AMBROSE BIERCE—Vanished into Mexico in 1913
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Mexico was swept by violence in 1913, as forces loyal to President Victoriano Huerta battled insurgents, led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Into the cauldron of conspiracy and violence strode Ambrose Bierce, one of America’s most prominent journalists and the author of such classic stories as “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce, a hero of the American Civil War, intended to observe the fighting but disappeared and was never heard from again.
At the age of 72, Bierce’s caustic wit and cantankerous personality had earned him the sobriquet “Bitter Bierce.” By reputation, he was an angry misanthrope, a disgruntled curmudgeon, a corrosive satirist. If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then no one was safe from his literary thrusts, not the powerful, heavy-handed railroad moguls of his day, the pandering lobbyists and venal politicians of Washington, DC, the adherents of organized religion, which he despised, nor even his fellow artists and journalists.
He was the quintessential muckraker, piercing the veils of subterfuge, euphemisms and rationalizations that mask so much of human activity and exposing the graft, cruelty and corruption that lurk underneath. He directed his barbs at presidents, corporate and military leaders and even his loyal but long-suffering publisher William Randolph Hearst. He habitually fulminated against the US government, arguing that it was corrupt beyond redemption. He portrayed the “common man” as a sluggish, illiterate ass, shallow, venal, and un-teachable.
Having survived the horrors of warfare on the killing fields of Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Shiloh and other battle sites and suffering a near fatal head wound at Kennesaw Mountain, Bierce despised war, calling it destructive, dehumanizing and suicidal. His essay “What I Saw at Shiloh” is among the world’s best battlefield writing, emphasizing its horrors and disparaging its supposed glory.
Maintaining a lifelong antipathy toward radicals, anarchists and revolutionaries of any stripe and never manifesting any interest in Mexico or sympathy for Pancho Villa’s cause, his trip south of the border is confusing. He told a New Orleans reporter, “I enjoy the game. I like the fighting. I want to see it,” contradicting everything he had ever written on the subject.
Bierce had always advocated suicide and listed five criteria for ending one’s life. By 1913, he had met most of them: Failing health, the loss of family and friends through death or estrangement, the hostile critical reception given the 12 volumes of his recently published collected works. His Civil War experiences intensified his obsession with death, as his many macabre short stories suggest.
Before leaving for Mexico he wrote, “My work is done and so am I,” and told his daughter Helen, as he signed a cemetery plot over to her, that he would never use it, that arrangements were already made, and that she would not be bothered about her father’s remains.
In yet another note, he portended, “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.”
He is quoted as saying, “To be a gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia,” leading some to speculate that his disappearance was a form of “suicide by bandito.”
Was he, then, killed in battle alongside Villa’s band? His last communication on December 26 claimed that he was in Chihuahua City and leaving for Ojinada, where a fierce ten-day siege would take place. No one saw him in Ojinada. He may never have even met Villa. None of the legions of US reporters assigned to cover Villa ever laid eyes on Bierce.
Rumors and theories have proliferated over the years, some outlandish. He was seen on the Western Front in 1915 plotting strategy with Lord Kitchener. He was found living among Brazilian rain forest Indians who regarded him as a god. He was shot while smuggling a machine gun to the rebels. He had been poisoned to death in someone’s El Paso backyard. One rumor that should delight Indiana Jones fans had him acquiring the Crystal Skull of Doom of the Maya, after which he lived on inside a cavern in Guatemala.
A more likely scenario suggests itself. Once, while visiting Grand Canyon he had remarked that it would be a perfect place to end one’s life and never be found. He had warned that, if not accepted as a member of Villa’s forces, he would, “Crawl into some out-of-the-way hole in the mountains and die.”
It is probable that Bierce died by his own hand and that his bones rest in a shallow grave in Chihuahua or beneath a rocky outcropping in Grand Canyon or elsewhere. It is apparent that he orchestrated his end, playing one last joke upon the world and joining the roster of the disappeared: The fabled Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, the world’s first skyjacker D.B. Cooper, Judge Joseph Crater, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Raoul Wallenberg.