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El Paso Connections: Ambrose Bierce, writer
One of the most famous American disappearances, as noted by Time magazine, concerns the American author Ambrose Bierce, an author of exceeding popularity between 1880 and 1910. Bierce supposedly disappeared into Mexico and the Mexican Revolution during the end of 1913 or the beginning of 1914. According to the experts writing his biography after his disappearance, he was last seen in the United States in El Paso, Texas.
He was born in a log cabin in rural Ohio (he would later describe his parents as “unwashed savages”). At the age of 15, he became a printer’s apprentice on a small newspaper. He enlisted in the Union Army very early in the Civil War and was quickly promoted to the rank of lieutenant. His experiences in the Civil War would later provide material for his many war and horror stories. According to various sources, he eventually became either a captain or a major in the army.
Image caption: Ambrose Bierce disappeared during the Mexican Revolution. (file image)
The army sent him to the West on a military assignment, and he remained in San Francisco. There he started writing for various newspapers, including William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. During his career as a writer, many considered him to be a master of the English language.
Ambrose Bierce was one of the most famous journalists of the 1800s, a short story writer of war and other horror stories, a literary critic, and a bitter cynic and misanthropist. He kept a human skull and a cigar box of (supposedly) an enemy’s ashes on his desk. His contemporaries named him Bitter Bierce with his constant motto, “Nothing matters.” He wrote the often anthologized short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” He also wrote the well-known book The Devil’s Dictionary, the entries for some of which were accompanied by humorous pseudonyms.
Bierce left several clues behind as to his plans to disappear in Mexico. “Good-bye — 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,” he wrote in a letter to his niece Lora. A close associate of Bierce reportedly received a letter with a postmark from Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico. The letter stated, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Nobody ever received any communication from Bierce after that. In 1914, the U. S. State Department searched for Bierce in Mexico. Several articles appeared in American newspapers about Bierce being executed by firing squad in Mexico, but a body was never found.
Eventually, theories grew about Ambrose Bierce. One article in a newspaper placed him in France fighting for the Allies. There was the story of Bierce and a crystal skull. Another story placed him in a South American jungle dressed in animal skins. The possibility of alien abduction was mentioned. Some Bierce biographers suggested a more practical way to disappear — suicide.
Various writers soon after Bierce’s disappearance and even into contemporary times have linked Bierce and El Paso, Texas. Most of the accounts of Bierce’s disappearance mention El Paso. According to the experts nearly a century ago, El Paso was Bierce’s departure place for Mexico and the Mexican Revolution.
Carrey McWilliams wrote in Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, “He proceeded on to El Paso and passed across the line into Juárez.” Paul Fatout, a Bierce scholar of the 1950s, noted, “Later in November the traveler moved on to El Paso, where international relations were so friendly that crossing the border was relatively simple.” Richard O’Connor stated in his Ambrose Bierce biography, “Late in November he finally crossed the border at Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso.” Roy Morris, in his Bierce biography Alone in Bad Company, observed:
One of the last famous authors to write of this unsolved disappearance was Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, who found the story of Bierce’s disappearance to be very appealing. Fuentes wrote in his novel The Old Gringo, “He [Bierce] got off the train in El Paso, carrying his folding black suitcase, what they called a Gladstone then, and dressed all in black except for the white expanse of cuffs and shirtfront.”
One hundred years later, nothing more is known about the final story of Bierce than was known immediately after he vanished. Many scholars and investigators over the century have found nothing conclusive about his disappearance. It appears that this mystery will never be solved definitively. And to this day, nobody has found any conclusive evidence that Ambrose Bierce ever visited El Paso, Texas. Even though one of the biographers mentioned that Bierce had spoken with some El Paso journalists, there does not seem to be any mention of Ambrose Bierce being in El Paso in the local papers of the late months of 1913.
Did the connection between El Paso and Ambrose Bierce ever exist? The biographers during the first half of the 20th century thought so. Like much of the famous disappearance story a century ago, nothing will probably be proved. After a century, the case has grown very cold. Still, fans are observing the 100th anniversary of his disappearance.
A last note: Some of Bierce’s biographers mentioned suicide. Is his sun bleached skeleton along with a rusty pistol yet to be found somewhere in the canyons of the Franklin Mountains?
Editor’s note: Yarbrough is a professor of English at EPCC’s Mission Del Paso’s Campus.