Jefferson wrote in a biographical sketch:
Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, and were more immediately inherited by him from his father. They had not however been so strong as to give uneasiness to his family. While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind, but knowing their constitutional source, I estimated their course by what I had seen in the family.
Jefferson was related to the Lewis family by marriage, and from the time he first heard about Meriwether’s death, he believed that Lewis had committed suicide as a result of an inherited tendency towards depression and mental disturbance. Subsequent events could only have reinforced Jefferson’s feelings, for at the time he wrote this sketch of Meriwether, the former president was reeling from the news of a bizarre and scandalous murder committed by his own nephews, Lilburn and Isham Lewis.
Jefferson’s sister Lucy was married to Charles Lewis, the brother of Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather. Lucy and Charles moved from Virginia to Smithland, Kentucky, in 1808, hoping to escape financial troubles and personal unhappiness. Unfortunately for the luckless Lucy, she died soon after, leaving three unmarried daughters. Apparently, Charles Lewis wasn’t much help, for leadership of the family seems to have passed to her oldest son, Randolph, himself the father of eight children. In another blow to the family, Randolph and his wife soon died.
At that point, the responsibility fell on Lilburn Lewis, a widower with five children of his own. If he did in fact have a genetic predisposition to depression, it would be little wonder if Lilburn succumbed, burdened as he was with a staggering amount of debt and responsibility. Lilburn apparently took to drinking and spending most of his time with his younger brother Isham, who had come to live with the family in Smithland after bumming around St. Louis and Natchez, unable to find work despite his family connections.
Lilburn Lewis’s frustrations took a murderous turn on December 15, 1811. A 17-year-old slave named George accidentally broke a pitcher of water. Enraged, Lilburn called in all the slaves to watch and then, using a hatchet, killed George before their eyes. Then, he stuffed George’s body into the fireplace and attempted to burn it.
Although it was illegal to murder a slave, Lilburn might have gotten away with the crime if not for an incredible series of events by Mother Nature. 1811 was one of the most bizarre years in history for natural phenomena: floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes all assailed the country. A comet appeared in April and remained visible all year; an eclipse in September seemed to fortell the outbreak of war with the Indians at Tippecanoe. The already-fantastical passenger pigeon population exploded to record numbers, and mobs of squirrels ran into the Ohio River and drowned by the thousands.
Then, in the early morning hours of December 16, even as poor George’s body lay smoldering in the fireplace, a magnitude-8 earthquake centered around the town of New Madrid, Missouri, ripped through the Ohio valley. The quake was so violent that the Mississippi River actually flowed backward. In Kentucky, where the Lewises lived, the quake came with a deafening roar that threw settlers from their beds and caused major damage to fences, bridges, cabins, and brick homes.
Lilburn’s chimney collapsed. He ordered his slaves to rebuild it and brick up the body of George inside. The slaves had no choice. However, the New Madrid earthquakes had only begun, and they would expose Lilburn’s crime for the world to see. Two more magnitude-8 quakes were to follow, one on January 23, 1812, and the final and most devastating on February 7. Lilburn’s chimney tumbled to the ground, and a dog unearthed George’s remains and carried away his skull. When a neighbor saw the grisly find, he called the sheriff, and Lilburn and Isham were arrested for George’s murder.
Justice was never served, however. Out on bail, the Lewis brothers made a suicide pact and, on April 9, 1812, met in the family cemetery in Smithland with their rifles. Later, Isham claimed that Lilburn accidentally shot himself while showing Isham how to use the rifle. Shortly thereafter, Isham absconded from the scene and never contacted his family again; his final fate remains unknown.
Needless to say, the affair was a terrible embarrassment to the Lewis and Jefferson families, and it’s no surprise that Jefferson would find himself brooding over Meriwether’s fate as he penned the biography of his “beloved man,” and wondering about the internal forces that may have driven him to his death.
Want to know more? There is a good full-length book on the affair called Jefferson’s Nephews, by Boynton Merrill, Jr. (1976). On the literary side, the great American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren explored this scandal in his epic poem about Lewis and Jefferson, Brother to Dragons (1953, revised 1979).