Ambrose Bierce: author mysteriously vanished at 71

Lindy Moon’s novel Hyperlink from Hell set me on a mission to learn more about the author who at age 71 marched off to war (again!)…

(1842-c.1914)]  June 24: Happy Birthday, Ambrose Bierce!

…. in part, to get new material to write about, but he didn’t live to tell his new tales. The best tale may have been the story of how he died, but no one has ever told it. After all these years, no one ever will.

I remember Bierce for his chilling, horrifying tale The Boarded Window (1891), a slightly less disturbing story than all the true tales of women dug up form their graves with broken fingernails and blood attesting to the fact that the woman who appeared to be dead was in fact buried alive. A statue in a cemetery in Virginia commemorates one of these unfortunate women, Ocativa Hatcher: but I cannot bear to think of such things, so let us return to the plight of Ambrose Bierce, whose body was never found.

According to, Bierce crossed into Mexico at age 71 to join Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries.

In a letter to his neice Lora, Bierce wrote: “Goodbye. 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. To be a gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia. ” Just before he entered war-torn Mexico he again wrote Lora, “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.” His final letter was dated Dec. 26, 1913, postmarked Chihuahua. In it, he said he expected to leave the next day, partly by rail, for Ojinaga, where Villa was poised to attack a cornered federal army. 

It was the last ever heard from Ambrose Bierce. His disappearance sparked investigations, wild speculation, but no answers. The novel The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes is a fictionalized treatment of Bierce’s disappearance. Glenn Willeford has written a fascinating account of Bierce’s presumed death in Mexico — 

Okay, I went to ojinaga, and here is a condensed verson of what Glenn Willeford wrote:

Ambrose G. Bierce, born in Ohio in June 24, 1842.

As a young man he served as a United States Army officer and fought for the North during the American Civil War. He wrote a book of Civil War stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which includes his most famous story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” He is also known for The Devil’s Dictionary. As a journalist with the Hearst newspaper chain, he detested William Randolph Hearst, his employer. Hearst owned land in northern Mexico and rumor had it, he sided with the pre-revolutionary dictatorship. Bierce wrote a big story about it but didn’t publish it, so as not to embarrass Hearst’s aging mother. Bierce apparently planned to go live with the story once the esteemed Mrs. Hearst died, but the manuscript vanished from storage at a hotel, never to reappear. The missing manuscript may or not have some connection to the missing man.  Very little evidence has ever been found.

Rebecca Tuttle in 1999 said she had located the following in a letter from Bierce to Walter Neale that was written on May 29, 1913: “I’m going to rediscover Tennessee (discovered in 1862) – a feat in which I hope for your assistance. Later still, I mean to go into Mexico – where, thank God, something is doing – and, in all probability, in to South America, a region that has held up a beckoning hand to me all my life.”

His best writing had been the war stories, so Bierce decided to accrue more material by experiencing another war. On his way to Mexico, Bierce stopped in New Orleans and was interviewed by several newspaper reporters. One asked why he was going to war-torn Mexico, and Bierce replied, “I like the game. . . . I want to see it.”

In San Antonio, the author was “royally entertained by Fort Sam Houston cavalry officers.” In November, soon after Villa captured Ciudad Juarez, Bierce crossed the Rio Grande and was “cordially received and given credentials as an observer attached to Villaís army marching to Chihuahua.” On November 26-27 Villa defeated federal huertistas and colorados (Redflaggers) at Tierra Blanca. Bierce not only witnessed the battle, he took a rifle, aimed carefully, and killed a federal soldier at some distance. The revolutionaries were so delighted, they gave the grey-headed old man a large Mexican hat (un sombrero villista) as a prize for his marksmanship.

Some say Bierce never came to Chihuahua at all, and the story was a ruse for him to mysteriously disappear from this life. The most rational explanation for the disappearance of Bierce is that he came north with Villa, arrived near Ojinaga on January 9, and was either slain during the battle on January 10 or that he died of natural causes sometime during that entire time frame. Many of the dead at Ojinaga were buried in trench graves. Others were set afire on the plaza de armas in front of a church. Was Bierce burned to ashes or buried in an unmarked grave? However he died, it surely was a more fitting end for the author than “old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs,” as he put it.

His death left a body of work unfinished, and created a lot of intrigue.

And I need to stop reading so many contemporary indie authors, take time to revisit 19th Century literature,  and get reacquainted with classical writers.

Bierce is famous for a lot of great one-liners, but I won’t share them all here. Just google it sometime.

Head’s up: Lindy Moone’s novel is full of great one-liners, but you’ll find only the one mention of “Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared without a trace in Mexico in 1913, aged 71”
Another blogger posted this: Fatal Affection

FROM Killed At Resaca by Ambrose Bierce

Lieutenant Brayle was more than six feet in height and of splendid proportions, with the light hair and gray-blue eyes which men so gifted usually find associated with a high order of courage. As he was commonly in full uniform, especially in action, when most officers are content to be less flamboyantly attired, he was a very striking and conspicuous figure. As to the rest, he had a gentleman’s manners, a scholar’s head, and a lion’s heart. His age was about thirty…. (see more at the site)




About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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2 Responses to Ambrose Bierce: author mysteriously vanished at 71

  1. A fascinating article, Carol. I remember reading An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge when in university, but had forgotten the author.I recall movie with Gregory Peck.Never saw it, though. I’ve a lot of catching up to do…


  2. Lindy Moone says:

    Reblogged this on Belly-up! and commented:
    How marvelous that Carol Kean brought all this information together. Ambrose Bierce was a truly innovative writer of fiction — not to mention the author of The Devil’s Dictionary!


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