Fancy a real-life mystery from the literary world?
As I fine-tune my latest novel, a ghost story told by Edgar Allan Poe, I am compelled to take a closer look at Poe’s mysterious death (October 7, 1849). I’ll let you know more about that when the book is finished. (If, in the meantime, you want to brush up on your Edgar, read my post from earlier this year, You Don’t Know Poe.)
Edgar’s demise reminds me of another American writer who had a unexplainable end: Ambrose Bierce.
In case you haven’t cracked open that American literature anthology in a while, I’ll refresh your memory.
Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?) was a Civil War soldier, journalist, and fiction writer with a colorful and scandalous reputation. Most of us encounter his famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in high school. Like the Owl Creek tale, much of his work is dark and influenced by his wartime experiences.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is about an Alabama planter (and Confederate sympathizer) who stands upon said bridge with his neck in a noose. Armed Union executioners attend him before an audience of soldiers, who stand on the bank of the creek to witness the hanging.
(I saw a stage adaption of this story while on a high-school field trip to the theater at George Mason University. It must have been the Halloween season because all the performances depicted the grislier tales of American literature, including Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I remember the actors shaking long strips of blue fabric to represent the Owl Creek waters.)
You can access this short story for free in various forms by clicking the link: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.
—from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Although Bierce wrote much of war and horror and death, he was actually well known for his savage wit. The Devil’s Dictionary is his collection of words with satirical definitions. He called war “God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Said to be sarcastic and hotheaded, Bierce also wrote controversial articles for Hearst Newspapers.
As an older man, though, it seems that the pen had lost its allure, and he waxed nostalgic for warfare. Either that or he had a death wish.
At 71 years old, Bierce toured the Civil War battlefields, where he had fought for the Union and suffered wounds. Once in Texas, and seemingly without forethought, he crossed the Rio Grande by horseback to join Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.
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.
—Ambrose Bierce, in a letter to his cousin Lora
He was never seen or heard from again.
Reports alleged that—in order of believability—
(1) Bierce was slain in the Battle of Ojinaga;
(2) he died of pneumonia in Texas;
(3) he was executed by Pancho Villa;
(4) he was caught spying for the revolutionaries and shot;
(5) he was hiding out with the allies;
(6) he died trying to smuggle a stolen Mayan artifact back to the United States;
(7) he was kidnapped by natives who worshipped him as a god.
Some say the writer made the whole thing up and instead committed suicide (8).
It’s my opinion that this and the first theory make the most sense. And if it wasn’t the latter, the decision to enter the Mexican civil war was an act of suicide in itself. Both of Bierce’s sons had tragically died, and his wife had divorced him, leaving him bitter and cynical by the time he vanished.
If my recent foray into the true crime genre has taught me anything, it’s that people do not disappear without a trace to later be found alive. That crosses #5 and #7 off the list. We mustn’t forget, too, that Bierce was in his seventies; he was asthmatic and had endured a head wound as a young soldier. All this adventure may have done him in.
Bierce died in 1914, whether by the violence of battle, natural causes, or his own hand, we do not know.
It’s this mystery, perhaps more than his writings, that make Ambrose Bierce one of our renowned American writers. So, no matter what really happened, it was a smart career move on his part.
For, oh, how we adore our dead authors! Especially when they die (or disappear) mysteriously.