A dentist, wrote Ambrose Bierce, was “a prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.” Politeness, “the most acceptable hypocrisy.” A year, a “period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.”
Circa the early 20th century, when famous and cutting wits like Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker delighted readers and dinner guests with wordplay, fellow author Bierce took snark to a new level. His nickname, “Bitter Bierce,” was well-earned: He used words as a cudgel, eviscerating targets. They even took on new meaning in his rakish work The Devil’s Dictionary, which offered alternative definitions; he twisted them to horrific effect in a number of short stories.
Bierce was also a Civil War veteran, and in 1913, the 71-year-old decided to once again run toward conflict, this time as an observer and possibly a participant of the Revolutionary War in Mexico. No one would ever again read his caustic reporting because he never returned. His death remains shrouded in mystery. If it was murder, it’s entirely possible Bierce’s legendary bitterness was the motive.
War and Wit
Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Bierce took up arms for the Union Army in 1861, when he was nearly 19. For four years, he was mired in fighting, much of it visceral and fated to forever haunt his imagination. In one clash, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, an estimated 4000 soldiers were killed.
His personal life was equally tumultuous. Bierce had three children, and both of his sons died young—one, Raymond, by suicide and the other, Leigh, of pneumonia related to alcoholism. His wife left him. Those tragedies, coupled with his wartime experiences, led some to believe his misanthropic nature was inevitable.
The violence informed his later work, which often centered on war. In perhaps his most famous story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a Confederate civilian is saved from hanging and rejoins his family. It appears salvation has arrived, but only if a reader forgets this is an Ambrose Bierce tale. At the end, it’s revealed the man is merely conjuring up a happy ending in the seconds before his neck snaps.
The 1891 tale has been adapted multiple times, including as a French short film that eventually wound up on The Twilight Zone and as an installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents—the only time a single story was used as source material for both shows. But those were decades later. In his time, Bierce had only modest success with his fiction, once claiming he had earned as little as $100 for it over a lifetime. He was better known as a newspaper reporter and satirist. (The Devil’s Dictionary was culled from some of his columns.)
“That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twadle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. He makes me tired.”
While working at The San Francisco Examiner in February 1900, Bierce wrote an incendiary poem about President William McKinley that seemed ill-timed. In September 1901, McKinley was shot and killed; some believed the perpetrator was inspired by Bierce, though that wasn’t likely. Even so, it reinforced his profile as a contemptuous scribe.
By 1910, Bierce was retired from his newspaper screeds. But a life of leisure didn’t appear to suit him.
Declarations and Disappearance
It’s not entirely clear what motivated Bierce to depart for Mexico on horseback in December 1913. It’s possible he was intrigued by the revolution championed by Francisco “Pancho” Villa against the Mexican government and president Porfirio Díaz; Bierce may have wanted to document it as a journalist. It’s also possible Bierce was looking for some excitement before the end of his life and that he intended to fight alongside Villa. (Either one was a curious choice, as he spoke no Spanish.) In either case, his correspondence dried up. By fall 1914, no one had heard from him in months. Indeed, no one would ever hear from him again.
Despite inquiries from the Secret Service and Pinkerton private detectives, there was no creditable account of his passing. Some believe he died in Ojinaga, where a battle was raging, because Bierce had written to his secretary that he was headed there. Two people later said they had heard that an elderly gringo (“foreigner”) had been killed during the fighting. One soldier shown a photo of Bierce believed he had indeed been a casualty.
Another version has Bierce wounded at Ojinaga and caught up in an exodus across the border into the United States. Lost among refugees, he expired and was quickly forgotten.
Still another story had it that Bierce made the fatal mistake of asking directions of Federales in Sierra Mojada. He was quickly shot. This account, by journalist Edward Reilly, was bolstered by Reilly asking a local who claimed to have housed Bierce for some proof. The man showed him letters left by the visitor which were addressed to Ambrose Bierce.
Then, in 1991, one other lead turned up. Publisher James Robertson was working on a collection of Bierce stories when he stumbled upon a little-seen biography of Bierce by Adolphe Danziger DeCastro. According to DeCastro, who first circulated the story in 1927, he interviewed Pancho Villa and pointedly asked him about Bierce.
“I knew him,” Villa said. “He has passed.” Villa had little positive to say, adding that he treated Bierce’s “vaporings with contempt … an American who drinks too much tequila soon loses himself.”
In this account, Bierce’s biting remarks were directed at Villa’s men as well as Villa himself, a rather foolish decision. One is left to intimate that perhaps Villa grew so offended at Bierce’s insults that he had the man shot. It was something Bierce himself regarded as a fine way to go out, once describing a firing squad as “a pretty good way to depart this life.” It’s possible “Bitter Bierce” was stuck in his ways until the bitter end.