Very Trustworthy Witnesses


On History

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.


A portrait of Bierce by John Herbert Evelyn Partington.

Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.

This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.

More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves.

First Ambrose Bierce died quickly in the battle at Ojinaga, just across the border from the American town of Presidio. In his last postcard, mailed from Chihuahua City, Bierce informed his secretary that he was headed for Ojinaga. He rode with Pancho Villa’s army as they left Chihuahua City, ready to show off his soldierly skills. According to Villa’s biographer, Friedrich Katz, Bierce took up a rifle in an earlier skirmish at Tierra Blanca where he killed a Federale and, for his marksmanship, was awarded a sombrero. Both an American mercenary and a customs agent testified that they heard an old gringo was shot in the battle of Ojinaga. And a Villista named Ybarra identified a photograph of Bierce, claiming to have seen him in Ojinaga, but never again. His body was burned with hundreds of others.

A little later, Bierce, only wounded now in the battle at Ojinaga, was spotted by a young Federale who was running for his life from the breached Ojinaga fort. With a swarm of other Federales, he was aiming to cross the Rio Grande to the U.S. side. When he saw the incoherent, moaning gringo, it occurred to him that things might go better if he showed up with a norteamericano. He half-floated the old man through the shallows on a two-wheeled cart, hearing him mumble his name—Ambrosia, was it? Ambrosia Price maybe? But once they made the U.S. side, they were unceremoniously swept up with hundreds of other refugees and railroaded to Marfa for processing. The gringo was delirious by then, nearly comatose. He had no papers, no identification. When he died, he was buried in a rush without a marker in the old Camp Marfa cemetery. This narrative, published in 1990 in the Big Bend Sentinel and later in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, was related to one Abelardo Sanchez of Lancaster, California, by a sixty-something-year-old hitchhiker and former Federale in 1957.

It was not long after his death in Marfa that Ambrose Bierce was killed near the village of Icamole when he and an Indian muleteer were the only ones who didn’t escape as Villa’s forces overran a party of government soldiers driving a mule train loaded with arms. This time Bierce was riding with the Federales. Both prisoners were executed by a firing squad under the orders of General Tomas Urbina. That’s what journalist James H. Wilkins asserted in his front-page article in San Francisco’s The Bulletin in March 1920. Wilkins had gone to Mexico and personally interviewed a witness who had managed to snatch a photo of a man—identified as Bierce—along with a few other personal possessions from the corpse before it was abandoned, unburied, in the desert.

I kept up a two-year correspondence with Padre Jaime Lienert, who served as pastor to a wide desert community that included Sierra Mojada, an isolated mountain town, where Ambrose Bierce was killed once again by suspicious government soldiers. Padre Jaime paid to have a monument erected in the cemetery that reads:

Very trustworthy witnesses suppose
that here lie the remains of
1842 Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce 1914
a famous American writer and journalist who
on suspicion of being a spy
was executed and buried at this place.

It turns out that the oldest man in Sierra Mojada, Don Jesus (Chuy) Benites Avila, happened to remember an incident from his childhood. Padre Jaime translates:

One morning when I was just a boy, a close pal of mine, Crysostomo, the son of Marcelo de Anda, the Comandante, came running up to me saying to come along because they were going to put someone to the firing squad. So we went to the corral of the soldiers’ quarters, and while we were there a soldier came up to the captain and said: “We have him, and everything is ready.” With that the captain dispatched several other soldiers, and everyone headed down toward the cemetery. There were a lot of other people following, too, and when we got to the cemetery the soldiers made everyone stand back as far as the stone wall. Then they stood the man against the wall and shot him.

Don Chuy remembered that the man was an American and was called El Ruso.

Backing up Don Chuy’s story, a soldier-journalist and contemporary of Ambrose Bierce, Edward (Tex) O’Reilly, wrote in his autobiography that while he was traveling with Villa’s commander Toribio Ortega, they heard rumors that a small bunch of Federales had taken Sierra Mojada. Ortega sent four hundred men “to clear them out.” Those soldiers returned with a story that an American had been killed there, so O’Reilly, thinking he should report the incident to the U.S. State Department, went to investigate. He ascertained that an old gringo had shown up with maps, asking questions about trails and how to reach Villa’s army. The Federales, who weren’t in uniform, suspected he was a spy. Not speaking Spanish, he couldn’t answer their questions, so they dragged him to the cemetery where they shot and buried him. O’Reilly, taken to the house where the dead man had been staying, asked the owner if any personal effects had been left behind. According to O’Reilly, “The old fellow reached up behind a rafter on the wall and brought out two old empty envelopes left by the Americano, and they were both addressed to Ambrose Bierce.”

As multiple sequoia trunks can erupt from a large stump, many deaths can befall a single man. There are some who say that Ambrose Bierce didn’t die in Mexico, that he traveled southward into Latin America as he once said he would. Others have mentioned that the handsome middle-aged Bierce looks suspiciously like Mexican American writer and journalist Francisco Goldman, implying perhaps that Bierce discovered an occult serum to age him slowly youthward, his literary style changing with the times. A past forks into innumerable directions.

Forrest Gander is an award-winning poet, novelist and translator. His numerous books include As a Friend, Science & Steepleflower, Core Samples from the World, and The Trace, which will be published in November. He is the A. K. Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University.