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Omaha Magazine

Meriwether Lewis Suicide or Assassination

Oct 01, 2018 10:02AM ● By Doug Meigs
Kira Gale upset the historical establishment when she argued that the death of Meriwether Lewis was the result of assassination, not suicide. 

Research into the explorers Lewis and (William) Clark consumed her life, up until the very end. She died in Omaha on May 13 at age 76. On her deathbed, she finished the final page of her last book. 

Gale, 76, had written and self-published four books related to the early American explorers on her River Junction Press. She advocated an assassination theory in Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation (co-authored with James E. Starrs), published in 2009 and reissued in 2012 with new evidence.

Her faith in the conspiracy was rooted in research. Gale studied coroner reports, exhumation findings, and private letters. She was drawn to the story of Lewis—and his suspicious death—and she devoted years to pursuing the elusive truth.

The Conspiracy Theory

Lewis was a dashing Virginian who displayed gifts as an outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader. He served with the Virginia Militia, then joined the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of captain in 1800. During his military service, he met Clark—one of his commanding officers. 

The ambitious Lewis was eventually appointed as an aide by then-President Thomas Jefferson. As the United States nearly doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson commissioned an expedition to the nation’s new holdings and western reaches. He turned to Lewis to lead the 1804-1806 trek. Lewis then named Clark his second in command.

Lewis was 29 years old when he took command of this epic journey, and he would be dead less than three years after its completion. The circumstances of his death were still in dispute more than 200 years later when Gale—a self-taught historian who never finished college (she was one year shy of an English degree)—threw herself in the middle of the debate.

The basic facts of this still-unsolved mystery are that he died of two gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, in the Grinder’s Stand tavern on the Natchez Trace (a historic trail) near Hohenwald, Tennessee. The area was known to be a hazardous way-stop where robbers preyed on unsuspecting travelers. Conversely, there were reports that Lewis was under great strain and in serious debt. 

The mainstream consensus among historians is that he attempted to take his own life en route to his final destination.  Or was it a botched robbery and murder? Or maybe there was a darker plot? 

Lewis was buried on the property of the tavern, and his death was never investigated by law enforcement authorities. Roughly 40 years after the explorer’s death, the Tennessee State Commission authorized a gravesite monument in Lewis’ honor and exhumed his remains. The long-delayed medical examination was the only one that his corpse received. The commission’s final report concluded, “It seems to be more probable that he died at the hands of an assassin.”

In the 1990s, descendants of the explorer petitioned the government to exhume his body again from the national monument site now covering the property of Grinder’s Stand. The Department of Interior granted approval for opening his grave in 2008. But after an administrative change, the federal government reversed course and ruled against any future disruption of Lewis’ remains. 

Wading into Controversy

After examining the available records, Gale eventually rejected robbery/murder or suicide as possible causes of death. Although Lewis had a history of previous suicide attempts, was prone to depression, and—before embarking on his final trip through Tennessee—granted friends permission to distribute his property in the event of his death, Gale argued that Lewis was killed on the orders of General James Wilkinson. 

The motive? Greed.

She wrote: “I propose the motive for Lewis’ assassination was to prevent him 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. Wilkinson had been the first governor of Upper Louisiana in 1805-06. Lewis was bringing lead mine records to Washington. After his death, his papers were inventoried and bundled and entrusted to the care of Thomas Freeman, a Wilkinson associate. They arrived in Washington in total disorder.”

Gale assembled historical accounts and contemporary expert opinions that called into question the character of Wilkinson and Smith. The documents, she believed, pointed to foul play, forgery, and conspiracy.

“Wilkinson had a history of assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, people who were his rivals and possessed incriminating information that could jeopardize his career,” Gale wrote. “[Lewis] deserves to be remembered for his many accomplishments and for his true character. He was truly a man of ‘courage undaunted,’ as Thomas Jefferson described him. I admire him very much, and consider my time well spent in researching and writing about his life and death. He is one of the great American heroes.”

She went on C-SPAN and the History Channel asserting what to some was heresy. Nevertheless, she stuck to her guns in the face of skeptics, insisting that she had exposed Wilkinson—the man with the means and the motive to eliminate Lewis.

“She was pooh-poohed a lot in the Lewis and Clark world because of her, at the time, radical approach to Lewis’ death,” says friend and fellow Lewis and Clark “nerd” Shirley Enos.

Enos admired her tenaciousness: “She just never quit. She said, ‘To my dying day I will not believe this man committed suicide.’ She never gave up on it.”

“That was part of her basic character—very much so,” says Henry Gale, her husband of 58 years. “When she grabbed onto something, she didn’t let go. That applied to everything.” 

Together, they twice made cross-country drives in their Saturn sedan to trace Lewis and Clark’s expedition via highways. The result was Lewis and Clark Road Trips: Exploring the Trail Across America (published in 2006), featuring hundreds of handmade maps and tidbits about travel destinations.

Granddaughter Christy Jobman recalls the book as an effort involving the whole family: “My grandmother [Gale] employed my mom [Beth Jobman] to help her with the maps. She’d bring my preschool-aged sister and me over as they grappled with Adobe Illustrator. The knowledge of these two explorers is basically embedded into my DNA.”

An Unconventional Life

Henry and Kira Gale met as students at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in Chicago. He was from the western suburbs; she was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park. She was an informal student of liberal arts. He was fresh from the U.S. Army. 

She had graduated high school early, the only child of a social worker mother and union executive father (who was also the town historian of Rochester, New York). The couple married in 1960 and soon moved from Chicago to Omaha, where Henry taught physiology at Creighton University School of Medicine.

They relocated with daughter, Beth, and son, Bill, in tow. In middle school, Beth acquired her mother’s old bicycle (which Gale had lugged across Chicago, balancing two babies plus groceries on trips to and from the store). Growing up, Bill remembers their Omaha home featured “a pinball machine in the dining room, sculptures, film gear, and people over all the time discussing avant-garde, leading-edge stuff.” She essentially turned the family living room into a production studio and theater.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Kira and Henry Gale were Vietnam War draft counselors for conscientious objectors. She became an experimental filmmaker and produced far-out light and film shows for rock bands. She organized film series. She taught filmmaking in Omaha Public Schools as a Nebraska Arts Council visiting artist. She studied under noted sculptor Lee Lubbers and was a board member of his international SCOLA satellite education network. 

She became an Old Market counter-culture fixture. All the while, she kept an abundant garden and prepared amazing home-cooked meals for the family. 

In the ’80s, she photographed Mari Sandoz’s Sandhills homestead, and the images toured the state as a Nebraska Humanities exhibition. Enamored with iconic Nebraska authors, Gale also organized the first Nebraska Book Festival in 1991 (now in its 25th year after missing a few years over the decades).

Gale’s daughter, Beth, says her mother always had a new project in the works. “She was a museum-quality painter, and she was developing apps to go with books before I’d ever heard of an application for a smartphone,” Beth says, adding that her own six children benefited from their grandmother’s eclecticism.

“For years she took them on outings every Saturday,” Beth says. “They would go to powwows, museums, libraries, bookstores, parks. She loved cooking for them at her house.”

On top of her dedication to family and personal writing projects, Gale was an entrepreneur and cheerleader for fellow creatives. She published several other local writers, including The Erotica Book Club for Nice Ladies (fiction by Connie Spittler), Kids Around the Globe (a children’s series by Mary Duda), as well as the updated edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (by Leo Adam Biga, reissued in 2013). 

But the Lewis assassination theory—and the documents supporting it—is what most drove her.

Undaunted Courage

“She’d get so excited about some new twist she discovered in her proof,” Enos recalls. “She would call me about it, and I would question what she was saying. It helped her clear her thinking.”

Enos was happy to help. “She always had something you could do,” she says. “That got to be a joke among our mutual friends. But it was such an affectionate thing. That was just Kira.”

Gale could be blunt when speaking her mind. She could monopolize a conversation when sharing her enthusiasms. But she could also be sweet, generous, and encouraging.

“She was never a person who sat still. She was always finding something new,” her husband, Henry, says. “Even when she got interested in history and looked backward in time, she found new things in old things.”

Cancer came as a surprise to the whole family. Her daughter was visiting from Texas in March, and she saw her mother busy as ever. Then, over the phone, Gale said she wasn’t feeling well—something about her liver. Beth came back to Omaha again in April when her mother was going to the hospital. She went in and checked herself out after a day, but was readmitted the following day. 

Then the doctors ran tests. The diagnosis: terminal colon cancer. It had spread to her liver, too. 

“My mother was extremely optimistic in her outlook in life, even when undergoing tests at Methodist Hospital,” Bill says. “There was a day in the hospital when a look crossed her face—a realization that she wasn’t going to beat this. It took about 30 seconds for her to process this, and then she started with, ‘OK, I’ve got this, this, and this I need to accomplish.’ She didn’t wallow in any pity for herself. She didn’t bemoan her situation.”

The doctors gave her two weeks. “The doctor said it was past the point of treatment,” Beth recalls.

Over the phone, she broke the news of her illness to friends and associates while still at Methodist Hospital. Her calls went something like: “I’m dying…I’m in the hospital…many things to do… important business to take care of.”

She went into hospice after about four weeks. “At hospice, every day she was losing a little bit more of herself,” Bill says. “She requested, ‘Set me in the chair and give me my computer’ to write the final portion of her book. She had very little strength left. It was sheer will. She typed every period, she crossed every ‘t,’ she dotted every ‘i.’ I had never seen anything like that in my life. When she got done with it, she said, ‘Do not change a word of this, do not change the margins, this is the way it goes out.’ She basically gave it everything she had. It was absolutely incredible the concentration she put together to achieve it.”

In hospice, visitors were limited not for medical reasons, but because her workdays were limited. And she had a book to finish. Although diminished by the late stages of cancer, Henry saw his wife’s determination in classic form: “She had a goal in mind—she wanted to finish the book and she did, which was just like her.”

After a week in hospice, she closed her eyes for the last time.

One Last Book

Before dying, Gale requested her friend Paul Ehrenberger—who she had mentored over five decades as he experimented with rock music and filmmaking before finding his calling as a social justice minister—to organize and preside over a June 10 memorial service at River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs.

Along the Missouri River was a fitting location for the celebration of her life. After all, it was the route for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the explorers had met with local tribes in the bluffs nearby.

She specified two songs be played at the service: the gospel hymn “It’s a Highway to Heaven” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’” At the service, the music played; family and friends shared their fond memories. 

Beth says the family hopes to publish Gale’s final book (completed in hospice), Fifty Documents Related to the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis. 

“I think she’s up in heaven wanting the truth to be known about Lewis’ assassination, and she would like some closure on that,” Beth says. “Her mission was bigger than her book and herself. It’s not just about her. Whoever brings the truth to light, she would be happy that it is known.” 

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This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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