Ambrose Bierce Biography



Bierce late in life -- but still fierce

compiled by Don Swaim
read HERE


In honor of Ambrose Bierce, a cenotaph (monument commemorating someone buried elsewhere) is displayed at Oakland Cemetery, Warsaw, Kosciusko County, Indiana. Bierce, born in Ohio, was raised in Indiana and was a member of the Ninth Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, during the Civil War. Also buried at Oakwood Cemetery are other Bierce family members: father Marcus Aurelius and mother Laura Sherwood; brothers Andrew, Augustus, Aurelius, and sister Almeda. (All of Bierce's siblings had first names starting with the letter A.) Buried at Oakland Cemetery in addition is Reuben Williams, publisher of the Northern Indianian newspaper, which employed the young Bierce as a printer's devil. Bierce may have vanished in Mexico, but his ghost hovers over this small part of Indiana.



Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), author of Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, published in 1929 by Albert and Charles Boni, was one of the twentieth century's leading intellectuals. His book still stands as the leading biography of Bierce. A lawyer, McWilliams was editor of The Nation magazine from 1955 to 1975. As a progressive, he spoke out against the treatment of migrants, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and McCarthyism. In the February 1929 issue of The American Mercury, McWilliams maintained that Bierce's celebrated short stories "are of trivial importance when compared with the amazing bulk of his satirical writing." Read the complete essay HERE

by Carey McWilliams

Bierce shortly after enlisting to fight in the Civil War

Carey McWilliams, author of the first definitive Bierce biography in 1929, writes of Bierce's first fling. Originally published in The Bookman, New York, June 1932. Read HERE


Bierce's daughter Helen published a short memoir focusing on her father in the December 1933 issue of The American Mercury. There are some inaccuracies in Helen's account. Born on Oct. 30, 1875, she says Mark Twain was a frequent guest at the family's home, but there's scant evidence to support this, as Twain was well ensconced on the East Coast by the 1870s.

There's also no evidence Bierce had a friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson, nor did Bierce ever visit Stevenson and his wife in Samoa. Helen claims she saw Jack London several times when she went into town for lunch with her father, but Bierce's only known meeting with London occurred in May 1910. Nor did Bierce ever own a silver mine in California (although he briefly managed a gold mining operation in Dakota Territory).

Read the full essay HERE

This new site created the University of Cincinnati's Archives and Rare Books Library, directed by Kevin Grace, focuses on fifty-nine letters sent by Bierce between 1895 and 1911 to Myles Walsh, whose sister was a protégé of Bierce. The letters have been transcribed for all to read. The site also offers a short biography, bibliography, photos, and links. Connect HERE


by Margaret Parker

Historian explains how she resolved her skepticism over where Bierce was born in Ohio [clue: it wasn't Akron]. Read HERE

Damper on First Major Tribute To Bierce
(It Poured)

Rain forced the slender crowd inside, as the Ohio Bicentennial Commission dedicated in 2003 a historic marker to Ambrose Bierce, first major formal recognition of Bierce in the country. A local historical society in Meigs County, place of Bierce's birth, has also erected in honor of the bard a plaque, which hangs in Ohio's oldest standing courthouse. Read here.

Photo for the Bierce Site by Billi Bentley.
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Photo-essay by Don Swaim

A neglected, graffiti-blighted San Francisco alley is named after Bierce. Read here.

Bierce's Favorite Song
Bierce once defined a "fiddle" as: "An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse's tail on the entrails of a cat." The following violin piece was said to be Bierce's favorite song. Do you know what it is?

**scroll to bottom of page for answer


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The Olympia Apartments, 1368 Euclid Street, NW, at 14th Street, in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, DC, won the Mayor's award for Excellence in Design in 2005. Bierce lived in the apartments, still a rental building, from at least December 16, 1901 through October 3, 1913. History Matters, founded in 1999, helped to nominate the building to the National Register of Historic Places. A Washington Times reporter, who interviewed Bierce in August 1902, describes his apartment as "hung and carpeted in red and containing a Turkish couch piled high with pillows, a table full of interesting books, and a quaint little sideboard filled with a mixture of curious glasses, decanters, and a chafing dish." George Horton, an acquaintance, said that Bierce held Sunday morning breakfasts in his apartment for "literary and brain workers," and served coffee made in a peculiar pot shaped like a melon.

Other addresses used by Bierce during his time in Washington:
18 Iowa Circle (1901)
1825 Nineteenth St., N.W. (1901)
1321 Yale Street (1902)
New York American Office (newspaper) (1904)
Army and Navy Club (cited in 1905 as his "permanent address")

Home Again in Indiana

Ambrose Bierce may have been born in Ohio, but he and his family left their mark in northern Indiana. For a look at the homes in which they lived go to Bierce Family Homes in Indiana by clicking the headline above.

Walnut Creek, Indiana

Alas, he'd be a REPUBLICAN!

The following Bierce doggerel may not be what it seems:

Here lies the body of the Republican Party;
Corrupt, and generally speaking, hearty.

—Ambrose Bierce

In Bierce's day, the Republican Party was the "good" party. It ended slavery, preserved the union, created national parks, bolstered consumer protection, and manifested reforms against vested interests that favored the rich over the poor. To his credit, Bierce fought in the Civil War on the winning side, that of the Republicans. It was the party of Lincoln and, later, both Roosevelts, after all. By the late twentieth century, Republicans and Democrats reversed their values by 180 degrees, and the concept of today's Republicans as being the "good" party is laughable.

The majority of Americans, as Pulitizer Prize-winning columnist Timothy Egan wrote in The New York Times, oppose nearly everything the G.O.P. stands for. But that just might, if anything, be an incentive for Bierce to be one of them—although he might reconsider were he to learn, as a poll showed in 2013, that one in five Republicans believe President Obama is the anti-Christ, and that two-thirds of Republicans think people can be possessed by demons.

Aside from the supersitious and religious ignorance tainting wide numbers of Republicans, Bierce would be considered, in current parlance, a libertarian.

However, if his amusing cynicism can be taken seriously, he was skeptical of newness and change, including the telephone, the camera, the phonograph, modern novels, and most music—although he embraced the typewriter. He was convinced man would never fly, and might have even swallowed the tenuous notion that climate change is a hoax, as do a majority of Republicans (the "science-denial party," as Egan put it).

Bierce opposed Prohibition and women's suffrage. A progressive he was not, although, unlike most of today's Republicans (and a smaller majority of Democrats), he would never accept the dubious notion of an unfathomable Almighty.

After Edwin Markham's famous poem "The Man with the Hoe" was published in 1899, Bierce launched a campaign of vituperation and vilification against the mild-mannered Markham that was excessive even by Bierce's standards. Bierce was enraged by Markham's poem, which was sympathetic to the plight of the laboring class. Bierce attacked it as advocating demagoguery and anarchy, and spreading the gospel of hate known as "industrial brotherhood." Bierce, in other words, despised unions. Sound like today's Republicans?

Would he have supported George W. Bush's ruinous invasion of Iraq, as many otherwise intelligent people did? Hard to say, but Bierce would have loved the fight. Unlike his jingoistic employer, William Randolph Hearst, Bierce's support of the Spanish-American War was muted, and he did not help to light, as he put it, "patriotism's altar fires." And, a century later, would he have embraced a disastrous, incompetent presidency like George W. Bush's that would wreck the U.S. economy for generations? Personally, I would like to think that even Bierce would have said enough's enough.

Bierce was facile and superficial regarding politics. He preferred to outrage rather than inform. He reported on enough corruption by the early railroad interests—"the railrogues"—that he actually suggested nationalizing the rails. No one will ever know what he truly believed. Perhaps he never knew himself.

Unfortunately, his libertarian instincts would make Bierce more likely to be a Republican than a Democrat today, even though the current Republican Party is not one sympathetic to intellectuals, academics, historians, scientists, and the artistic and literary community. Still, despite his pig-headed notions, Bierce was an equal-opportunity cynic and his moral compass was often in the right direction—even if his politics were anomalous. —Jogo Tyree


The thirteen letters, dated July 6, 1898, through September 29, 1913, were penned to Bierce's friend Silas Orrin Howes, editor of Bierce's 1909 essay collection, The Shadow on the Dial.

The winning bid on April 22, 2013, was more than double the estimate of between $10,000 to $15,000 made by the Doyle auction house in New York. The winning bidder has not been identified. After the premium charged by the auction house, the owner of the letters netted some $30,000. The Bierce letters were the largest such trove to come to auction in the last twenty-five years.

click to enlarge and read

Of particular interest is the last letter in which Bierce writes of his plans to go to Mexico via Texas: "...thence down to the Mexican border (perhaps at Laredo) seeking a chance to cross and be shot or hanged. For I hold to my project of going through Mexico on horseback -- an 'innocent by-stander' in the war. Adios -- God prosper you."

The lot included a letter from Bierce's daughter Helen in 1915 in which she writes to Howes, "He wrote me just after he arrived in Laredo ... and how I hope he did get out of Mexico alive."

According to Robin Reid, the letters were owned by Davis Howes III, Reid's uncle and Silas Howes' great nephew. In a eulogy to Silas Howes in 1918, the bibliophile Christopher Morley wrote that Howes had intimate, friendly contact with Bierce, "...and used to tell many entertaining anecdotes about that erratic venturer in letters."



  • S.T. Joshi, editor of The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
  • Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke University and a Bierce scholar.
  • Felix Justice, actor playing Ambrose Bierce, re-imagined as a contemporary black man in the one-man show, "The Miraculous Return Of Ambrose Bierce"
  • Bart Schneider, publisher at Kelly's Cove Press and playwright of "The Miraculous Return Of Ambrose Bierce"

    to listen to broadcast of Nov. 29, 2011 click HERE

  • **Bierce's favorite song: Antonin Dvorâk's "Humoresque Number 7,"
    composed in 1894. It's widely available in both classical and popular forms,
    as well as a bawdy vocal version sung by Oscar Brand.

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