It’s December 1913 and Ambrose Bierce is writing home to his family from Mexico. Signing off his letter, he mysteriously closes, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” And with that he disappeared into the smoke of the Mexican Revolution, never to be seen again.
Over the years Bierce had gone from literary darling to a cantankerous old man. To some, looking back, it appeared that the writer had grown tired of life and all that it contained. But it was then that he decided to embark on one last great adventure, riding his horse into the carnage of war-torn Mexico.
Just a few months after arriving in Mexico, Bierce vanished into the turmoil of the revolution, sparking one of the greatest mysteries in literary history. More than 100 years after his disappearance, it’s still not known for certain what became of the Civil War hero and writer. Yet there are a number of wild theories to explain what may have become of him.
Bierce came into the world in Meigs County, Ohio, in 1842. He was one of no fewer than13 children, all of whom were given names beginning with “A” by their father, Marcus. While the family was poor, the parents were well-read, and their love of literature rubbed off on their tenth child, Bierce.
At the age of 15, Bierce left home to pursue a career in the media, working as a printing apprentice for the Northern Indianan – a minor abolitionist newspaper. The job involved menial tasks such as preparing ink and retrieving blocks so they could be arranged into type. But this was exactly how many prominent writers of the time – including Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman – got their first foot in the door.
But history would intervene to put Bierce’s writing career on the backburner. In April 1861 following the Battle of Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to come forward and defend the Union. Responding to the plea, a few days later Bierce enlisted and would go on to serve in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.
Bierce’s experience in the Civil War would prove to be a bloody one. He was involved in military action from the start of the conflict, participating in the first battle of the war at Philippi in June 1861 and the Battle of Rich Mountain just over a month later. His actions at the latter clash saw Bierce recognized by a newspaper after he heroically rescued a wounded comrade while under fire.
Bierce was soon promoted to the position of sergeant major. He would go on to face a number of further battles, including the clash at Shiloh in April 1862. The confrontation left a great impression on the would-be writer, informing many of his later short stories, as well as his memoir, What I Saw of Shiloh.
Shot in the head at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, Bierce was fortunate that the wound proved non-fatal. In fact, he would continue to serve in the Civil War until January 1865, when he was given a medical discharge. Bierce was later awarded a merit promotion, making him a major in 1867.
Following his service in the Civil War, Bierce set up home in San Francisco, at a time when written culture in the city was flourishing. Here, the wannabe writer began contributing to periodicals and later became an editor at the News Letter in 1868. Before long, he was a leading figure in the West Coast literary scene.
In 1871 Bierce released his first novella, The Haunted Valley. Later that year he married Mary Day, and the couple moved to England where they lived between 1872 and 1875. Here Bierce continued work as a writer, contributing to British publications and releasing three of his own books.
After returning to the States, Bierce worked at the San Francisco Argonaut newspaper as an associate editor from 1877 for two or three years. Following an unfruitful foray into prospecting in stream beds – a technique known as placer mining – the writer became the editor of a magazine, the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp. After five years in that position, he joined the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, where he was known for his “Prattler” column.
His trademark wit and sarcasm made Bierce a celebrity journalist of his time. While at the San Francisco Examiner he used his influence to thwart a contentious piece of prospective legislation. The proposed bill would have enabled two Californian railroad firms to duck paying back billions of dollars-worth of federal loans. He is also credited with forecasting – and some claimed even lobbying for – the assassination of President William McKinley.
Alongside his newspaper career, Bierce became a successful author of fiction. Some of his most famous works drew on his experiences during the Civil War. These included his short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. There was also the satirical social commentary Devil’s Dictionary, which earned the sardonic writer the nickname “Bitter Bierce.”
While the Civil War was a recurring theme in his work, Bierce was an esteemed writer of psychological horror. In fact, he has been cited as a pioneer of the genre. Among his dark and spooky tales is The Death of Halpin Frayser, a Gothic ghost tale, which has been described as a forerunner of zombie fiction.
Recurring themes of terror and mortality in Bierce’s stories were a reflection of the writer’s own lifelong fascination with the morbid subjects. At 16, the writer had apparently dreamed about the death of God and mankind generally, while witnessing his own decaying cadaver. In later life, he also made clear he felt the decision to take one’s own life could often be rationally justified.
To say that Bierce was a character is perhaps putting it mildly. In the San Francisco Bay area, the writer was known for his irascible nature and his skills in shooting a .44-caliber pistol. Publisher James Robertson became fascinated with Bierce while compiling a book of his work. In 1991 he told the Los Angeles Times newspaper, “He was very easily offended. Apparently, he had one of the world’s shorter fuses.”
During the final documented years of Bierce’s life, things became increasingly fraught for the writer. He split from his wife in 1888 after reportedly finding love letters she’d received. They subsequently divorced in 1904, and she died a year later. The writer also lost his two sons, one to suicide and the other to pneumonia and cut ties with many of his friends.
Before he disappeared, Bierce had been living in Washington, D.C. But come 1913 and at the age of 71, the writer embarked on a tour of battlefields he’d visited in the Civil War. By that point, it’s said Bierce was a grumpy old man, with a drinking habit and a sharp tongue. So when he made the unusual decision to embark on one last, fateful adventure, it’s probable no-one could have talked him out of it, even if they had been minded to try.
Bierce was determined that he would head south, crossing the border into Mexico. And so, he jumped on his horse in El Paso, Texas, and rode across the Rio Grande into a country in the grip of a revolution. Led by guerrilla leader Pancho Villa, the rebellion started with the toppling of a dictatorship and later descended into civil war.
After arriving in Mexico, it’s been suggested that Bierce joined the revolutionary army and went on to witness the Battle of Tierra Blanca. Whether the writer was a mere observer or joined the fight himself is up for debate. What is generally accepted is that he was headed south in the hopes of tracking Villa down.
Bierce is thought to have made it to Chihuahua City on the trail of Villa. It was from here that he wrote an ominous final letter to his friend Blanche Partington, which read, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” Soon after that, the writer vanished without so much as a trace.
It’s not clear what exactly happened to Bierce, and although an inquiry was launched, the trail went cold. Some of Villa’s men were reportedly questioned, but nothing concrete was gleaned. It’s likely that the search was not aided by conditions in Mexico at the time, or the onset of World War I soon after.
Today, the unsolved mystery of Bierce’s disappearance has endured in the public imagination – arguably more so than much of the writer’s creative output. With very few clues as to what happened to the missing journalist, wild theories abound. Some believe Bierce had a fatal encounter with Villa himself, while others think he wrote the last chapter of his life all by himself.
Don Swaim runs a website dedicated to Bierce and also wrote The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story. In August 2019 speaking of the writer’s disappearance, Swain told website HowStuffWorks, “It’s one of the great literary mysteries in America. My view is that it will remain a tantalizing mystery.”
The most widely accepted explanation of Bierce’s disappearance is that he became fatally embroiled in the events of the Mexican Civil War. If he did indeed find Villa, some believe the revolutionary leader may not have appreciated the writer’s company. After all, the author was known for being somewhat abrasive.
A theory explored by dentist Adolph DeCastro, a former acquaintance of Bierce, suggests that Villa ordered the writer’s execution. He apparently did so after Bierce claimed he was breaking ranks with the revolutionary to follow another dissident leader, Venutiano Carranza.
DeCastro came to this conclusion after bringing the subject of Bierce up during a dinner with Villa and his men. Apparently, the leader claimed that the writer had drunkenly criticized him and most of the leading figures in his army. If this version of events is correct, he clearly rubbed the revolutionary up the wrong way.
In his biography on Bierce, DeCastro claimed that he posed as an enemy of the writer. He apparently told Villa, “It would have given me pleasure to put a bullet in the heart of an American who was serving with your forces, my general…” When the revolutionary learned to whom the dentist was referring, he supposedly said, “I knew him. He will not bother you and your woman any more. He has passed.”
DeCastro’s account is plausible, yet there is still some room for doubt over his version of events. Indeed, Robertson noted that the dentist seemed eager to boost his own reputation in his biography of Bierce. And what’s more, there’s some evidence to suggest DeCastro was once arrested for pretending to be a physician.
If Bierce didn’t meet a bitter end at the hands of Villa and his cronies, there’s a chance he may have been intercepted by opposing forces. Another theory posits that he could have been seized by Victoriano Huerta’s fighters. American soldier Tex O’Reilly suggested Bierce was murdered by Mexican federalists in a bar at a mining camp before he even got to Villa.
Whatever happened to Bierce, it’s fair to say that the writer found himself in a pretty dangerous place when he traveled across the border. As Swaim told HowStuffWorks, “He did go to Mexico at the height of the revolution. If you’re familiar with that period of time, then you know that they took no prisoners.”
And it seems that Bierce was all too aware of the dangers he faced. In a final letter to a relative, he wrote, “Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”
But despite writing about his experiences in Mexico in letters home, there’s some debate as to whether Bierce even made it to the country. That’s because it’s also been claimed that the writer ultimately took his own life, possibly at the Grand Canyon. Advocates of this theory believe that he had a letter sent from Mexico to throw people off the scent.
As we’ve already mentioned, over the years Bierce had made no secret of the fact that he didn’t shy away from the notion of suicide. Indeed, his tour of Civil War battlegrounds could be taken as a trip down memory lane by a man considering taking his own life. What’s more, his final years had been marred by family tragedy, and he once suggested that he’d earned less than $100 from his works of fiction.
There’s also a chance that advancing years and ill health simply caught up with Bierce. In 2002 journalist Jake Silverstein looked into a letter which claimed that the writer had been laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Texas. The man behind the note then told Silverstein about an interaction he’d had with a hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker told the man he’d been part of the Mexican federal forces during his teenage years. And he recalled picking up a sick old gringo going by the name “Ambrosia,” who told him he was a writer, with one book with a title mentioning “devil.” Unfortunately, this Ambrosia had passed away from pneumonia while making his way back to his American home in January 1914 and had been buried in Marfa, Texas.
The truth is, no one really knows what happened to the ageing author. But according to historian Page Smith, his disappearance forms part of the legend. In her preface to Bierce’s One of the Missing: Tales of the War Between the States she wrote, “In any event, he sealed his earthly fame by the manner in which he departed the planet. He became more famous in death than he had been in life and cast about his name a splendid cloak of mystery that will ever allure.”
Whatever became of Bierce, his legacy is undeniable. What’s more, it extends beyond the legion of internet sleuths that have made it their mission to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. While his work may not be as well-known as that of some of his 19th-century contemporaries it has still had a cultural impact.
For instance, Bierce has been cited as an inspiration by many, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut and journalist H.L. Mencken. Furthermore, his work has no doubt influenced both the horror and war genres of storytelling. So while he may be better-known for the mystery of his final days, there’s more to Bierce’s legacy than his disappearance alone.