Originally created 01/18/98

Life of 'Bitter Bierce' ended mysteriously



Early one morning in the autumn of 1913, a 71-year-old grandfather rose from his bed, saddled his horse, then quietly and secretively rode away from his home near Washington, D.C.

He headed south, first stopping off at famous Civil War battlefields in Tennessee and Mississippi before passing through Louisiana and Texas on his way to Mexico. His goal, as far as anyone has been able to determine, was to join up with a gang of revolutionaries led by Generalissimo Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

But somewhere along the way this aged, would-be soldier of fortune vanished.

He was never seen or heard from again, and today, more than eight decades later, people are still intrigued by the strange disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, one of America's foremost journalists and tellers of tall tales.

For years newspaper reporters, detectives and Secret Service agents from the United States combed the rugged hinterlands of Mexico for clues to the missing writer's fate. Not a trace of was ever found, leading one biographer to conclude that Mr. Bierce had "simply but stylishly vanished from the face of the Earth."

Whatever happened, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Bierce -- whose gloomy, nihilistic works include The Devil's Dictionary, In the Midst of Life, Fantastic Fables and Can Such Things Be? -- would have been flattered by all the hoopla surrounding his fate. As Clifton Fadiman, the noted essayist, once remarked, "Bierce was never a great writer anyway. He has painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination. But his style, for one thing, will preserve him ... and the purity of his misanthropy, too, will help to keep him alive."

Born in a log cabin in Ohio, Mr. Bierce fought bravely for the North during the Civil War but always sympathized with the aristocratic planter culture of the antebellum South. After the war -- which would greatly influence his later writing, Mr. Bierce settled in San Francisco, where he found a job with a newspaper.

In 1871 he married and went to London to work as a correspondent. It was here that the stinging nature of his work emerged, along with the nickname "Bitter Bierce." He later worked for the San Francisco Examiner and Cosmopolitan magazine in Washington.

Mr. Bierce was never a happy man. Dead ends, failures and tragedies haunted his personal life. In 1889 his son was killed in a shooting brawl over a girl. Two years later his wife left him, finally divorcing him in 1904.

In 1913, Mr. Bierce -- old, asthmatic, weary, his creative power only an acrid memory -- made his strange escape from civilization, presumably to Mexico, where he met his fate.

"Nobody will find my bones," Mr. Bierce once predicted.

Little did he know how prophetic those words would be when he took off for Mexico, ostensibly to observe the revolution then rocking the nation. "I'm on my way to Mexico," he told a reporter friend. "I like the fighting ... I want to see it."

As years passed, people on both sides of the Rio Grande speculated on his death. Did he commit suicide, as some experts claim? Did he succumb to natural causes, such as the asthma that had plagued him all his life? Was he shot by Pancho Villa or some other renegade Mexican officer?

Whatever the truth, Ambrose Bierce's curious fate remains as mystifying as was his own troubled life.

Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.