March 29, 2008

Ambrose Bierce

Stupid Question ™
Feb. 9, 2004
By John Ruch
© 2004

Q: Why do I think that Mark Twain disappeared or died mysteriously? Biographies say he didn’t. Was there some mystery about his death that was later solved?
—A Connecticut Yankee, Connecticut (from the Internet)

A: About Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens’ peaceful 1910 passing—in bed in Redding, Connecticut—there is no mystery, and never has been.

It’s beyond my powers to say with certainty why you think such a weird thing, but I can make a guess. Another renowned 19th century wit and cynic did disappear mysteriously around that time: Ambrose Bierce, in 1913.

A journalist and short-story author, Bierce was one of the great American writers, at least as influential as Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, if still not as famous.

Bierce’s mind-bending, proto-“Twilight Zone” story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a modern classic still in wide circulation. And his “Devil’s Dictionary” of satirical definitions (“Optimist, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white”) remains famous, though more in bland imitation than in original form.

Bierce’s stories often featured absurdist touches so exaggerated they extended into the supernatural. In 1893 he published a collection of supernatural tales that included a section titled “Mysterious Disappearances”—three brief accounts of people disappearing in plain view, followed by a “scientific” explanation the narrator discredits. The stories are told so dryly and with such quotidian detail that they have shown up in supposedly factual books about the “paranormal” as true.

This interest in—and, one might say, yearning for—total, instant disappearance might very well inform Bierce’s real-life disappearance, according to Joe Nickell’s “Ambrose Bierce Is Missing And Other Historical Mysteries,” possibly the only nonsense-free account of the Bierce case.

Born in Ohio in 1842, Bierce was an aging and, by most accounts, unhappy man by 1913. To friends, family and the press—before whom he appeared in person, dressed dramatically in all-black—he announced he was traveling to South America via Mexico, suggesting he might get involved somehow in Mexico’s post-revolutionary fighting.

His itinerary may or may not have been accurate. What is certain is that Bierce was planning a permanent vacation. His last letters promise that his body won’t be found, speak lovingly of finding “euthanasia,” and so on.
He headed into Texas in fall 1913—judging by his last letters, anyway. Then he simply disappeared without a trace.

As it became clear in 1914 that he wasn’t being heard from, a minor media frenzy began. For at least a year, plentiful and contradictory reports cropped up about Bierce’s supposed fate. Most had him either executed by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s army, or dying in battle while fighting for it. All the stories came from friends of friends, or now-dead witnesses, or other conveniences. There was even a claim he had an official position in France, which seems like it would have been easy to check.

In the end—and to this day—no tangible or even credible trace of Bierce has been found.

Noting Bierce’s love for melodrama and hoaxes in general, and eerie disappearances specifically, Nickell brushes aside the Mexico stories and puts weight instead on a more modest report. Walter Neale, Bierce’s friend and later his biographer, said that in 1912 Bierce had shown him a photograph of an area in the Grand Canyon and said that was the place where he would die. Neale said he mentioned the spot several times after that.

If a man intended to crawl into the Grand Canyon and shoot himself, would he bother to create an elaborate tale about intending to travel through war-torn Mexico, possibly traumatizing friends and family?

Probably—if the man was Ambrose Bierce.

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