Writer and critic Ambrose Bierce was an enigmatic man. On the surface, he was highly educated and had an incredible command of the English language. He was a master storyteller; his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has since been adapted time and time again for both film and TV. Bierce was also a bit morbid, and by most accounts, obsessed with the concept of death.
When he vanished in 1914, never to be seen again, it made his life and legacy all the more mysterious.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842. In his early years, Bierce was an abolitionist who wrote for an antislavery newspaper in Indiana. At the age of 17, he enrolled in the Kentucky Military Institute but did not complete his studies. His lack of schooling tortured him, and he was determined to compensate by educating himself through any means necessary.
He enlisted in the Union army three times during the Civil War, and fought in numerous battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Along the way, he rose to officer status. Even those adventures could not quench Bierce’s thirst for the unknown: after joining a military expedition that fought all the way to the Pacific Ocean, Bierce landed in San Francisco and stayed there. The people with whom he spent the most time were criminals and prostitutes.
By this time, Bierce had grown into a tall, handsome man with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and a thick mustache. Women were immediately attracted to him. Despite his good looks, Bierce had atypical tastes: by his own account, he’d had his first mistress –a 70-year-old woman –at the age of 15.
Bierce eventually married and had three children. As his reputation as a writer grew in San Francisco, he developed a large following of loyal supporters. His fiction was riddled with tales of death and the supernatural, and his fascination with the unsettling aspects of life heavily influenced his fans. Two fellow writers who admired Bierce met particularly violent ends. Author George Serling committed suicide, and writer Herman Scheffauer killed his wife and then himself. That Serling and Scheffauer idolized Bierce was well known, and it did nothing but add to Bierce’s dark allure.
His attraction to death made him superstitious. After the death of his wife Mollie, and his two sons, Day and Leigh, Bierce forbade the placement of tombstones on their graves.
After joining the news empire of William Randolph Hearst, Bierce’s work appeared in the New York Journal, the New York American, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Cosmopolitan. He became a household name for his frightening, macabre stories. He was captivated by disappearances, and once jokingly mentioned the possibility of his own disappearance.
In January 1914, he left for Mexico. He would never return.
The year prior, Bierce had decided to tour the old battlefields of the Civil War, and travel to Mexico and South America. This, he felt, would be his final excursion before death took him. In letters that he wrote leading up to the trip, Bierce had virtually scripted his own demise. He would go through Mexico to one of the Pacific ports, and then sail to South America. From there, he would travel across the Andes Mountains, and perhaps across the continent.
Bierce stated that because he would be visiting these “strange countries in which things happen,” he did not expect to return. At the time, Mexico was in chaos because of the revolution, and Bierce was concerned that he would be shot by one of Pancho Villa’s men. He even referred to his trip as Jornada de Muerte (a journey of death).
On October 2, 1913, Bierce left his home to see the battlefields, traveling to New Orleans and then to Texas. From El Paso, he crossed the border into Juarez. Amazingly, Bierce did encounter Pancho Villa, who had recently liberated the area from Victoriano Huerta. Villa issued credentials to Bierce which allowed him to travel with Villa’s army. Despite having frequent asthma attacks, Bierce rode alongside the men on horseback. On December 26, 1913, he wrote a letter to his friend Blanche Partington from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination,” he wrote in the closing lines.
That was the last anyone heard from Ambrose Bierce.
Theories surrounding his disappearance began to circulate. One popular theory suggests that Bierce was killed during the siege of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914—word of his death may have been reported in Mexican army dispatches under the name “A. Pierce.” Another theory has Bierce arguing with Pancho Villa and potentially threatening to assist the enemy, after which Villa ordered his personal executioner, Rudolfo Fierro, to kill Bierce. A third explanation states that Bierce was trying to run machine guns to the enemy, and was subsequently killed by Villa’s right-hand man, General Tomás Urbina. And, finally, some say that Bierce simply collapsed under the strain of battle, and died of exposure in the Mexican dust.
None of the claims could be validated. After years passed without any real closure, wilder accounts of Bierce’s vanishing and death started springing up.
One El Paso citizen claimed that Bierce was either poisoned or had poisoned himself, and was buried in a random backyard. Friends of Bierce’s in Washington insisted that he had gone to the highest ledge of the Grand Canyon to blow his brains out. The most incredible theory was that Bierce had wandered away from Villa’s army, becoming lost in southern Mexico. He was then supposedly captured by natives, who boiled him alive, shrunk his remains, put them in a bottle, and worshipped it.
To this day, there has never been a real explanation for the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce. His death pays the perfect homage to his shadowy existence; one can imagine he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons