The Mysterious Death of a Death-Obsessed American Writer

Why you should care

Because nothing cements one’s legacy as a horror writer and iconoclast better than dying under mysterious circumstances.

Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.

Like many artists who live long enough to stare down old age, Ambrose Bierce was, by 1913, when he turned 71, focused on embalming his body in alcohol and turning his life into a self-help masterpiece on how to lose friends and alienate people. The irreverent cynic and American wordsmith’s best days were behind him, and in the wake of publishing his most famous work,The Devil’s Dictionary, it was clear that his best work was too.

But Bierce, possessing a knack for transforming platitudes into snarling literary gems — a bride, in his definition, was “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” — saw the chance to escape a clichéd existence and compose a more appealing ending to his story. The author’s obsession with death and gift for narrative misdirection had already produced some of the best American short stories, including the influential “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a Twilight Zone–type tale of a Southern plantation owner about to be hanged by Union soldiers who dreams of escaping death in the moment before the noose breaks his neck.

Bierce got his “pretty good” death — and an enduring mystery to embellish his literary tombstone.

And so, on Oct. 2, 1913, the cantankerous writer kick-started his own certain-death fantasy, setting off for war-torn Mexico to partake in Pancho Villa’s revolution. “Goodbye,” he wrote in an almost joyfully macabre letter to his cousin, “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.” Bierce got his “pretty good” death — and an enduring mystery to embellish his literary tombstone.

For a man who posed for portraits with a skull, death had been a preoccupation long before his Mexican sojourn. As a teenager, the Indiana native had dreams of his body decomposing and enjoyed reading Edgar Allan Poe stories to his future fiancée. Yet, still a young idealist, he enlisted in the Union Army two months before his 19th birthday in 1861. During the Civil War, the curly-haired Bierce would rise to the rank of lieutenant, witnessing the horrors of battles like Shiloh and Chickamauga before being shot in the head by a Confederate soldier. He recovered from his wound and returned home, only to learn his fiancée had left him for another man. Cue the cynicism.

Later, traveling to Mexico as an old man, Bierce went out of his way to relive the trauma of his youth, and the war that had haunted him throughout his adult life. Dressed all in black, Bierce stopped at old stomping grounds on his way to crossing the Rio Grande in Texas, visiting some of the Civil War battlefields where he had fought. He spent an entire day sitting alone in the sun at Shiloh, site of one of the bloodiest battles in American history.

Sometime in late 1913, the former marksman crossed into Mexico and entered yet another civil war, following the revolutionary Villa’s army. The day after Christmas, Bierce wrote to his secretary from the city of Chihuahua. He was never heard from again. Theories about his disappearance have circulated ever since, but evidence remains elusive. Some claim Bierce’s highly publicized trip was a clever ruse to cover up a suicide or a trip to a sanitarium or asylum, but most speculate that he met his maker on the battlefield. “According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico,” Forrest Gander wrote in The Paris Review on the centennial of Bierce’s disappearance.

Bierce’s multiple deaths include a quick one in the siege of Ojinaga in January 1914, an old gringo shot in battle and burned with the other corpses. Another version suggests he was merely wounded and then piled into a wagon with Mexican refugees headed for the American border, only to die of pneumonia near Marfa, Texas. Yet another story has him discovered by American federales, accused of being a spy and executed by firing squad. Some investigators claim Bierce made it to Pancho Villa’s hacienda, only to wear out his welcome, and eventually his life, with bouts of loudmouthed drunkenness.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines a martyr as “one who moves along the line of least reluctance to a desired death.” Whatever the circumstances of his own death, he managed to perish as a martyr to his literary legend, which would only grow in the years following his mysterious demise. Had he been around, the hardened cynic and craftsman in Bierce would surely have relished the irony, spectacle and fuss surrounding his final insoluble act. And most of all, he would have appreciated the fact that he wasn’t around to appreciate it.

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