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Scientist Hopes Lewis’ Remains Will Offer Clues

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If the federal government gives living relatives of Meriwether Lewis permission to exhume the famed explorer's remains, there's a chance there would be nothing there worth studying, a forensic anthropologist from Middle Tennessee State University said Wednesday.

But there is also a chance that studying Lewis' remains could reveal his true cause of death, solving a mystery that has lingered for two centuries, said Dr. Hugh Berryman, director of the Forensic Institute for Research and Education at MTSU.

Lewis, co-leader of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th century, died of gunshot wounds in October 1809, at a small inn near present-day Hohenwald, Tenn. Some historians believe he killed himself; others have argued he was murdered.

Since the mid-1990s, members of Lewis' family have sought federal permission to have the explorer's remains exhumed from a national park on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Lewis County, in hopes that modern forensic science could put the debate to rest.

Family members and those who would be involved in the exhumation discussed the effort Wednesday at a news conference in Washington.

"If we are allowed to proceed with an exhumation, we may discover that we can't conclude anything because of the poor condition of the bones," Berryman said at the news conference. Berryman, a research professor at MTSU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, would lead the scientific team that would dig up and study the remains.

"Or, hopefully, the bones may be in good enough shape that we can determine whether the gunshot 'trauma' to the bones is consistent with murder or suicide," he said. "Given the fact that the monument and an added layer of soil have helped protect Governor Lewis' body, the bones may be well-preserved."

The National Park Service has blocked past efforts. At a Washington news conference, family members and representatives said they hope a new president and new leadership in the parks department could lead to a new stance on the exhumation.

Family members have renewed the push this year, launching a Web site and making a new request to the federal government.

The Park Service has said it will consider the family's most recent request, made this year. In a news release, the family said a decision on the exhumation permit could be reached by the end of the year.

If the federal government grants permission, the exhumation could be completed in a day, and the scientific study of the remains would take a week, Berryman said. Family members have said they want Lewis' remains reburied at the park in Lewis County, about 60 miles from Nashville, once the study is complete.

"The family's goal in this effort is not to prove one theory or another. Our goal is not self-promotion or glory. Our goal is to solve the 200-year-old mystery surrounding the death of Uncle Meriwether," said Thomas C. McSwain Jr., a relative of Lewis who lives in West Virginia.

"Plenty of historians and authors have hypothesized about what caused his death," McSwain said. "But nothing can be proven unless Uncle Meriwether's remains are exhumed."

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