Caught in the Devil's Backbone: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

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Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Priscilla Grinder wasn’t sure what to make of her new guest's odd behavior. When she'd welcomed him to the inn she ran with her husband, Robert, that evening of October 10, 1809, he'd come with packhorses and a request to stay the night. On the surface, he was merely one of many to make the trek along the Natchez Trace, a 450-mile path that connected Natchez, Mississippi, with Nashville, Tennessee. The trip could take up to four weeks, and weary travelers often found shelter in one of the many inns along the way. It was here at Grinder’s Stand, near Hohenwald, Tennessee, where this particular traveler had stopped to get some rest.

Priscilla watched as the man moved about in an erratic manner. When servants who had been traveling with him arrived, the guest ordered them to the stables [PDF]. Then he began pacing. He would walk up to Priscilla, and then quickly turn around. At supper, he took only a few spoonfuls of his meal before launching into what she would later describe as a “violent” verbal tirade directed at himself. He then retired to his room, where his footsteps echoed across the hardwood. Priscilla and her children—Robert was not at home—retired to nearby quarters, disconnected from main cabin but within earshot.

Late into the night, Priscilla heard what sounded like a pistol being fired. And then another. She heard the man cry out, “O Lord!” As she peered out of spaces between the wooden walls, he appeared, bleeding and rambling. He begged for water and for Priscilla to “heal” his wounds.

Priscilla was so shaken by the sight of the wounded guest, not to mention his odd behavior earlier, that she did something nearly unthinkable: She ignored him. His pleas for help went unanswered. When the servants arrived from the stables early the next morning, the guest begged them to kill him. He was missing part of his forehead and, according to some accounts, had slashed at himself with a razor.

He died at sunrise.

And that was how Meriwether Lewis, aged 35 and once co-captain of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, met his untimely end. For the next 210 years, scholars, his family, and forensic analysts would comb over his life—and attempt to analyze his remains—searching for an evasive truth. Had Lewis turned his pistol on himself? Or had someone at Grinder’s Stand murdered him?

 

With the Louisiana Purchase, when the United States bought 828,000 miles of French territory in 1803, the country nearly doubled in size. President Thomas Jefferson was determined to map the new acquisition, forge relationships with Native American tribes, explore the flora and fauna of the region, and, most importantly, find an all-water route to the Pacific for trade purposes. Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis—his protégé, one-time secretary, and an Army captain—to lead the expedition.

Between 1804 and 1806, Lewis, his co-captain William Clark, and their team traversed 8000 miles, enduring bad weather, treacherous terrain, hunger, disease, and, at times, hostile Native Americans. He and Clark returned from their expedition to St. Louis, Missouri, as heroes in September 1806.

A postage stamp honoring explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is pictured
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The rewards for enduring such an arduous trip were numerous. Jefferson gave Lewis double pay for the journey and 1600 acres of land. Lewis was also named governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana.

By rights, Lewis should have settled into a comfortable post-expedition life. But it was not to be. Scholars have suggested that despite the plaudits he was receiving, Lewis might have been somewhat disappointed with the expedition. For one thing, Lewis and Clark had not found the all-water route—the fabled Northwest Passage—to the Pacific. For another, the trading posts they had helped set up were faltering. The government had also complicated matters by asking for additional documentation and evidence that some of the filed expenses were necessary. If they weren’t, Lewis might have had to pay for them himself, which would have drained him financially.

Lewis was also prone to dark moods, a gloom that Jefferson noticed throughout their long friendship. It could have been depression, exacerbated by Lewis’s tendency to drink alcohol to excess. Based on his symptoms, scholars have also suggested malaria or syphilis may have been attacking both his body and his mind: Lewis himself wrote in a journal in November 1803 that he had been seized with a "violent ague," ague being the term at the time for malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes that was not then treatable by antibiotics. Lewis also made several moves that support the idea of a morose state of mind, arranging for his possessions to be disbursed in the event of his death and preparing a will.

On a boat headed for Fort Pickering in September 1809, a number of military officials reported that Lewis was obviously distraught and had made two attempts to take his own life. It’s not clear how he tried to do it, but the prevailing belief was that Lewis was in a state of deep despondency that appeared to some as a mental illness. Captain Gilbert Russell, who was in charge of Fort Pickering, would later state that he ordered Lewis detained until he regained his composure. "His condition rendered it necessary that he should be stoped until he would recover which I done [sic]," Russell wrote. Lewis, he added, exhibited "mental derangement."

Lewis traveled on, following the Natchez Trace, and headed for Washington, where he intended to answer to questions concerning his expedition expenses. That’s when he stopped off at Grinder’s Stand.

It would be his last night alive.

James Neelly, a federal agent also on the Natchez Trace trail, had traveled part of the way with Lewis and had witnessed the explorer's odd behavior. The two had split up the morning of October 10, when Neelly remained behind to pursue two escaped horses.

Neelly came upon the grisly scene the day after Lewis's death. He buried the explorer near the inn and wrote to Jefferson that the death was a suicide. Owing to Lewis's recent behavior, it was an apparently easy assessment to make, and there was no autopsy or further investigation. But not all of the facts supported that conclusion.

 

According to the servants who discovered him, Lewis had purportedly shot himself in the head, a non-fatal wound that failed to penetrate his brain. Then he was believed to have turned the gun to his abdomen and fired again, the ammunition tearing through his torso and out near his backbone. But Lewis was a military man and an expert marksman. If he intended to kill himself, skeptics argue, a glancing shot against his head and another in his stomach seemed to be lousy choices. Surely, he would have had the sense to aim for his heart or to take a more measured aim toward his brain. Lewis's own mother expressed doubts; she believed he had been murdered.

The suspicion of foul play grew in 1848, almost 40 years after Lewis's death, when his body had to be partially exhumed in order for a monument to be erected at his burial site. The medical professionals who assisted in the exhumation reportedly made an offhand declaration: One of the bullet holes appeared to be in the back of his head, a strange spot for a self-inflicted gunshot. "It seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin," the exhumation committee concluded.

A plaque stands next to a monument at the burial site of explorer Meriwether Lewis in Hohenwald, Tennessee
Ron Gilbert, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

That comment, which lacked documentation or further explanation, ignited a number of theories about how Lewis had really died. Some—like the idea Lewis had been carrying on with Priscilla Grinder and was discovered by her returning husband, or that the innkeeper murdered Lewis for his money and possessions—seemed fantastic. Others seemed somewhat plausible. Known as the “Devil’s Backbone,” the Natchez Trace was considered rough both geographically—it was made up of uneven terrain—and because of the bandits who lurked in the woods, ready to pounce on travelers carrying goods. Lewis had died on a path riddled with crime, and though nothing appeared to be missing, it was not inconceivable that an assailant could have fatally wounded him. At least, it seemed more likely than the idea that a competent soldier tried to kill himself by gruesomely shooting and slashing his own body.

Another theory, put forward by historian Kira Gale in two books, 2009's The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation and 2015's Meriwether Lewis: The Assassination of an American Hero and the Silver Mines of Mexico, argues that Lewis was the target of a political assassination. As governor of the Louisiana Territory, he may have run afoul of a plot by General James Wilkinson (his predecessor as governor) to control lead mines south of St. Louis and invade Mexico to seize silver mines. Wilkinson was far from trustworthy, having sold American secrets to the Spanish empire and even warning Spain of the Lewis and Clark expedition and forthcoming American expansion. If he believed Lewis could expose his plans for the mines, he might have taken extreme measures to guarantee his silence.

"I propose the motive was to prevent Lewis from bringing information to Washington regarding crooked land deals involving Wilkinson and John Smith T, a mine operator in the lead mine district south of St. Louis," Gale wrote in 2015. "Wilkinson had a history of assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, people who were his rivals and possessed incriminating information that could jeopardize his career. Meriwether Lewis was a man 'of undaunted courage' who stood up to him." Gale also asserts that Wilkinson poisoned Anthony Wayne, commanding general of the U.S. Army, so second-in-command Wilkinson would climb in the ranks. Wayne died in 1796 following a bout of intense stomach pain, which Gale argues was really arsenic poisoning.

Priscilla Grinder herself added to the ambiguity around Lewis's death with her shifting recollections. She had told Neelly about Lewis's final hours. But roughly three decades later, when prompted by a schoolteacher for her memories of the night, she said three strange men had followed Lewis to the inn and that he had warned them off with his pistol. She also noted that she had seen John Pernier, Lewis's servant, wearing the clothes Lewis had arrived in. (Pernier would go on to become an unlikely but persistent suspect, having no obvious motive beyond simple theft. He died seven months after Lewis in an apparent suicide.)

A theory presented by Lewis historians Thomas C. Danisi and John Danisi and published in 2012 [PDF] attempted to reconcile Lewis’s reported depression with the unusual nature of his death. They pointed to Lewis’s longstanding “paroxysm of intermittent disease,” or the physical discomfort he experienced as a possible result of malaria or syphilis infection. Jefferson had taken note of his friend’s maladies, and described them in letters as a “hypochondriac affection.” Jefferson, using the language of his day, didn’t mean Lewis was having health anxiety—he meant Lewis had some kind of bodily discomfort, possibly involving his alcohol-saturated liver or spleen. The expedition, Jefferson wrote, had taken Lewis’s mind off the discomfort. Upon his return, his mind had the freedom to return to it.

In the throes of pain, illness, and frustration, it’s possible Lewis turned his weapons on himself without intending to take his own life. Instead, the Danisis argue, he wanted to quiet his ailing body. In an addled state, he might have even thought a wound could “cure” his affliction. That would explain why he targeted his abdomen and why, when the two shots failed to resolve his discomfort, he may have taken to slashing himself with a razor. Had Lewis wanted to die, why beg the innkeeper’s wife for water and attention? Why ask—or make a proclamation—about “healing” his wound?

 

Lewis is still buried in Hohenwald, Tennessee, in land that is now federally owned and part of the National Park Service. In 1996, George Washington Law University Professor James Starrs petitioned for the body to be exhumed in the hopes of examining Lewis's remains and possibly shedding light on his cause of death. Even close to 200 years later there might still be tell-tale clues on the body: Gunpowder residue could be tested to see if he was shot at close range or not. Fracture patterns in the skull could indicate the direction of the shot. Somehow, forensic analysis might be able to resolve what’s grown into a mystery enduring over two centuries.

So far, those attempts have not been successful. Starrs received no cooperation from the National Park Service, who told him it would set a bad precedent and that they have no interest in disrupting a burial site. The exhumation idea was also floated in 2009 by Lewis's descendants, but rejected by the Department of the Interior in 2010.

There’s no guarantee that any evidence exists that could prove exactly what happened to Lewis the night of October 11, 1809. Sick and tired, he could have taken his own life. He could have been trying to cure himself of a persistent pain. Or he could have been victimized by a bandit or bandits that simply disappeared back into the Natchez Trace. It’s a secret that Lewis took to his grave—where it’s likely to remain for a long time to come.

Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

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lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images

The first thing Houston police captain Charles Bullock noticed as he entered 1815 Driscoll Street on the evening of June 23, 1965, was that someone didn’t want him using the back door. Flower pots had been stacked against the entrance, forcing Bullock and his partner, L.M. Barta, to push their way inside. While Barta moved through the rest of the home, Bullock headed for the kitchen.

The two were there to perform a welfare check on the house's occupants, an elderly couple named Fred and Edwina Rogers. Their nephew, Marvin Martin, had grown concerned when he failed to reach them by telephone, and became further alarmed after knocking on their door with no answer. So he had called the police.

As he walked into the kitchen, something nagged at Bullock. He would later recall that the scene “just didn’t feel right.” There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. Some say he saw food stacked on top of—rather than inside—the refrigerator, prompting his curiosity. Others say he was thirsty for a beer on a hot summer evening and wanted to see if there was anything to drink. Bullock himself would say he peered inside the fridge for no particular reason. “I don’t know why I looked in the refrigerator,” he said. “For some reason I just opened it.”

He took a quick inventory of its contents, which appeared to be nothing but shelf after shelf of hog meat. He concluded the Rogers family must have been to the butcher recently. But with the house empty, it looked like it would spoil.

This is a shame, Bullock thought. Someone is letting a whole bunch of good meat go to waste.

He started to close the door when something caught his attention. Inside the vegetable drawer was what appeared to be a woman’s head, her eyes fixed in Bullock’s direction. Bullock froze, then slammed the door shut. When he opened it, the head was still there.

The hog meat would turn out to be flesh of a different sort—the dismembered remains of Fred and Edwina Rogers, drained of blood and missing their entrails. Fred’s head was in the other crisper. His eyes had been gouged out.

The gruesomeness of the crime scene would have been disturbing no matter what. Making it slightly worse was the fact that the autopsies showed the murders had been committed on Father’s Day, and the person most likely to know something about the horrific act was the elderly couple's son, Charles.

Charles, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.

 

Fred Rogers, 81, was a retired real estate salesman. His wife, Edwina, 79, was a sales representative. Their Houston home and their activities appeared unremarkable to neighbors. But there was an element to their lives that came as something of a surprise to local residents who would later be questioned by police. The surprise was that Charles lived with them. In fact, he owned the house.

A vintage refrigerator is pictured
bizoo_n/iStock via Getty Images

Charles was 43 and a veteran of World War II. After getting a bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from the University of Houston, he had enlisted in the Navy and learned to fly planes. He became a seismologist and later spent nine years working for the Shell Oil Company. At the time of his parents’ death, it was not clear whether he was employed.

What was clear was that Charles was a peculiar individual. He would rise before dawn, leaving the house to tend to unknown business before his parents woke up, and then come back after dark, after they went to bed. His travels were so subtle that the next door neighbor was not even aware he lived there.

When he was home, he went out of his way to avoid his parents, purportedly slipping notes under doors when he needed to communicate with them. The family maid would later state that it was possible Edwina had not even seen Charles face-to-face for roughly five years prior to her death.

No one was sure what led to this unusually frigid living arrangement. It’s possible Charles wanted to provide for his elderly parents in spite of either not getting along with them or wishing not to be disturbed by the outside world. Either way, it was now imperative that he answer questions about their gruesome fates.

When Bullock discovered the corpses, he and his partner Barta practically sprinted out of the house, calling investigators to the scene. They found the house had mostly been scrubbed clean, save for some blood in the bathroom—where they believed the bodies had been cut up—and Charles’s attic bedroom, where there were trace amounts of blood as well as a hand saw they believed had been used to perform the dismemberment. The heads, torsos, and limbs were in the refrigerator; the entrails were found in the sewer system, apparently having been flushed down the toilet. Other body parts were missing and never found.

Owing to the labor involved in draining the bodies, carving up the corpses, and cleaning the home, police believed the killer had taken his or her time and had a working knowledge of human anatomy. Autopsies revealed that Edwina had died as a result of a single gunshot to the head, though that weapon was never found. Fred had gotten the worst of it. He had been beaten to death with a claw hammer, his eyes plucked out and his genitals severed from his torso in what was seemingly a vindictive mutilation. The claw hammer was found on the premises, though police would not confirm whether any fingerprints were retrieved.

If there was evidence, authorities wanted to discuss it with Charles. They issued an all-points bulletin and launched a nationwide search. As the only presumably-living member of the household, his insight—if not his confession—would prove invaluable. Because he knew how to fly, authorities checked nearby airfields to see if anyone matching his description had left the area by plane. Nothing turned up. In being so reclusive, Charles left virtually no trail for them to follow.

A man in silhouette is pictured
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

“The habits and manners of the missing son are major mysteries,” Captain L.D. Morrison, head of the local homicide bureau, told reporters a few days after the bodies had been found.

It was an understatement. Police never located Charles—not in the weeks, months, or years that followed. In 1975, in an effort to probate the Rogers estate, he was declared legally dead.

 

One of Houston’s goriest murders would become one of its most notorious unsolved cases. But that hasn’t stopped others from stepping forward and offering their theories about what may have transpired.

Some are outlandish, using the blank canvas of the crime scene to try and attach deeper meaning to Charles’s life. The 1992 book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, by authors John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers, offered that Charles was actually a CIA operative involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. When his parents discovered incriminating diary entries, Charles killed them.

The Ice Box Murders, a 2003 book written by forensic accountants and amateur sleuths Hugh and Martha Gardenier, made an attempt to present a more plausible theory. They agreed Charles was indeed the killer, but his motive was not the result of any CIA involvement. Instead, the Gardeniers argued that Fred and Edwina were abusive and manipulative parents, doing everything from taking loans out against their son’s home to forging his signature on deeds to other property he owned. After years of being browbeaten and financially ripped off, Charles lashed out in an orgy of violence, smashing his father’s head in. (That his mother got a comparatively compassionate execution-style killing may point to most of the abuse coming from Fred.)

The Gardeniers asserted that a few days after the murders, someone matching Charles’s physical description was overheard asking about a job overseas, using an alias. They claimed that Charles utilized his contacts in the oil and mining industries to land in Mexico. The book also asserts that Charles met a violent end of his own, when a wage dispute involving some miners in Honduras ended with a pickaxe lodged in his head.

The Houston Press labeled the Gardeniers’ book a work of “fact-based fiction and supposition,” leaving its conclusions up in the air. No concrete evidence appears to point to Charles winding up in Central America, though he did at one point own his own plane. Fleeing Houston via aircraft seems plausible, and with the Shell Oil job taking him to Canada and Alaska, it’s also possible he had contacts in another country that could have made setting up a new life easier.

Decades later, it's unlikely the case will ever find resolution. If Charles Rogers did not commit the crime, his disappearance is inexplicable. No one else appeared to have motive to kill his parents. If he was killed by an unknown third party, the perpetrator did an excellent job removing all trace of him. Whether he ended up in Central America or somewhere else, the most likely explanation is that he spent the rest of his days doing what he'd so often practiced at 1815 Driscoll—disappearing into the shadows, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

The Bauman Incident: When Theodore Roosevelt Might Have Written About Bigfoot

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

“The finest hunting ground in America was, and indeed is, the mountainous region of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in The Wilderness Hunter, an 1893 memoir of his adventures at the frontier. There, Roosevelt encountered thick forests, towering peaks, and vast plains veined with streams and rivulets. He pursued the continent’s megafauna, from white-tailed deer and beaver to bison, moose, and “grisly bear,” while reveling in the fresh air and lively stories of his fellow outdoorsmen.

The forest also held secrets. On one of his hunting expeditions in this primeval landscape, Roosevelt heard an anecdote that stood out from the usual tales on the trail. Roosevelt had studied the flora and fauna of the West, but had never heard of a creature as strange as the one at the center of this yarn. “It was told by a grisled, weather-beaten old mountain hunter, named Bauman, who was born and had passed all his life on the frontier,” Roosevelt relayed in his memoir. “He must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

When Bauman was still a young man, Roosevelt recalled, he and a friend set out to trap beaver in a rugged river valley in what was then the Montana Territory. They went up a mountain pass where, the year before, a lone trapper had been killed by an unidentified beast, “the half-eaten remains being afterwards found by some mining prospectors who had passed his camp only the night before.”

They left their horses at the foot of the pass and climbed up to a small glade, where they pitched camp. With some hours of daylight remaining, they went to set their beaver traps in the stream, and returned to camp just as the sun dipped behind the screen of pines. With a shock, they found their lean-to flattened and the contents of their packs scattered among bear-like footprints in the earth.

Bauman’s companion made a torch from the campfire and peered at the tracks. “Bauman,” he said, “that bear has been walking on two legs.”

Bauman laughed off this idea, and the two trappers soon went to sleep in their repaired camp. But Bauman was awakened in the night by a fetid stench and the fleeting shadow of “a great body” in the entrance of their shelter. He shot his rifle, and the beast retreated to the forest.

The following day, after long hours at the streams checking their traps, the two hunters returned to camp—and found their lean-to destroyed once more. The same large footprints trailed away from the camp, toward a brook, where they appeared “as plain as if on snow.” Bauman had to admit that, whatever the creature was, it had escaped on two legs.

They hardly slept that night, for the sounds of twigs snapping in the gloom alerted the men to the animal’s presence. As their fire blazed, the trappers sensed it waiting, and heard its woeful cry echoing through the woods.

Bauman and his friend decided that the next morning would be their last in this creepy vale. Together, they gathered their empty traps from the stream dividing the pine thickets, plagued by a sense of being followed. Yet sun shone brightly in the clearing as they packed their bags, and the fears of the previous night began to seem silly. Bauman volunteered to retrieve the last three traps from a nearby river, which ended up taking a few hours.

He returned to a scene of horror. The still-warm body of his friend was leaning against a tree with four awful fang marks piercing his broken neck. Telltale footprints surrounded the unfortunate victim. The beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely “romped and gamboled round it in uncouth, ferocious glee.” The hunter had become the hunted.

Neither Bauman nor Roosevelt ever identified the culprit as a sasquatch, or Bigfoot, but its bipedal stance, hideous smell, and prolonged screaming in the northern woods dovetails with descriptions in Indigenous stories (though sasquatches aren't bloodthirsty murderers in the legends). Likewise, Bauman’s identity is a mystery. He may have been Carl L. Bauman, who according to the Montana Historical Society was born in Germany in 1831, moved west in the 1860s, and died March 20, 1909 near Melrose, Montana. Beyond that brief clue in the Montana Historical Society journal, Bauman remains as enigmatic as the tale he shared with Theodore Roosevelt.

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