Ambrose Bierce Disappearance



Pancho Villa
Mystery of Ambrose Bierce

At the age of 71 Bierce crossed into Mexico 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. Go to Ojinaga.

An Authoritative Account of Bierce's Disappearance

After all the silly rumors and speculation, this may be the most authoritative account of the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce. Written by author, editor, and lawyer Carey McWilliams, it was published in the March 1931 issue of The American Mercury. McWilliams was Bierce's first major biographer, and had the opportunity of interviewing many of Bierce's surviving family members, friends, and acquaintances. It can be read HERE

Leon Day

'Amateur Historian' Sought to Crack Bierce Mystery
(a great quest that ended... well, read it)

Obsessed by Bierce's 1913 disappearance, Austin, Texas, native Leon Day spent years trying to solve the mystery. Day released his findings in a near book-length article that also traces his own odyssey into the Mexican desert to locate Bierce's bones. In six parts. Go to:


Leon died in October 2011. Read his obituary in the Austin Statesman HERE

Freelance writer Jacob Silverman, who once worked as a reporter in Marfa, Texas, theorizes in the February 2002 issue of Harper's Magazine that Bierce died in, yes, Marfa. Read Silverman's "The Devil and Ambrose Bierce" HERE. To access Harper's go to

Bierce's Tombstone in Mexican Desert

James Lienert, who theorized Bierce was executed and buried in the graveyard of the dusty Mexican town of Sierra Mojada in 1914, installed a marker to memorialize the great writer in 2004. The idea's intriguing -- but there are questions. NOTE: Lienert, a Roman Catholic priest, died on January 4, 2010.

Is It True?

Bierce gravestone, Sierra Mojada, Mexico
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click to enlarge and read


Thirteen letters -- dated July 6, 1898, through September 29, 1913, penned to Bierce's friend Silas Orrin Howes, editor of Bierce's 1909 essay collection, The Shadow on the Dial -- fetched $37,000 at a Doyle New York auction on April 22, 2013. One was of particular interest. In the last letter, 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."

BIERCE? highly doubtful

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This is allegedly the last known photograph of Ambrose Bierce, said to have been taken in June 1913 before his disappearance in Mexico six months later. It's in the collection of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. NOTE: from Don Swaim. I'm not convinced this is a photo of Bierce. He never wore a walrus mustache. And the man in the image is unkempt. I think Getty, which has this photo, should re-check its sources.


And They Were All Wrong (probably)
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So claims an unnamed informant in James H. Wilkins' story
San Francisco Bulletin, March 24, 1920

S.F. Bulletin, March 24, 1920. click to enlarge

full story here -- click to enlarge
After being sent to Mexico to trace the whereabouts of Ambrose Bierce, reporter James H. Wilkins [among the first to call for the building of the Golden Gate Bridge] returned with a sensational story for the San Franciso Bulletin -- all unsubstantiated and easily debunked. As follows:
  • Wilkins went to Mexico to interview a journalist named Melero who claimed to have known Bierce -- but Melero was conveniently dead.
  • Wilkins claims to have tracked down an unnamed Villista who reputedly witnessed Bierce's execution. The Villista, whose story was not verified, allegedly produced a photo of Bierce as sole "proof."
  • It is unbelievable that Bierce, a voluminous letter writer, would have remained in Mexico for two years without writing to his friends or family.
  • If Bierce had been on Carranza's staff as a "military expert" for two years, it's improbable he would not have been identified by the many reporters then covering the Mexican revolution.
  • Wilkins' editors should have scotched this phony story way before it landed in print.

    Bierce Shot by Pancho Villa?
    Washington Times, April 27, 1919

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    Villa General Urbina orders Bierce's death?
    El Paso Herald, Feb. 22, 1919

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    Advising the British General Staff under Lord Kitchner in 1915?
    El Paso Herald, April 3, 1915

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    newspaper images courtesy of Ben Truwe, Medford, Oregon

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