The Ambrose Bierce Irony

Some time in his middle career, Ambrose Bierce wrote three short tales of vanishment—weird and supernatural things in one of his favorite veins. The three sketches—for they are no more—he classed under the heading, “Mysterious Disappearances,” a subject which occupied his speculations from time to time. Herein lies a complete irony. Bierce himself was later to disappear as mysteriously as any of his heroes.

No one will understand his story, with its many implications, or get from it the full flavor of romance and sardonics without some brief glance at the man and his history. Nor need one make apology for intruding a short account of him in a story of mystery, for Bierce alive was almost as strange and enigmatic a creature as Bierce dead.

Ambrose Bierce, whom a good many critics have regarded as the foremost master of the American short story after Poe, was born in Ohio in 1841. He joined the Union armies as a private in 1861, when he was in his twenty-first year, rose quickly through the ranks to the grade of lieutenant, fought and was wounded at Chickamauga as a captain of engineers under Thomas, and retired with the brevet rank of major. After the war he took up writing for a living, and soon went to London, where his early short stories, sketches and criticisms attracted attention. His cutting wit and ironic spirit soon won him the popular name “Bitter Bierce.”

After 1870, the banished Empress Eugénie of France, alarmed at the escape of her implacable journalistic enemy, Henri Rochette, and the impending revival in London of his paper, La Lanterne, in which she had been intolerably lampooned, sought to forestall the French writer by establishing an English paper called The Lantern, thus taking advantage of the law which forbade a duplication of titles. For this purpose she employed Bierce, purely on his polemical reputation, and Bierce straightway began the publication of The Lantern, and devoted his most vitriolic explosions to the baffled Rochette, who saw that he could not succeed in England without the name which he had made famous at the head of his paper and could not return to France, whence he was a political exile.

In this employment Bierce exhibited one of his peculiarities. His assaults on her old enemy greatly pleased the banished empress, and she finally sent for Bierce. Following the imperial etiquette, which she still sought to maintain, she “commanded” his presence. Bierce, who understood and obeyed military commands, did not like that manner of wording an invitation from a dethroned empress. He did not attend and The Lantern soon disappeared from the scene of politics and letters.

Bierce returned to America and went to San Francisco, where he in time became the “dean of Western writers.” His journalistic work in San Francisco and later in Washington set him apart as a satirist of the bitterest strain. His literary productions marked him as a man of the most independent thought and distinctive taste. Most of his tales are Poe plus sulphur. He reveled in the mysterious, the dark, the terrible and the bizarre.

Between intervals of writing his tales, criticisms and epigrams, Bierce found time to manage ranches and mining properties, to fight bad men and frontier highwaymen, to grill politicians, and to write verse.

Bierce went through life seeking combat, weathering storm after storm, by some regarded as the foremost American literary man of his time, by others denounced as a brute, a pedant, even as a scoundrel. In the West he was generally lionized, in the East neglected. One man called him the last of the satirists, another considered him a strutting dunce. Bierce contributed to the confusion by making something of a riddle of himself. He loved mystery and indirection. He liked the fabulous stories which grew up about him and encouraged them by his own silence and air of concealment. In the essentials, however, he was no more than an intelligent and perspicacious man of high talent, who hated sentiment, reveled in the assault on popular prejudices, liked nothing so much as to throw himself upon the clay idols of the day with ferocious claws, and yet had a tender and humble heart.

Toward the end of 1913, Mexico was in another of its torments. The visionary Madero had been assassinated. Huerta was in the dictator’s chair, Wilson had inaugurated his “watchful waiting,” and the new rebels were moving in the north—Carranza and Villa. At the time Ambrose Bierce was living, more or less retired, in Washington, probably convinced that he had had his last fling, for he was already past seventy-two and “not so spry as he once had been.” But along came the order for the mobilization along the border. General Funston and his little army took up the patrol along the Rio Grande, the newspapers began to hint at a possible invasion of Mexico, and there was a stir of martial blood among the many.

Some say that when age comes on, a man’s youth is born again. Everything that belonged to the dawn becomes hallowed in the sunset of manhood. It must have been so with Bierce. Old and probably more infirm than he fancied, long written out, ready for sleep, the trumpets of Shiloh and Chickamauga, rusty and silent for fifty years, called him out again and he set out for Mexico, saying little to any one about his plans or intentions. Some believed that he was going down to the Rio Grande as a correspondent. Others said he planned to join the Constitutionalists as a military adviser. Either might have been true, for Bierce was as good an officer as a writer. He knew both games from the roots up.

Even the preliminary movements of the man are a little hazy, but apparently he went first to his old home in California and then down to the border. He did not stop there, for in the fall of 1913 he was reported to have crossed into Mexico, and in January his secretary in Washington, Miss Carrie Christianson, received a letter from him postmarked in Chihuahua.

Then followed a long silence. Miss Christianson expected to hear again within a month. When no letter came, she wondered, but was not alarmed. Bierce was a man of irregular habits. He was down there in a war-torn country, moving about in the wilderness with armies and bands of insurgents; he might not be able to get a letter through the lines. There was no reason to feel special apprehension. In September, 1914, however, Bierce’s daughter, Mrs. H. D. Cowden of Bloomington, Illinois, decided that something must be amiss, no word having come from her father in eight months. She appealed to the State Department at Washington, saying that she feared for his life.

The Department quickly notified the American chargé d’affaires in Mexico to make inquiries and the War Department shortly afterwards instructed General Funston to send word along his lines and to communicate with the Mexican commanders opposite him, asking for Bierce. The Washington officials soon notified Mrs. Cowden that a search was being made. General Funston also answered that he was proceeding with an inquiry. Again some months elapsed. Finally both the diplomatic and the military forces reported that they had been unable to find Bierce or any trace of him. Probably, it was added, he was with one of the independent rebel commands in the mountains and out of touch with the border or the main forces of the Constitutionalists.

Now the rumoring began. First came the report that Bierce had really gone to Mexico to join Villa, whose reputation as a guerrilla fighter had attracted the veteran, and whose emissaries were said to have asked Bierce to join the so-called bandit as a military aide. Bierce, it was reported, had joined Villa and had been with that commander in Chihuahua just before the battle there, in which the rebel forces were unsuccessful. Possibly Bierce had fallen in action. This story was soon discarded on the ground that Villa, had Bierce been on his staff, would certainly have reported the death of so widely-known a man and one so close to himself.

A little later came a second report, this time backed by what seemed to be more credible evidence. It was said that Bierce had been at the later battle of Torreon in command of the Villista artillery, that he had taken part in the running campaign through the province of Sonora and that he had probably died of hardships and exposure in those trying days.

A California friend now came forward with the report of a talk with Bierce, said to have been held just before the author set out for Mexico. The old satirist was reported to have said that he had grown weary of the stodgy life of literature and journalism, that he wanted to wind up his career with some more glorious end than death in bed and that he had decided to go down into Mexico and find a “soldier’s grave or crawl off into some cave and die like a free beast.”

It sounded very rebellious and Byronic, but Bierce’s other friends immediately declared that it was entirely out of character. Bierce had gone to Mexico to fight and see another war. He had not gone to die. He was a fatalist. He would take whatever came, but he would not go out and seek a conclusion.

So the talk went on and the months went by. There were no scare headlines in the papers. After all, Bierce was only a distinguished man of letters.

But there was a still better reason for the lack of attention. The absence of Bierce had not yet been reported officially when the vast black cloud of war rolled up in Europe. All men’s eyes were turned to the Atlantic and the fields of Flanders. The American adventure along the Mexican border seemed trivial and grotesque. The little puff of wind in the South was forgotten before the menacing tornado in the East. What did a poet matter when the armies of the great powers were caught in their bloody embrace?

Yet Bierce was not altogether forgotten. In April, 1915, more than a year after his last letter from Chihuahua, another note, supposedly from him, was received by his daughter. It said that Major Bierce was in England on Lord Kitchener’s staff and that he was taking a prominent part in the recruiting movement in Britain. This sensation lasted ten days. Then, inquiry having been made of the British War Office, the sober report was issued that Bierce’s name did not appear on the rolls and that he certainly was not attached to Lord Kitchener’s staff.

Now, at last, the missing writer’s secretary put the touch of disaster to the fable. Miss Christianson announced in Washington that careful investigation abroad showed that Major Bierce was not fighting with the Allies, and that she and his family had been forced to the melancholy conclusion that he was dead.

But how and where? The State Department continued its inquiries in Mexico, but many private individuals also began to investigate. Journalists at the southern front tried to get trace or rumor of the man. Old friends went into the troubled region to seek what they could find. The literary world was touched both with curiosity and grief and with a romantic interest in the man’s fate. Bierce became a later Byron, and it was held he had gone forth to fight for the oppressed and found himself another Missolonghi.

Out of all this grew a vast curiosity. Probably Bierce was dead, though even this was by no means certain. There was no evidence save the fact that he had not written for more than a year, which, in view of the man’s character and the situation in which he was caught, might be no evidence at all. But, granting that he was dead, how had his end come? Where was his body? It was impossible to escape the impression that one whose life had been touched with such extraordinary color should have died without a flame. The men and women who knew and loved Bierce—and they were a considerable number—kept saying over and over to themselves that this heroic fellow could not have passed out without some signal. Surely some one had seen him die and could tell of his end and place of repose. So the quest began again.

For years, there was no fruit. Northern Mexico, where Bierce had certainly met his end, if indeed, he was dead, was no place for a hunter after bits of literary history to go wandering in. First there was the constant fighting between Huerta and the Constitutionalists. Then Huerta was eliminated and Carranza became president. There followed the various campaigns of pacification. Next Villa rebelled against his old ally, leading to a fresh going to and fro of armies. Finally the whole region was infested by marauding bands of irregular and rebellious militia, part soldiers and part bandits. To cap the climax came the invasion of Mexico by the expedition under Pershing.

In 1918 was heard the first report on Bierce which seemed to have some basis in fact. A traveler had heard in Mexico City and at several points along the railroad that an aged American, who was supposed to have been fighting with either Villa or Carranza, had been executed by order of a field commander. From descriptions, this man was supposed to have been Bierce. At any rate, he might have been Bierce as well as another, and, since Bierce was both conspicuous and missing, there was some reason for credence. But no one could get any details or give the scene of the execution. The report was finally discarded as no more reliable than several others.

Another year went by. In February, 1919, however, came a report which carries some of the marks of credibility.

One of the several persons who set out to clear up the Bierce enigma was Mr. George F. Weeks, an old friend and close associate of the old writer’s, who went to Mexico City and later visited the various towns in northern Mexico where Bierce was supposed to have been seen shortly before his death. Weeks went up and down and across northern Mexico without finding anything definite. Then he returned to Mexico City and by chance encountered a Mexican officer who had been with Villa in his campaigns and had known Bierce well. Weeks mentioned Bierce to this soldier and was told this story:

Bierce actually did join the Villista forces soon after January, 1914, when he wrote his last letter from Chihuahua. He said to those who were not supposed to know his affairs too intimately that he, like other American journalists and writers, had gone to Mexico to get material for a book on conditions in that unhappy country. In reality, however, he was acting as adviser and military observer with Villa, though not attached to the eminent guerilla in person. The Mexican officer related that Bierce could speak hardly any Spanish and Villa’s staff hardly any English. On the other hand, this particular man spoke English fluently. Naturally, he and Bierce had been thrown together a great deal and had held numerous conversations. So much for showing that he had known Bierce well, and how and why.

After Chihuahua, the officer continued, he and Bierce had parted company, due to the exigencies of military affairs, and he had never seen the American alive again. He had often wondered about him and had made inquiries from time to time as he encountered various commandos of the Constitutionalist army. Finally, about a year later, which is to say some time toward the end of 1915, the relating officer met a Mexican army surgeon, who also had been with Villa, and this surgeon had told him a tale.

Soon after the breach between Villa and Carranza in 1915, a small detachment of Carranza troops occupied the village of Icamole, east of Chihuahua State in the direction of Monterey and Saltillo. The Villista forces in that quarter, commanded by General Tomas Urbina, one of the most ruthless of all the Villa subcommanders, who was himself later put to death, were encamped not far from Icamole, attempting to beleaguer the town or, at least, to cut the Carranza garrison off from its base of supplies and the main command. Neither side was strong enough to risk an engagement and the whole thing settled down into a waiting and sniping campaign.

In the gray of one oppressive morning toward the end of 1915, according to the surgeon who was with Urbina, one of that commander’s scouts gave an alarm, having seen four mules and two men on the horizon, making toward Icamole. A mounted detachment was at once sent out and the strangers were brought in. They turned out to be an American of advanced years but military bearing, a nondescript Mexican, and four mules laden with the parts of a machine gun and a large quantity of its ammunition.

Both men were immediately taken before General Urbina, according to the surgeon’s story, and subjected to questioning. The Mexican said that he had been employed by another Mexican, whose name he did not know, to conduct the American and his convoy to Icamole and the Carranza commander. Urbina turned to the American and started to question him, but found that the man could speak hardly any Spanish and was therefore unable to explain his actions or to defend himself.

It may be as well to note the first objections to the credibility of the story here. Bierce had been in Mexico almost two years, according to these dates. He was a man of the keenest intelligence and the quickest perceptions. He had also lived in California for many years, where Spanish names are common and Spanish is spoken by many. It seems hard to believe that such a man could have survived to the end of 1915 in such ignorance of the speech of the Mexican people as to be unable to explain what he was doing or to tell his name and who he was. It seems hard to believe, also, that Bierce would have been doing any gun-running or that he could have been alive twenty months after the Chihuahua letter without communicating with some one in the United States, without being found or heard of by the military and diplomatic agents who had then already been seeking him for more than a year. Also, it is necessary to explain how the man who went down to fight with Villa happened suddenly to be taking a gun and ammunition to Villa’s enemies, though this might be reconciled on the theory that Bierce had gone to fight with the Constitutionalists and had remained with them when Villa rebelled. But we may disregard these minor discrepancies as possibly capable of reconciliation or correction, and proceed further with the surgeon’s story.

Urbina, after questioning the captives for a little while, lost patience, concluded that they must be enemies at best and took no half measures. Life was cheap in northern Mexico in those days, judgments were swift and harsh, and Urbina was savage by nature. He took away the lives of these two with a wave of the hand. Immediate execution was their fate.

Ambrose Bierce and the unknown Mexican were led out and placed against the wall of a building, in this case a stable. Faced with the terrible sight, the Mexican fell to his knees and began to pray, refusing to rise and face his executioners. Bierce, following the example of his companion, also knelt but did not pray. Instead, he refused the cloth over his eyes and asked the soldiers not to mutilate his face. And so he died.

“I was much interested in the whole affair,” the nameless Mexican officer told Mr. Weeks, “and I asked my surgeon friend many questions. He did not know Bierce at all and did not know he was describing the death of some one in whom I was deeply concerned. But I had known Bierce well and asked the surgeon for detail after detail of the murdered American’s appearance, age, bearing, and manner. From what he told me, I have not the slightest doubt that this was Ambrose Bierce and that he died in this manner at the hands of the butcher, Urbina.”

Following the reports of Mr. Weeks, the San Francisco Bulletin sent one of its special writers, Mr. U. H. Wilkins, down into Mexico, to further examine and confirm or discredit the report of the Mexican officer. Mr. Wilkins reported in March, 1920, confirming the Weeks report and adding what seems to be direct testimony. Mr. Wilkins says that he found a Mexican soldier who had been in Urbina’s command at Icamole and who was a member of the firing squad. This man showed Mr. Wilkins a picture of Bierce which, he said, he had taken from the pocket of the dead man just after the execution had taken place.

Still the doubt perseveres. No one has been able to find the grave of Bierce. The picture which the soldier said he took from the pocket of the dead man was not produced and has never, so far as I can discover, been shown.

Personally, I find in this material more elements for skepticism than for belief. Would Ambrose Bierce have been carrying a picture of himself about the wastes of Mexico? Perhaps, if it was on a passport or other credentials. In that case General Urbina must have known whom he was shooting. And would a guerilla leader, with much more of the brigand about him than the soldier, have shot a man like Bierce, who certainly was worth a fortune living and nothing dead? I must beg to doubt.

Nor do the other details ring true. If the captured Americano was Ambrose Bierce, one of two things must have happened. Either he would have resorted, to save his life, to invective and persuasiveness, for which he was remarkable, or he must have shrugged and been resigned. This Bierce was too old, too cynical, too tired of living and pretending for valedictory heroics. And he was too much of a soldier to wince. For this and another reason the story of his execution will not go down.

Unhappily, the tale of a distinguished victim of the firing squad asking that his face be not disfigured is a piece of standard Mexican romance. According to the tradition of that country, the Emperor Maximilian, when he faced his executioners at Queretaro, begged that he be shot through the body, so that his mother might look upon his face again. Hence, I suspect the soldierly Mexican raconteur of having been guilty of a romantic anachronism, perhaps an unconscious substitution. If the man whom Urbina shot had been Ambrose Bierce, he would neither have knelt, nor made the pitiful gesture of asking the inviolateness of his face.

Adolphe de Castro, who won a lawsuit in 1926 compelling the publishers of a collected edition of Bierce’s writings to recognize him as the co-author of “The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter,” has within the year published a version of Bierce’s end that has some of the same elements in it. Bierce, says de Castro, was shot by Villa’s soldiers at the guerilla leader’s command. Here is the story condensed:

Bierce was with Villa at the taking of Chihuahua in 1913. After this fight there was nothing for the novelist-soldier to do and he took to drinking tequila, a liquor which causes those who drink it any length of time to turn blue. (Sic!) Bierce had with him a peon who understood a little English and acted as valet and cup companion. When he was in his mugs Bierce talked too much, complained of inactivity and criticised Villa. One drunken night he suggested to the peon that they desert to Carranza. Someone overheard this prattle and carried it to Villa, who had the peon tortured till he confessed the truth. He was released and instructed to carry out the plan with the Gringo. That night, as they started to leave Chihuahua, the writer and his peon were overtaken by a squad, shot down “and left for the vultures.”

Though Vincent Starrett records that Villa flew into a rage when questioned about Bierce, a reaction looked upon by some as confirming Villa’s guilt, others have pointed out objections that seem insuperable. The break between Carranza and Villa did not follow until a long time after the battle of Chihuahua, they point out, and Bierce must have been alive all the while without writing a letter or sending a word of news to anyone. Possible but improbable, is the verdict of those who knew him most intimately.

So, applying the critical acid to the whole affair, there is still the mystery, as dark as in the beginning. We may have our delight with the dramatic or poetic accounts of his end if that be our taste, but really we are no closer to any satisfactory solution than we were in 1914.

Bierce is dead, past doubt. That much needs no additional proof. His fierce spirit has traveled. His bitter pen will scrawl no more denunciations across the page; neither will he sit in his study weaving mysteries and ironies for the delectation of those who love abstraction as beauty, and doubt as something better than truth.

My own guess is that he started out to fight battles and shoulder hardships as he had done when a boy, somehow believing that a tough spirit would carry him through. Wounded or stricken with disease, he probably lay down in some pesthouse of a hospital, some troop train filled with other stricken men; or he may have crawled off to some water hole and died, with nothing more articulate than the winds and stars for witness.


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