|Photo via Discovering Lewis and Clark|
Monday, October 7, 2013
Meriwether Lewis and a Forensic Mystery
The Masonic Grand Lodge in Helena owns one of Montana’s most mysterious and intriguing treasures. Meriwether Lewis’s Masonic apron is not only a historically significant artifact, it is also a beautiful piece of artful handiwork. Hand-painted symbols and emblems significant to Masonry embellish the hand-sewn silk apron. In times past, members wore their aprons to reveal Masonic affiliation while traveling in dangerous situations. Meriwether Lewis certainly followed this practice on the expedition, and was the first Mason to travel in Montana. Lewis was traveling along the dangerous Natchez Trace in Tennessee when he died of gunshot wounds under mysterious circumstances in 1809. Whether he committed suicide or was murdered remains in question. Family members believed that the apron was in his breast pocket when he died.
The apron passed through several generations until 1924 when the Masons of Missouri purchased it from the widow of a distant Lewis relative. In 1960, Montana’s retiring Grand Master, Joseph Hopper of Billings, bought the apron for five hundred dollars and gave it to the Grand Lodge Museum in Helena. Several dark rust-colored stains mar the front. Samples of the stains tested at the University of Oregon revealed both deer and human blood, but only a sample of Lewis’s DNA could determine if the human blood on the apron belonged to Lewis. How Lewis died is still debated, but during refurbishing of his tomb in 1928, an examination of his skull revealed a bullet hole in the back, unlikely evidence of suicide. A Tennessee coroner’s jury in 1996 agreed evidence warranted exhumation of Lewis’s remains. This would also open the door for further testing of the apron’s human blood for DNA. But the National Park Service, caretaker of Lewis’s grave and monument, has denied the request.