“It is so hard to die”: An Account of Depression from 1809

One of the most heartbreaking stories I know relates the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). Suffering from what today we would simply call depression, signs of the illness even appear in the journals he kept while on his journey west with William Clark, when flurries of meticulous reportage are replaced by weeks of silence. Three years after their return from the west, Lewis’s life spiraled down:


…Late in the afternoon, Lewis arrived at Grinder’s Inn, seventy-two miles short of Nashville. It was a rough-hewn, poorly built log cabin that took in overnight customers. Mr. Grinder was away.

Lewis asked for accommodations for the night. Are you alone? Mrs. Grinder asked. No, Lewis replied, two servants would be coming on shortly. Mrs. Grinder said they were welcome. Lewis dismounted, unsaddled his horse, and brought the saddle in the house. He was dressed “in a loose gown, white, striped with blue.” He asked for some whiskey, of which he drank but little.

When Pernier and the other servant arrived, Lewis asked for his gunpowder, saying he was sure he had some in his canister. Pernier “gave no distinct reply,” probably because he had been told by Neelly to keep the powder away from Lewis.

Lewis began pacing in front of the cabin. Mrs. Grinder later reported that “sometimes he would seem as if he were walking up to her; and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could.”

She prepared a meal. Lewis entered the cabin and sat at the table, but after only a few mouthfuls he started up, “speaking to himself in a violent manner.” Mrs. Grinder noted that his face was flushed, “as if it had come on him in a fit.”

Lewis lit his pipe, drew a chair to the door, sat down, and remarked to Mrs. Grinder, in a kindly tone, “Madam this is a very pleasant evening.”

After finishing the pipe, he rose and paced the yard. He sat again, lit another pipe, seemed composed. He cast his eyes “wishfully towards the west.” He spoke again of what “a sweet evening” it was.

 

As he sat on Mrs. Grinder’s porch, looking west while the light faded from the sky, what were this thoughts? Were they of the rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia and the others? Did he recall the Arikaras, the Sioux, the Mandans? Did he think of the first time he had seen Sacagawea? Did he remember the April day in 1805 when he started out from the Mandan nation on his “darling project,” daring to link his name with Columbus and Captain Cook? Did he dwell on the decision at the Marias?

Or were the plants, animals, birds, scenery of the Garden of Eden he had passed through commanding his imagination? If so, surely he thought of cottonwoods, prickly pears, the gigantic trees of the Pacific Coast; of grouse and woodpeckers and condors; of the grizzlies and the unbelievable buffalo herds, the pronghorns, sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, and other animals he had discovered and described; of those remarkable white cliffs along the Missouri, the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia gorge….

If he thought of the men, surely he thought of his co-commander, the best friend any man ever had. He had told Pernier earlier that day that General Clark had heard of his difficulties and was coming on. As the light faded, was he looking westward along the Trace, expecting to see Clark ride in to set everything right?

Did one of Mrs. Grinder’s dogs chase a squirrel and remind him of Seaman?

Could it be that he thought of that moment of triumph when his canoes put in at St. Louis in September 1806?

 

Or were his thoughts gloomy? Were they about his unsolvable problems? Did he agonize over his speculations and the financial ruin they had brought him? Was that awful Secretary Bates foremost in his thoughts? Did he wonder why he had failed in his courtships and had no wife? Did he curse himself for his drinking?

Did his mind dwell on Thomas Jefferson? Was he ashamed of how he had failed the man he adored? Did he think of the journals, over in the corner in his saddlebags?

Or did his mind avoid the past? Was he rehearsing what he would say to Secretary Eustis and President Madison?

Or was he yearning for more pills? Or more whiskey?

We cannot know. We only know that he was tortured, that his was unbearable.

 

Mrs. Grinder began to prepare a bed for him, but he stopped her and said he would sleep on the floor, explaining that since his journey to the Pacific, he could no longer sleep on a feather bed. He had Pernier bring in his bear skins and buffalo robe and spread them on the floor. While Pernier was getting the bedding, Lewis found some powder.

Mrs. Grinder went to the kitchen to sleep, and the servants went to the barn, some two hundred yards distant.

Lewis began pacing in his room. This went on for several hours. Mrs. Grinder, who was frightened and could not sleep, heard him talking aloud, “like a lawyer.”

Lewis got out his pistols. He loaded them and at some point during the early hours of October 11 shot himself in the head. The ball only grazed his skull.

He fell heavily to the floor. Mrs. Grinder heard him exclaim, “O Lord!”

Lewis rose, took up his other pistol, and shot himself in his breast. The ball entered and passed downward through his body, to emerge low down on his backbone.

He survived the second shot, staggered to the door of his room, and called out, “O madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds.”

Lewis staggered outside, fell, crawled for some distance, raised himself by the side of a tree, then staggered back to his room. He scraped the bucket with a gourd for water, but the bucket was empty. He collapsed on his robes.

At first light, the terrified Mrs. Grinder sent her children to fetch the servants. When they got to Lewis’s room, they found him “busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot” with his razor.

Lewis saw Pernier and said to him, “I have done the business my good Servant give me some water.” Pernier did.

Lewis uncovered his side and showed them the second wound. He said, “I am no coward; but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die.” He said he had tried to kill himself to deprive his enemies of the pleasure and honor of doing it.

He begged the servants to take his rifle and blow out his brains, telling them not to be afraid, for he would not hurt them, and they could have all the money from his trunk.

Shortly after sunrise, his great heart stopped beating.

– Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, 463-465

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