Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Today I want to talk about a “case” that’s not necessarily a case anymore. It involves someone who not only disappeared over 100 years ago, but who was kind of famous in his time, someone whose works you may remember reading in English class. Let’s talk about the disappearance of a writer known for his dark themes — someone who I’m surprised hasn’t been brought up on the channel before. This is the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born on June 24, 1842 in Ohio but raised in Indiana. He was the 10th of 13 children; interestingly, all of his siblings had names that began with the letter ‘A.’
Bierce developed an interest in reading and literature at an early age, thanks to his father’s large collection of books. He also apprenticed at a newspaper in high school. But something else he picked up in his childhood was his famous cynicism.
Bierce’s upbringing was strict, and the community he grew up in was very religious. He grew to resent this, and would be a lifelong critic of religion. In 1861, during the Civil War, 19-year-old Bierce enlisted in the Union army. He was captured by Confederate soldiers in 1864 but managed to escape. He left the army the following year, though the exact reason why is unclear. What is clear is that his experience in war would largely influence his later writing.
In 1868, Bierce moved to San Francisco and became editor of a newspaper called the News Letter. He stayed in the area for the better part of the next 20 years. On Christmas Day 1871, he married Mary Ellen Day, who went by Mollie. The couple moved to England the following year, where they welcomed sons Day and Leigh in 1872 and 1874, respectively. The family moved back to San Francisco in 1875, where the couple’s youngest child and only daughter, Helen, was born later that year.
During this time, Bierce worked for various newspapers and other publications, including the San Francisco Examiner, where he worked under famous businessman William Randolph Hearst. In 1890, Bierce’s collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians was published, the collection that started to give him some notoriety. Included in that collection was one of his most famous works, the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
I don’t know how many of my viewers are familiar with the story, so I won’t give away the ending. But if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. I’ll leave a link below to the story if you want to check it out.
Unfortunately, the year before this collection was published, Bierce’s oldest son, Day, died at the age of 18. He’d gotten into a gunfight with another man over a woman and pulled the gun on the man, then turned it on himself.
Bierce and his wife separated in 1891. They were never officially divorced; even though they were incompatible, Bierce didn’t believe he could ever care about another woman in the same way. She filed for divorce in 1904 and it was granted, but she died three weeks later, I assume before it could be finalized. In 1901, the couple’s middle son, Leigh, had died of pneumonia that followed after getting drunk on the way to a Christmas benefit.
In 1911, Bierce finally finished and compiled The Devil’s Dictionary, which started as weekly installments in a newspaper in 1881 and ran to 1906. The book is a satirical collection of definitions; some of them are pretty long, but I do want to share some of the shorter ones to give you an idea of what this collection is like.
“APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.”
“LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.”
“BEAUTY, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.”
Some of these definitions probably would have gotten Bierce “cancelled” if they were written today, but it is one of his most well known works. You can read the whole thing here.
During his life, Bierce earned the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” His works are known for being dark and bitingly satirical, and Bierce himself had a reputation for being cynical and short tempered. One particular person he lashed out at was famous Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, who he once called “an ineffable dunce.” During the Christmas season of 1897, Bierce sent out cards that said “I wish you a ___ Christmas. Fill in the blank to suit.”
In the fall of 1913, 71-year-old Bierce set out on a nostalgia-fueled trip across the U.S. to visit Civil War battlefields. The trip wrapped up in New Orleans, and Bierce decided to head to Mexico. This was a few years after the start of the Mexican Revolution, which went from 1910 to 1920 and turned the country from a dictatorship into a constitutional republic.
General consensus says that Bierce was headed to Mexico because of the revolution, but it’s not clear if he meant to fight or simply observe, possibly as inspiration for his writing. It’s been speculated that he wanted to join up with famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, but other sources say he didn’t like Villa very much.
On December 26, 1913, Bierce wrote a letter to his secretary, postmarked from Chihuahua, Mexico. In this letter, he wrote: “As to me, I leave here for an unknown destination…I don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.”
Ambrose Bierce has never been heard from again.
In September 1914, a search for Bierce was organized by then-Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane. Another search was later organized by his daughter, Helen, but the outbreak of World War I that year brought the searches to a halt. After that, it doesn’t seem like many people tried to look for him.
So, what exactly happened to Ambrose Bierce after late 1913? There are quite a few theories I want to go over.
The first is that his disappearance had supernatural causes. Crystal skulls started showing up in the late 1800’s, but many people think they date back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, namely the Mayans. They’re believed to have been given to these civilizations by aliens and possess powers like healing properties and allowing their owners to time travel or communicate with gods. Crystal skulls were famously featured in the fourth Indiana Jones installment back in 2008. Regarding Bierce’s disappearance, people who subscribe to this theory usually believe he went to Mexico looking for one of these skulls to steal. Once he got it, he either used it to travel to another dimension or was possibly taken to a Mayan temple and worshipped as a god.
This theory is pretty far fetched, but I did want to go over every possible angle. It’s also worth noting that, even though he featured supernatural elements in his stories, Bierce himself was not a believer in them.
The next theory is that Bierce took his own life. In the years before his disappearance, he didn’t seem to be very happy. He isolated himself from family and friends, drank heavily, was in declining health and not generally very well liked. There’s a theory that he went to Texas to do this, and another that says the Grand Canyon. This theory is potentially supported by his final letter to his secretary, where he specifically says “Adios, Ambrose.” I’ve also seen speculation that the line about “leaving for an unknown destination” could indicate suicidal intent. Since Bierce wasn’t religious and may not have had any staunch beliefs on where people go after they die, I can understand how people drew this conclusion.
However, there is a hole in this theory. At the time of his disappearance, Bierce had a manuscript stored in in hotel in Texas, seemingly wanting to come back and get it published later. The manuscript itself disappeared a couple of years later. Why would he have another book ready to submit for publication if he was planning suicide? It’s possible he never really meant to publish it, but I couldn’t find many details about this manuscript or his possible intentions with it.
The next theory is related, and that is that Bierce wanted to disappear. This theory seems to stem from the fact that Bierce wrote several stories that involved bizarre, almost otherworldly disappearances.
In The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Bierce writes about the strange disappearance of a plantation owner named Mr. Williamson. Williamson has a conversation with his neighbor, Armour Wren, but after the conversation ends, Wren remembers something he forgot to tell Williamson. When he goes back to deliver the message, he sees Williamson walking across the pasture. Wren gets distracted by one of his horses almost falling and, when he looks back up, Williamson isn’t there. He’s never heard from again, and there’s no explanation for why he’s there one minute, gone the next.
The story Charles Ashmore’s Trail features an even more bizarre story. Christian Ashmore goes out to a well for water, but never comes back. When his father and sister go out to search for him, it’s just snowed and they see Christian’s footprints leading to the well — but they abruptly disappear halfway there. There are no other footprints around the well.
For months after Christian’s disappearance, his family hears his voice at “irregular intervals.” The voice is heard less and less as time goes on and eventually stops altogether. Christian is never seen or heard from again
Bierce obviously had an interest in unexplained disappearances — I think many of us on this channel can relate. Was he so fascinated by them that he planned out his own?
The next theory is that he was captured or killed while in Mexico, possibly by Pancho Villa or Mexican president Victoriano Huerta. Due to the revolution, Mexico was a dangerous place to be. Even if he only went to observe and not fight in battle, he could have been accidentally killed if he got too close to the fighting.
Bierce also could have died in Mexico by some other means unrelated to the war, whether murder or accident. Like I’ve stated before, Bierce wasn’t very well liked. Did someone dislike him enough to follow him to Mexico — or wherever he ended up — and hurt him?
Other sources suggest he drank himself to death at a bar but his body was never recovered, for whatever reason, or that he he might have been admitted to a mental hospital and later died there.
The last theory is that Bierce was killed in battle, probably the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1914. We do know from his last letter on December 26 that he was headed there. Did he actually take part in the fighting and lose his life, either in battle or shortly thereafter from mortal wounds? An unmarked grave in the area is believed to be Bierce’s, but that’s never been proven. I have seen other reports say a grave was found in Texas that was believed to also be his — again, this was never proven.
S.T. Joshi, who has edited several collections of Bierce’s work, believes he was killed in battle. According to Joshi, since Bierce was a public figure it would have been hard for him to stay out of sight, since there were so many reporters around covering the revolution. So, at the very least, he probably died shortly after arriving in Mexico. There is a gravestone for Bierce in Oakwood Cemetery, also the final resting place of his parents.
So that’s all I have for you today on Ambrose Bierce. This is obviously not an active case, but it was a historical mystery I found interesting enough to share. Without some sort of excavation of his alleged grave in Mexico, I doubt we’ll ever know what happened.