This cheerful Victorian, once the home of Bierce and his family, presents an intriguing contrast to the dark writings of the major American writer. Lily Casura photo

An American original
Tracking down Upvalley's Man of Mystery
By Lily Casura
For The Weekly Calistogan

Thursday, November 6, 2008 12:32 AM PST

A few months ago, a journalist friend in New York City turned me on to a little-known story by that “American original” writer, Ambrose Bierce, famous for his bleakly cynical, fatalistic tales, such as “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut calls “the greatest American short story” ever written, and “The Devil’s Dictionary,” a collection of scathing redefinitions of common American words, according to Bierce’s slanted, bitterly ironic outlook.

 “What I Saw of Shiloh,” was one of Bierce’s Civil War stories, whose horrifically graphic descriptions of battles go far beyond what could be printed in a family newspaper. A major 19th century journalist and writer, Bierce participated in some of the deadliest battles of the Civil War, and a head wound from a musket plagued him with dizziness and blackouts. It appears that post traumatic stress disorder added  to his lifelong struggles with asthma and depression

I was pondering Bierce’s stories and his own tortured existence when the strangest thing happened. I was driving down the main street in St. Helena, when I spied a cheery, butter yellow and rose-colored house, with a sign out front calling it the “Ambrose Bierce House.”

I was so shocked by the contrast between what I knew of Bierce and that home’s sunny facade that I screeched to a halt and jumped out for a better look. It wasn’t my imagination; the plaque in front of the house  did say “Ambrose Bierce.” A white trellis gate and an old-fashioned child’s iron crib, festooned with colorful flowers were in the front yard. Bird feeders abounded, and not a scrap of misery was anywhere to be found. Could Ambrose Bierce really have lived here? The man who is famously portrayed in an oil painting with a human skull on his desk, the better to write by? Or was this confection just the product of a local innkeepers’ vivid imagination?

The lodging was closed for the day so I went home and fired up the Internet to learn whether Ambrose Bierce had in fact slept there. It turns out he had; but the deeper I dug into the mystery of Ambrose Bierce in the Upvalley, the less easily it unraveled before me.

Upvalley mystery man

I’ve always thought the story about Ambrose Bierce living around here was a great story,” says St. Helena Historical Society’s Mariam Hansen, but the problem, she admits, is how few of the details are known. This is Robert Louis Stevenson country: There’s a whole museum devoted to Stevensoniana. And in Stevenson country, Ambrose Bierce’s local wanderings merit only a footnote.

 “You do know that his wife and two of his children are buried here in St. Helena, don’t you?” she asks. Chillingly — and completely apropos of Bierce — she adds, “They’re in unmarked graves.”

If the contrast between the inn’s sunny paint job and Bierce’s dark nature wasn’t intriguing enough, Hansen’s comment put me officially on the trail of one of Upvalley’s oddest visitors.

A local history book Hansen refers me to, “Napa Valley Heyday,” by Charles B. Turrill, contains only two slight references to Bierce. One is that “major writers,” including Bierce, were frequent visitors at socialite Lillie Coit’s home, Larkmead. The other is that Bierce, a chronic asthmatic, was an “early customer (and patient) of Edwin Angwin’s at his ranch, ‘Angwin’s Summer Resort’.”

The accommodating reference librarians at the library in St. Helena contributed what they have from a California reference housed in the library. The asthma angle is pervasive. Bierce biographer, Roy Morris Jr., author of “Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company,” writes, “Bierce had been told by a friend that year’s stay among the pine trees on Howell Mountain would cure him forever of his dreaded asthma.”

He came to the area but, never one to accentuate the positive, Bierce called the former mining camp, now health spa, “the place of last resort.”

No patron saint of St. Helena

Originally from Ohio, Bierce had moved to Indiana, gone to school in Kentucky, fought in West Virginia, and came to the West Coast as part of a survey expedition conducted by a Civil War general. He arrived  in the Bay Area in 1867, got his start working for newspapers in San Francisco, married the daughter of a wealthy Utah miner, Mary Ellen “Mollie” Day, and traveled with her to England on their honeymoon in 1872. While in England, Bierce took in the sophisticated literary scene, wrote for British periodicals, and fathered two sons, Day and Leigh. After a few years abroad, Bierce moved to South Dakota to run a mine.

By 1885, eager to get back into journalism, Bierce returned with his family to the Bay Area. It was at this point that an old San Francisco friend, a Captain Grant, loaned Bierce his “cottage” at 1515 Main St. in St. Helena. A daughter, Helen, was born shortly afterwards.

“After he had settled them in their new quarters,” a  biographer notes, Bierce “then promptly took off to a roost on Howell Mountain, it always having been his custom to try to be as much as possible where his family was not.”

According to biographer Carey McWilliams, Bierce would “return once or twice a week to his home, and would sometimes take Mrs. Bierce, with one or another of his children, back to his mountain retreat.”

Not that his time in St. Helena was altogether unpleasant, writes McWilliams: “The valley was beautiful, many interesting people came there, and tucked away in the north end of the valley was old [Jacob] Schram’s winery, where Bierce used to get his wine.”

While Mollie  was “soon adored locally, few residents of the town ever came to be on speaking terms with Ambrose,” McWilliams writes. “Of the lovely Mrs. Bierce, who was tall and dark and most kind, they had no illusions: They adored her without reservation. She would play piano at their parties, help them with their “receptions,” and entertain them … with stories of London and the great world.”

“With the petty townspeople” (of St. Helena), Bierce had no traffic whatever,” writes McWilliams. “Bierce seldom came to town, and when he did it was at night, or to catch a train ...”

He also picked a fight with the editor of the St. Helena Star, which Bierce renamed “the St. Helena Liver-Complaint,” in a gibe against the pettiness of its contents.

A string of family tragedies

Relations between Bierce and his wife became strained — he was famous for his relationships with women, and for his strongly unforgiving nature where others’ trespasses against him, real and imaginary, were concerned. When Mollie became the object of a Danish businessman’s overtures and Bierce discovered the Dane’s letters to Mollie, he severed their relationship. They separated informally in 1888.

In the meantime, Bierce’s eldest son, Day, ran off to Red Bluff, and later to Chico, while still in his teens, to become a newspaper reporter. At 17, he died after a duel with a friend. In 1901, Bierce’s son, Leigh, also a newspaper reporter, died in New York City of pneumonia, apparently brought on by alcoholism. His body was also returned to St. Helena. Bierce’s long-suffering wife, Mollie finally filed for divorce in 1905 and died a few months later.

Bierce’s philandering was just one of the odd hallmarks of his nature, pierced as it was with contradictions. Richard Dillon, author of “Humbugs and Heroes: A Gallery of California Pioneers,” writes that Bierce was “an antireligious Puritan,” but “a prude who liked his liquor and his ladies.”

Women, it’s alleged, were Bierce’s “main happiness,” according to his longtime friend George Sterling, who noted that Bierce admitted to 30 or 40 “loves” during his lifetime.

Inn-trinsically Ambrose Bierce

 “How much do you know about Ambrose Bierce in St. Helena,” I ask Lisa Runnells, who runs the Ambrose Bierce House with her husband, John.

“I’ve heard that he was pretty much up in Angwin, visiting his girlfriends,” she answers.

The 1872 Victorian became an inn about 30 years ago. The Runnells bought the inn 11 years ago, more from an appreciation of the building than any fascination with Bierce. Runnells remarks that any time she visits a used bookstore looking for a work by Bierce, her interest usually raises eyebrows because Bierce’s reputation as a horror writer and a misanthrope is fairly well intact.

Runnells says they get two types of visitors to the inn: Guests who come steeped in Bierce-iana, have read all his works and are fascinated with the quirky writer; or people who call asking if it’s the “Ambrose Pearse” house, and clearly knowing nothing about the man or his work.

Either way, the Runnells are happy to accommodate them in one of the inn’s four rooms. They have completed a floor-to-ceiling remodel, and the cheery exterior paint choices — the yellow and rose that so struck me as anti-Biercian — are Runnells’ as well; the house was white in Bierce’s time.

Unmarked graves

But what of the Halloween-spooky phenomenon that Bierce’s wife and children are buried in unmarked graves nearby? For that we have to take a trip to the St. Helena Cemetery at 2461 Spring St. The cemetery’s pleasant and accommodating office manager, Paula Soekland, stops what she’s doing and takes us out to the gravesite. The plot, Soekland says, is “the only unmarked grave in the cemetery.” A large, flat patch of ground, maybe 20 feet by 20, is truly unmarked. A carpet of dry pine needles covers it, and three tall tree trunks, two palms and a pine, denuded of leaves for at least 20 feet, stand nearby.

Back in Soekland’s office, we can see in the original records that the plot where Mollie, Day and Leigh are buried was purchased by Bierce, then left to his daughter, Helen, although neither are buried there. We know that Bierce disappeared in old age and his body has never been found, but it’s unclear why Helen, who supposedly died in 1940, is not buried with the rest of her family — or why no headstones were ever added to the family graves.

It is known that Bierce took the deaths of both his sons hard. In a letter to a friend he writes, “I’m just back from the St. Helena cemetery, and for a few days shall be too blue for companionship.”

At the end of Bierce’s life, he made a pilgrimage through the Southern states’ Civil War battlegrounds that had so shaped his life and work. According to one biographer, he wrote to Helen that he had “transferred a family cemetery plot in St. Helena, California, to her, said that he did not wish to be buried there, and added that she need “not be bothered about the mortal part of/Your Daddy.” He had other plans, which he disclosed to no one.

Locally colorful

Among his voluminous output of short stories, there is a little-known one, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” published in 1891, which makes references to both St. Helena and Calistoga, as well as to a bounty hunter and a coroner who are both from Napa. In Biercian fashion, the story’s action takes place in a graveyard, and it’s unclear whether the woman the protagonist murders is his mother or his wife, or whether both are the same person. “He lived in St. Helena,” Bierce writes about the main character,” but where he lives now is uncertain, for he is dead.”

The same could be said about Bierce, who wandered off into the sunset in Mexico, never to be heard from again. His daughter, Helen, asked the federal government to try to locate him; but it’s also possible Bierce did not want to be found. (There was a rumor that he only pretended to go to Mexico, and instead was spirited away to Napa State Hospital, but this was never proved.)

The 1989 movie, “Old Gringo,” is but one attempt to explain the last days of Ambrose Bierce. Several books and movies rely on one of Bierce’s last letters, sent in late 1913, where he wrote to a niece, “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it 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!”

Where and how Bierce disappeared remains cloaked in mystery, but for a man whose output of short stories centered around the macabre, the sinister and the surreal — and frequently featured corpses, skulls and disappearing acts — the man himself proves as much of a mystery as anything he wrote about. With no physical body of his own to locate Upvalley or anywhere else, we have to content ourselves with Bierce’s body of literature, which is substantial indeed, and reveals as much about the short-time Upvalley resident as we’re likely to learn.