HOHENWALD, Tenn., June 3 -- A coroner's inquest began Monday in a small Tennessee town that could help determine how famed Louisiana Purchase explorer Meriwether Lewis died in 1809. The inquest at the National Guard Armory in Hohenwald, Tenn., is being held near the site of the Tennessee family inn, Grinder's Stand, where Lewis died, and not far from the national monument where the former Virginian is buried. Historians are at odds on whether Lewis' fatal gunshot wounds and cuts were self-inflicted or administered by bandits or a traveling companion. Stephen Ambrose, author of a recently published book on Lewis, believes there's no doubt Lewis took his own life, even though Americans may find it difficult to believe that of a national hero. But George Washington University law professor James Starrs, the man who recently exhumed Jesse James' remains to confirm it was the outlaw who lay in his grave, has lobbied to have Lewis' body re-examined. 'Pathologists laugh through their teeth when they hear the supposed explanation,' Starrs told The Washington Post about Mrs. Grinder's account of Lewis shooting himself twice -- once in the head, exposing his brain -- only to be found by a maid hours later slashing himself with a razor before he died. The inquest was called by Lewis County, Tenn., coroner Richard Tate at the urging of Starrs and district attorney Joseph D. Baugh, who oversees the four-county area where the man who led the 1804-06 expedition to the Pacific Northwest is buried.
Tate and seven fellow jurors, along with two alternates, will hear testimony from 14 scheduled witnesses -- all historians or forensic experts -- outlining theories of how Lewis died, how his body would be exhumed and what tests would be conducted if anthropologists were allowed to study the remains. They were expected to begin deliberations sometime Tuesday afternoon. What happens after that remains in doubt. 'A coroner's jury rules on the identity of the deceased as well as the cause and manner of death,' said Tennessee District Attorney General Paul Phillips. The jury could rule the evidence is conclusive that it indeed is Lewis who is buried at the monument and the manner of death was suicide, or they could decide questions remain about the cause of death and recommend further investigation, said Phillips. Dr. William Bass, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville forensic anthropologist who was one of two people to examine remains in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, was expected to be the last witness called at the inquest. He also would be the one to examine the bones and determine the cause of death if Lewis' remains are excavated, Bass said. Among the evidence to be studied would be the angle of wounds evident on the remains to determine if they could have been self-inflicted. The coroner's inquest likely will be just one step in the hoped-for process of scientifically determining how Lewis died. According to Bass, the National Park Service, which manages the Lewis grave, would have to make the final decision on an exhumation request. Park Service policy prohibits disturbing burial sites unless they are threatened by development or natural disaster.