The Mysterious Vanishing of Ambrose Bierce
Some mysterious vanishings manage to strike a perfect balance between the weird, the unexplained, and the victim’s life in general. In some cases these disappearances seem almost fitting, as if they were fated to be and that they could not have happened any other way. One such case surely must be the disappearance of a talented author who wrote extensively of the world of the supernatural and strange vanishings, only to follow suit and vanish himself, his life ultimately becoming inextricably linked to the very oddities he so loved to write about. Indeed his unexplained and unsolved disappearance has become such a persistent and perplexing mystery that it threatens to become larger than life and overshadow his own work, making him almost more famous for his absence and what was left behind than anything he did when he was among us.
In the late 1800s one of the most popular writers around was a man by the name of Ambrose Bierce, a celebrated Civil War veteran who was also a journalist and prolific author who wrote not only books and short stories, but also a wide array of newspaper articles and essays, and he appeared in publications as varied as the New York Journal, the New York American, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Cosmopolitan. Such was his popularity at the time that he has served as the inspiration to many other notable authors, including the greats Jack London and Joaquin Miller. Although his works remain more obscure and hard to get in more modern times, he was once known very well-known, particularly on the West Coast of the United States and especially for his work concerning the world of the bizarre and the supernatural. Indeed, the author was rather obsessed with death and the paranormal, which is rather prominently featured in his stories, with many of them including ghosts and strange occurrences. Much of his work was also known for its very realistic tone, a carry-over from Bierce’s experience as a journalist, which gave the stories a convincing weight that at times made people believe that his works of fiction were actually factual pieces.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is Bierce’s short story Charles Ashmore’s Trail, which was published in the author’s 1893 collection of short stories Can Such Things Be? The story is written as if it is a real account of something that actually happened, and concerns a young man named Charles Ashmore, who on a snowy November night in 1878 leaves his family’s farm house in Quincy Illinois to go get water from a nearby well. Charles does not return, and his concerned family go out to look for him. Since a fresh snow has just fallen, there are footprints clearly visible leading off towards the well, but they abruptly stop halfway there. Calls out into the icy dark remain unanswered. There is no sign of Charles anywhere, no further footprints, and no trace of him having fallen down in the snow. He has simply blinked out of existence. Nevertheless, thinking that the young man has somehow managed to reach the well and then fallen in, the father and older sister make their way to the well only to find a clean sheet of unbroken ice overlaying it. Charles was not there, nor had he ever been on that night. Making things spookier yet is that 4 days later the mother goes to the well to collect water and can hear the unearthly, disembodied voice of her son calling out from thin air at the spot where the footprints had ended. This haunting, ghostly voice would continue to call out from the ether from time to time before eventually disappearing completely.
This strange story might be very familiar to anyone with an interest in mysterious vanishings, as it has often made reappearances in different permutations as a real case, and has influenced many other strange accounts that are supposedly “real.” One is the case of Oliver Larch, sometimes called Oliver Lerch or Oliver Thomas, who similarly goes out to a well behind his house, this time on Christmas Eve and in Indiana, and also disappears into thin air, in this case after a strange bright flash of light. When the family go to investigate they can hear Oliver calling out for help from somewhere in the air above them before silence. Often mentioned as a true story of the strange, this is almost certainly a spinoff the Ashmore story penned by Bierce.
There is also the famous case of David Lang, which is actually at least partially based on another Bierce story called The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, yet is persistently reported in the world of the unexplained as a real event, and which concerns a man named Lang vanishing into thin air in front of everyone’s eyes. This time set in Tennessee, the story typically goes that in 1880 the farmer David Lang was strolling across an open field when he suddenly just faded away into nothing as his family and some passing men looked on in horror. In his place was said to be found a 15-foot diameter of yellowed grass, and just as in the case of Ashmore people reported hearing his faint voice calling out to them at the spot in the following days. Although in Bierce’s story the vanished man’s name is Williamson and the event happens in Alabama, almost every other detail is exactly the same. Bierce followed up on this story by claiming that he had interviewed experts such as a scientist named Dr. Maximilian Hern, who theorized that the vanishing was caused by a “void spot of universal ether,” which were speculated to be spots in the fabric of reality that lasted only a few second but destroyed all matter within them, vaporizing anything unlucky to wander into one. Bierce also said that he had interviewed other researchers who said it was caused by a magnetic field that had transported him to another dimension. Interestingly, Bierce always claimed that the story of Williamson itself was actually in fact true, and that he had written his own story to be based on it after hearing the tale as a child and being fascinated and inspired by it.
Both the Oliver Larch and David Lang cases have been persistently reported on as real events that actually occurred, and are often referenced as factual in many works on the strange and unexplained, yet they both most likely have their origins in Bierce’s original short story, or were at least heavily influenced by it. This was the extent of his power to convince people that the situations in his fiction had really occurred, whether he did this intentionally or not. Bierce was known to not only write in an authoritative, convincing way, but also added to the whole air of realism in his stories by doing things such as providing supposed follow-up interviews with family and witnesses to the strange events, as well as investigations of the sites themselves. In fact, his short stories were often not presented as short fiction at all, but rather put forth as real, journalistic accounts. This realism has caused some of his stories to be sourced as real events, which is a testament to Bierce’s skill at weaving tales that blur the line between fact and fiction.
Yet another of Bierce’s works often taken as a real occurrence is his story Spook House, which was actually shamelessly printed in a real newspaper article format in The Advocate. The tale is about an abandoned plantation house in Kentucky from which a whole family had supposedly spookily vanished without a trace in 1858, leaving behind their all of their belongings, clothing, food, their horses, and even their slaves. The following year, a lawyer named Col. J. C. McArdle and a judge, Myron Veigh, found themselves taking shelter from a raging storm within the house and Veigh would never return. McArdle would go on to claim in a very journalistic-sounding account that within the house they found that the sound of the storm was immediately cut off to leave them in utter silence, and that they had discovered a room suffused with a strange green light within its bowels. Lodged within the walls and floor of the room were reportedly numerous corpses of people in various states of decay.
After reeling from the horror of this grisly sight, McAdle claimed that he had then noticed that the door to the room opened only from the outside. Veigh went in to investigate despite McAdle’s pleas not to, and as the judge entered the room there was reported a fould stench in the air, after which McAdle felt himself fall down and the door clicked shut. When he awoke 6 hours later at a hotel he learned that he had been found unconscious and rescued by passerby and that Veigh had not been seen. When the house was searched later, no sign of the strange room he had described could be found, and Veigh was never heard from again. In the article, McAdle says:
No one believed a word of my story, and who can wonder? And who can imagine my grief when, arriving at my home in Frankfort two months later, I learned that Judge Veigh had never been heard of since that night? I then regretted bitterly the pride which since the first few days after the recovery of my reason had forbidden me to repeat my discredited story and insist upon its truth. With all that afterward occurred–the examination of the house; the failure to find any room corresponding to that which I have described; the attempt to have me adjudged insane, and my triumph over my accusers–the readers of the Advocate are familiar. After all these years I am still confident that excavations which I have neither the legal right to undertake nor the wealth to make would disclose the secret of the disappearance of my unhappy friend, and possibly of the former occupants and owners of the deserted and now destroyed house. I do not despair of yet bringing about such a search, and it is a source of deep grief to me that it has been delayed by the undeserved hostility and unwise incredulity of the family and friends of the late Judge Veigh.
The whole thing sounds very authentic and believable, like a real news report, with no indication that McArdle is a fictitious character. Considering that the story is presented as an authentic journalistic piece, it is even now debated as to the veracity of it, which is all further testament to Bierce’s style of convincingly mixing fact and fiction to mess with readers’ heads and keep them on their toes. Such was Bierce’s genius that to this day that many of his stories are often either reported on as real or debated as to how much of them are true and how much is fiction. He was able to very skillfully ride the line between truth and fiction, to the point that the two are often indistinguishable.
As one can see by some of Bierce’s more well known works, the man was seriously fascinated by mysterious disappearances, so much so that he apparently did quite a lot of research on the matter. He was particularly attracted to the theories of the German researcher Dr. Hern Leipzig, who speculated that there were certain “holes” in our reality, through which “animate and inanimate objects may fall into the invisible world and be seen and heard no more.” These were postulated to be some sort of limbo in a sense, in which the victim would cease to exist yet still exist at the same time, completely invisible to the world around them and unable to detect it either. Bierce concluded that these holes, vacuums, whatever they are, were one of the causes of cases where people simply spontaneously disappeared into thin air. Bierce would elaborate:
But let us suppose that cavities exist in this otherwise universal medium, as caverns exist in the earth, or cells in Swiss cheese. In such a cavity there would be absolutely nothing. It would be such a vacuum as cannot be artificially produced; for if we pump the air from a receiver there remains the luminiferous ether. Through one of these cavities light could not pass, for there would be nothing to bear it. Sound could not come from it; nothing could be felt in it. It would not have a single one of the conditions necessary to the action of any of our senses. In such a void, in short, nothing whatever could occur. A man enclosed in such a closet could neither see nor be seen; neither hear nor be heard; neither feel nor be felt; neither live nor die, for both life and death are processes which can take place only where there is force, and in empty space no force could exist.
With such a macabre fascination with vanishings and such a penchant for writing about them, even on more than one occasion jokingly mentioning that he would himself one day disappear, it is perhaps somewhat fitting that Bierce would indeed mysteriously vanish, and it is one of the most enigmatic vanishings of the literary world. In 1913, when Bierce was the ripe old age of 70, he took it upon himself to retrace the steps he had taken during his glory days serving in the Civil War and then to go to Mexico, to see the fighting where the counter-revolutionary forces of Carranza and Villa had risen against the federal troops of President Huerta, after which he would travel around South America. Bierce had made no secret that he considered his time in the Civil War, where he had bravely fought and been seriously wounded in battle twice, to be his finest hour, inspiring much of his fiction, and he often lamented that he had never amounted to much since. As for Mexico, where the Mexican Revolution was in full swing, he once told a reporter: “I’m on my way to Mexico because I like the game. I like fighting; I want to see it.”
Indeed this seemed to fit in with Bierce’s character, since by all accounts he seemed to love the chaos of fighting and war, and found a certain beauty in it, having enlisted three times even after the physical toll battle had taken on him. It seems that Bierce did in fact fulfill his plan to visit his old battlegrounds in the United States, touring them in early October of 1913, but after that his fate remains vague. On December 6, 1913 he wrote a last letter to his niece from Laredo Texas, stating that he was about to cross the border to travel to Juarez, Mexico before continuing on. This would be one of the last known correspondences from Bierce, or indeed the last time anyone ever heard from him at all, save for a postcard he wrote on December 26th from Chihuahua, Mexico, in which he describes having just journeyed from Juarez and on his way to Ojinaga. He then proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth just as surely as any of his literary creations. By all accounts he never did seem to think he would be coming back, even going so far as to call this one last adventure Jornada de Muerte, a journey of death. Some of his last words to his niece were:
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 stars. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!
In 1919, a close friend of Bierce named George F. Weeks set out on a quest to try and track down what had happened to him. Bierce had been considered long since dead, no doubt having met his end somehow in the bloody Mexican Revolution, the very victim of that brick wall he had spoken of, but no one knew for sure and Weeks intended to rectify that. During his trek, Weeks met a Mexican officer who told him that Bierce had died in battle in January of 1914 at Ojinaga, but other rumors abounded. One was that the author had succumbed to a firing squad, that he had been murdered by none other than the infamous Mexican Revolutionary general Poncho Villa himself, or that he had been merely betrayed by his guides. Try as he might, Weeks was in the end never able to get to the bottom of any of it.
Ever since then, theories on Ambrose Bierce’s ultimate fate have flourished. Other than the obvious possibility that he simply died in battle there is also the idea that he never went to Mexico at all, instead staying behind to ultimately commit suicide due to his deteriorating health. After all he had often made it very clear that he abhorred the thought of wasting and withering away. He also might have committed suicide because he had never considered himself to be the same after the Civil War, yearning for battle but tunable to partake in it in his advanced age, those glory days of his long gone. Another version of this theory is that he stayed behind in the United States, but not to commit suicide, but rather to perpetuate his own legend and add to his lore of vanishing people by vanishing himself, all the while reveling in the bafflement it left in its wake. In a sense he would join the characters of his own fiction and ultimately further blur the lines between reality and fiction, which he was already known for.
Others insist that he would have certainly continued on to Mexico, and there are some accounts that seem to verify this. A former comrade of Poncho Villa named Odo B. Slade claimed that there had been an elderly American calling himself Jack Robinson, who had relentlessly complained about the strategy the Mexicans had been employing. This is where he is said to have incurred the wrath of Villa, with whom he had allegedly argued incessantly, and then been shot dead when Robinson proclaimed he was leaving to join the enemy side. Other ideas say that he was killed by bandits or captured or killed by aggressive Natives of the region, or that he had even joined them. Another theory is that he had been wounded or gotten sick, after which he had just sort of wandered about and died alone in the wilderness. One writer named Edward H. Smith rather hauntingly said of this possibility:
Ambrose Bierce 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, or in some troop train filled with other stricken men. Or he may have crawled off to some waterhole and died, with nothing more articulate than the winds and the stars for witnesses.
Another possibility is that he was murdered by the many enemies he had acquired during his days of writing. Bierce was known as being a grumpy curmudgeon with an acidic, biting wit, prone to spewing vitriol in venomous, cutting essays and rants against all manner of people and organizations. He handed out abuse and acerbic criticism generously against just about everyone, and made plenty of enemies along the way with these sharp jabs and outright attacks. His sardonic, bitter rants were actually quite notorious, and legend has it he went so far as to carry a pistol around to protect himself from those who would take offense. Considering this, it would not be surprising at all that someone who had been burned by his writings would have taken it upon themselves to deal out what they thought Bierce had coming.
Even more far out is the theory that Bierce fell victim to the very unexplained phenomenon he had been so obsessively fascinated by. Perhaps he actually did fall through that hole in between realities he spoke of to end up in some other dimension, proving to himself what he had believed all along but not allowing hime to ever tell anyone of it. It is hard to say. One thing that is known is that his disappearance remains a mystery, his ultimate fate unknown. It seems oddly fitting, poetic even, that an author with such a knack for walking the line between reality and fantasy and so passionately writing about the supernatural and mysterious disappearances should himself vanish without a trace. No matter what really happened to Ambrose Bierce one cannot help but imagine that he would be somewhat pleased by the mystery that has come to surround his vanishing.
So what happened to Ambrose Bierce? Was this a man who took his fiction into real life to orchestrate the perfect end to his strange career, intertwining his love for vanishings, his stories, and reality itself to create his final masterpiece? Did he die off at war in the glory he had always yearned for? Was he swept away by the elements to die alone out in the badlands? Was it murder, injury, or disease that got him? Nobody really knows. The disappearance of Ambrose Bierce remains just as mysterious and spooky as his writings, and whether he did it all on purpose or not, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he probably would have preferred it all this way.