In A Nutshell
Ambrose Bierce was a Civil War soldier turned writer perhaps best known for his pioneering science fiction short stories, as well as the unbelievably cynical (and oftentimes completely accurate) book, “The Devil’s Dictionary.” He was 71 in 1913 when he decided to pull up roots to head into Mexico and meet up with Pancho Villa. From there, he simply disappeared, leaving behind no shortage of wild speculation and rumors—from an execution by Mexican rebels to a reunion with his otherworldly acquaintances.
The Whole Bushel
We can’t help but think that Ambrose Bierce would be absolutely thrilled with the rumors that his disappearance has spawned. Notoriously sardonic and cynical, Bierce’s work is laden with condemnation of the human nature and its condition. All in all, perhaps a mysterious disappearance is exactly what he wanted.
The best place to start is with what’s known for sure. Bierce was born in Ohio on June 24, 1842, and enlisted in the Union Army Infantry in Indiana. After fighting through and surviving some of the most horrific battles of the Civil War, he was discharged after suffering a severe head wound. These early experiences shaped not only his literary career but his entire adult life; when he was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Mexico in 1913, he stopped along the way to pay his respects at the Civil War battlefields where he had fought.
In the early 1900s, Bierce suffered great personal tragedy, burying two of his three children and his wife (several months after she filed for divorce). He began to speak of going to Mexico, to meet up with the rebels that were tearing the country apart with a civil war so much like the one of his youth. He wanted to recapture that youth, he wanted to cheat death, he wanted to meet Pancho Villa and ride with him. So he made arrangements regarding the control and distribution of his estate and assets, visited his Civil War memories, and rode into Mexico. One letter came from across the border, with the final line, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
There are no official, confirmed reports of him in Mexico and no evidence of where he went once he crossed the border. His sole remaining daughter even successfully recruited the US government to search for him, but to no avail. His disappearance spawned amazing, fantastic theories about what happened to the aging writer.
Some theories, run-of-the-mill as Bierce disappearance theories go, state that he made it into Mexican territory where he was killed in the middle of civil war fighting. Alternately, stories are told of an “old gringo” who joined up with Pancho Villa and was then either executed by Pancho or became one of his most trusted advisers. Some people have claimed to see his grave marker, but it has never been confirmed. Another theory is that he simply sent his last letter, then committed suicide in such a way to guarantee he was never discovered.
One popular story is that Bierce met up with British adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, and they went on to steal several Mayan artifacts. Bierce was then supposedly captured and executed in Honduras . . . or he was taken to a Mayan temple where he was held captive, dressed in the skins of a jaguar, and worshiped as a god.
Some sources claim that Ambrose Bierce never existed at all. Another has him committing himself to an insane asylum, where all traces of him were lost among the other lunatics. Two years after his disappearance, he was supposedly fighting in France with British World War I troops. Supernatural forces are sometimes blamed for his mysterious disappearance, too—either the crystal skulls he discovered with Mitchell-Hedges called him back to their alien creators, or (because he disappeared about the same time as a man named Ambrose Small) evil forces were clearly collecting men named Ambrose.
Without a doubt, whatever really happened to the author and infamous cynic was much more mundane than fighting an evil mage king on a planet filled with dinosaurs (as the comic book series Lost Planet suggests). But perhaps the stories written about him are a much more fitting legacy than the truth would be to the man who helped pioneer the supernatural story.