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The Mysterious Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce
Opinions differ as to whether Ambrose Bierce, who was a 71-year-old Civil War veteran at the time of his disappearance, died in Chihuahua, Mexico, while riding with Pancho Villa; by his own hand in Texas or the Grand Canyon; or as an old man in Saratoga Springs, New York. Wikimedia Commons/HowStuffWorks

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Equal parts Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce was a journalist and novelist born in Ohio in 1842. Although he was well-known in his day, his legacy hasn't exactly had the same staying power as that of some of his peers.

A newspaper muckraker known for his biting sarcasm and caustic wit, Bierce was a contributor and editor for a number of West Coast newspapers and periodicals, including William Randolph Hearst's The San Francisco Examiner, beginning in 1887. Some of his greatest success came with Civil War stories like "The Devil's Dictionary" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He was also an accomplished psychological horror story writer who put his mark on the genre with spooky tales like "The Death of Halpin Frayser."

What Happened to Ambrose Bierce?

It turns out that the story of Bierce's own demise may be more captivating than any of his literary works. Just how Bierce met his fate depends largely on whom you ask.

"It's one of the great literary mysteries in America," says Don Swaim, the author of "The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story." Swaim also runs a website devoted to all things Bierce. "My view is that it will remain a tantalizing mystery."

Was it a trip to Mexico and a run-in with Pancho Villa that marked the final chapter of Bierce's life story? Or was that just a head fake to keep folks off his true path? Some say Bierce called it a life in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Others claim he perished after drinking with the wrong crowd at a mining camp cantina.

What we know for sure is that Bierce's impact on culture and literature was unmistakable, even if he doesn't garner the same name recognition as some of the other great scribes of the 19th century. The list of writers that have cited Bierce as an influence range from journalist H.L. Mencken to satirical novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

Bierce was one of the first American news reporters whose byline became a personal brand. His work for The San Francisco Examiner helped scuttle a controversial bill that would have allowed two California rail companies to walk away from billions of dollars in federal loan obligations. He was also cited for predicting — and accused by rivals of encouraging — President William McKinley's assassination.

Bierce additionally made waves as an author of both war and horror stories. Still, it was his own disappearance that has most recently served as the inspiration for Hollywood filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in "From Dusk Till Dawn 3."

Riding With Pancho Villa

It is widely believed that Bierce headed south in 1913, planning to cross the border and catch up with Villa in Chihuahua, Mexico. His last known letter was posted from the city in December of that year.

Opinions differ as to whether the 71-year-old Civil War veteran intended take up arms with the revolutionaries opposing Mexican president Victoriano Huerta or to simply observe the skirmishes as the basis for his next book.

Some suspect Villa may not have taken kindly to Bierce's company. Or he may have been captured by Huerta's forces. "He did go to Mexico at the height of the revolution," Swaim says. "If you're familiar with that period of time, then you know that they took no prisoners."

A California dentist named Adolphe Danziger claimed that Villa admitted that he ordered Bierce shot after the author said he was leaving to join up with another sectarian leader, Venutiano Carranza. An American soldier of fortune named Tex O'Reilly later advanced the theory that Bierce was killed by Mexican federal fighters while drinking at a cantina in a mining camp called Sierra Mojada. Bierce perished before ever meeting Villa, according to O'Reilly's version of the events.

Could Bierce Have Died in Texas or in Arizona?

Others say Bierce died on the American side of the border.

Journalist Jake Silverstein in 2002 explored the theory that Bierce bid adieu to the physical world in Texas, not Mexico. Silverstein dug up an old letter to the editor of a tiny local newspaper in Marfa, Texas, from a man who claimed Bierce's body was buried there in an unmarked grave. That man told Silverstein that he had once picked up a hitchhiker who had fought for the Mexican federal forces as a teenager. The hitchhiker told the story of picking up an old gringo who appeared quite sick and called himself "Ambrosia." He paid the man and his friends to help get him back into the U.S. and during the trip he talked of the many books he had written, one with with the word 'devil' in the title. But "Ambrosia" didn't survive the trip back to the U.S., and instead died of pneumonia on January 17, 1914, his body buried in an unmarked grave in Marfa, Texas. It's possible that the man who called himself "Ambrosia" was Ambrose Bierce.

And then there's the Grand Canyon story. Some Bierce enthusiasts posit that he had the letter sent from Mexico to throw people off of his intended destination: suicide in one of his favorite places to visit.

Swaim floated a more mundane end to Bierce's story in his own novel. In that version, Bierce survives the fighting in Mexico and heads to Saratoga Springs, New York. There he falls in love with a local woman and lives out the rest of his life before dying from an asthma attack.

That's not a relatively bad way to go out, but it's most likely also not what happened.

"It's fiction," Swaim says.

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