The Poop on Lewis and Clark

Meriwether Lewis The Poop on Lewis and Clark

Meriwether Lewis Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1810

My eighth grader’s history textbook allocates half a page to Lewis and Clark. It explains in painfully dull detail how in 1803 President Jefferson sent the expedition to explore the new territory he’d just bought from the French (hello, how about mentioning Napoleon?). Lewis and Clark, the book drones on, were sent to find a route across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and to collect information on people, plants, animals and geography.

So I thought today I’d touch upon some of the details of the expedition that kids might actually find interesting. For instance, the members of the expedition were practically driven insane by bugs, and they nearly died of starvation, and Lewis got shot in the butt and chased by a grizzly bear. And they were guided through the wilderness by a sixteen-year-old pregnant Indian girl who oh by the way stopped to give birth, painfully (they treated her with rattlesnake venom) and then proceeded to carry her infant on her back the rest of the way. Oh yes and pretty much everyone in the party had malaria and dysentery from time to time, and most had syphilis. But arguably the worst part of this arduous journey was the mosquitoes, followed closely by the gnats and ticks.

One other awful yet interesting detail you don’t generally read about in the textbooks: Upon his return, Lewis took his own life by slashing himself all over with a razor blade.*

512px William Clark Charles Willson Peale 193x250 The Poop on Lewis and Clark

William Clark Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1810

Meriwether Lewis was a part-time botanist and doctor. William Clark was the mapmaker and boat guy. At the time they set out, no one of European descent had any idea what lay between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. In fact, most Americans lived within fifty miles of the East Coast.

According to “The Perils of Plant Collecting” by A. M. Martin, Lewis spent 1/3 of his budget on cinchona (from which quinine is derived), mosquito nets, and hog’s lard (with which they had to smear their skin to keep away mosquitoes).  Mosquitoes were so thick, people had to eat their food in the smoke of the campfire, and still they managed to swallow dozens of mosquitoes with their food. No wonder they carried 120 gallons of whiskey along. (Says Martin, “Lewis’s motto was ‘Don’t run out of booze until there’s no turning back.’”)

Given that their diet consisted largely of dried strips of wild animal meat, they also popped pills for constipation. They called the pills “thunderclappers.”  Their real name was “Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills.” (Benjamin Rush was a famous doctor at the time of the American Revolution, and signed the Declaration of Independence.) Thunderclappers were high-octane laxatives, made of 60 percent mercury. Even back then, people knew that mercury was terrible for you, and one pill contained enough mercury to kill a person. But the pill passed through a person’s system so quickly, it probably didn’t have much opportunity to be absorbed. Because mercury doesn’t break down, modern scientists have been able to trace the path of Lewis and Clark’s expedition by the amounts of mercury still found in the soil—evidence of where members of the expedition stopped to go to the bathroom. Talk about toxic waste.

Lewis and Clark Expo Map The Poop on Lewis and Clark

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* source: Howard I. Kushner, The Suicide of Meriwether Lewis: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 38, No. 3, Jul., 1981, Page 469 of 464-481

 

 

15 Comments

  1. Annie

    Bears, dysentery, and rattlesnake venom to treat childbirth? I need to stop complaining when I forget to bring along my ipod in the car.

    Seriously though, excellent historical information! My knowledge of Lewis and Clark had been pretty much limited to names and general dates, so it was wonderful to read this.

    Reply
  2. Linda

    I love reading your blog, Sarah–the way you always get down to the nitty-gritty-and-not-so-pretty-of-things– actually a refreshing and quite entertaining perspective. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Wow, thanks, Paul. I did a fair amount of research on syphilis for my POOP book. (Codpieces, it is conjectured, were sometimes filled with mercury-based unguents meant to ease the pain in the nether regions–had to leave that out of my kid book.) It’s a pretty horrifying disease. Did men’s noses really fall off?

      Reply
      • Paul

        The classic “nose falling off” infectious disease, of course, is leprosy. (Another fun one.) But there is “saddle-nose deformity” in kids with congenital syphilis.

        And speaking of destroyed noses and infectious diseases, there’s this beauty, mucocutaneous leishmaniasis (warning, click only if you’re strong of heart):

        http://tinyurl.com/7n9gryp

        Reply
        • Sarah

          Blech! I have a box about sand flies and leishmaniasis in my insect book (as yet to be published). Is it really the most common parasitic infection after malaria?

          Reply
          • Paul

            Without doing any research at all — just lazy — I’d say that malaria, leishmaniasis, etc are FAR from the most common parasitic infections.

            Here are some candidates:

            pinworm
            giardia
            hookworm
            ascaris
            botworm

            (I made that last one up.)

  3. Sarah

    Paul–I’m getting my editor’s comments on my insect book this week. Would love to interview you before the next draft is due!

    Reply
  4. Nick

    Nice article! The circumstances of Lewis’ death still seem to be uncertain today. Some say murder and some say suicide. Your source is the first one I’ve seen talking about razor blades. All others mention gunshots from his room.

    Reply
  5. Betty

    Up to the 1950s (or even later) laxatives, purges etc were used freely in the home. Medical advice books talk about “cleaning the system” etc. Up to this time children often had to endure weekly “dosing” of “opening medicine”. Calomel, mercurous chloride was a favorite because it was tasteless and fast acting. Unfortunately, it often contained mercuric chloride which is a poison, especially for the brain.

    Probably not relevant to your children’s books is the 19 century custom of forcing children to open their bowels at a set time everyday. Children who could perform on time were “well behaved” and clearly well reared by good parents. Children who could not perform on time were ill, or lazy, or naughty. No matter, they were dosed.

    Betty

    Reply

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