the AMBROSE BIERCE site
Fr. Lienert in vestments
January 4, 2010
It is with sadness that I inform you that Fr. James Lienert, M.S.F. passed away today in California. He was staying with his sister at the time of his passing. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
Yours in the Holy Family,
Rev. Alberto T. Treviño, Jr., M.S.F.
Lienert, age 9, 1934
shadow of his father taking the picture
click to enlarge
After his retirement, Father Lienert (Padre Jaime) learned Power Point and created several slide presentations with the help of William K. Boone Canovas. Boone completed Lienert's final presentation, "Boyhood Treasure Chest" ("In Memoriam" -- in both Spanish and English), and posted it and the others online. Go to: Padre Jaime Slideshows
PRIEST ERECTS BIERCE GRAVESTONE
IN SIERRA MOJADA, MEXICO
NOTE: For many years James Lienert, a retired American priest serving in Mexico, doggedly pursued the theory that Ambrose Bierce was executed and buried in 1914 in a small desert town in Mexico. At his own expense, Lienert installed a gravestone to memorialize Bierce in the graveyard where Lienert presumed Bierce is buried. I don't know the truth, but the possibilities are intriguing. In several emails to me, Lienert explained his reasoning and supplied the pictures below. What follows may be more than anyone wants to know about the presumed burial place of Ambrose Bierce. -- Don Swaim
Spanish translation below
Click to Enlarge
James Lienert standing by his
Click to EnlargeFor more photos go to GRINGO VIEJO
by James Lienert
August 17, 2004
I returned about a week ago from a ten day tour of my old parish in Mexico. The main reason for the trip was to celebrate with the people there the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination. By coincidence it also offered another opportunity. Some time ago I had ordered a grave marker to be made and taken to Sierra Mojada, and erected on the spot that Don Chuy had pointed out to be the place where the famous gringo had been executed and buried. When I arrived in Sierra Mojada the work of erecting the marker had just been completed. And so I was able to take this picture of the marker, the picture, which I am sending to you.
An interesting thing is that when the word got around that the grave marker was going to be erected, a number of people said they remembered their parents or grandparents telling about the gringo that had been executed back in the days of the Revolution. The people there are quite content to think that possibly a great American writer lies in their cemetery.
To me it is more than a probability than a possibility. As far as I know, no historian has come upon another instance where a gringo had been executed as a spy in the northern part of Mexico during the Revolution. In this instance the pieces fit together nicely.
The marker is a plaque of polished black granite into which the inscription is first sand blasted, and then highlighted in a color of gold. The plaque is fixed to a concrete base. The translation into English is:
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
I think that Ambrose Bierce deserves a historical marker in Mexico, and the most appropriate place seems to be in the cemetery of Sierra Mojada, Coahuila.
If you wish to place this on your Web Page, feel perfectly free to do so. I disclaim any and all rights to the above material, and to the pictures I submit. They may be used by anyone in any way they wish. If there is anyone who wishes to make comments, or ask questions, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Description of the cemetery. The picture of me standing by the marker gives a general idea of what the cemetery is like. There are some grave stones that are quite large and elaborate.... almost little shrines. There is very loose alignment of the graves. "This seems to be about right" is the final decision on where to dig. The cemetery was started when the mines first opened, and that would be in the early l880s. It was probably soon after 1914 that the cemetery was enlarged. Don Chuy took as one of his points of reference the tombs of the four 'contrarios', those of an opposition party, who were buried inside right close up to the old adobe wall because the cemetery was already very full. The city keeps the cemetery clear of weeds and brush, but family members take care of the individual graves. Because there are no longer any family members around, many graves are neglected. Here and there are stacked old nameless wooden crosses that have rotted off.... the people are respectful of even the unknown dead, and so will not destroy them. And maybe a bit of superstition is mixed in.
The size of the cemetery. I have not measured it, but it would be approximately 125 meters square.
As you can see, the cemetery is outside of the town. I think you can distinguish the town nestled up against the mountain in the background. Almost all of the town is built on practically bedrock. So the cemetery is down in the valley where the alluvial is hundreds of feet thick.
Where is the grave marker? It is at the spot that Don Chuy indicated the execution and the burial took place: 24 meters from the west end, and 34 meters from the south end. I think I mentioned this in my first article. (The south side of the cemetery faces the town.)
About permission to put up a marker when the location is speculative. As far as I know this is the only instance, mainly because there had never been a like occasion. For one thing, the location is not completely speculative. Next, I know the mayor from the time when he was a little boy, and we are on very good terms. So when the reason for the request was presented (The mayor already knew the story.) he whole heartedly gave his approval immediately.
The marker was erected without the least bit of ceremony. No, there was no press coverage. Sierra Mojada, all but a ghost town now, is still a very remote place out on the desert. The population of the town is only about 750, down from the estimated 23,000 during the days of the bonanza. La Esmeralda, sort of a sister city about two and a half miles away, still has a population of about 1500, and it was there that I resided during my tenure in Mexico. Sierra Mojada exists today only because it originally was, and still is, the official county seat.
The proposal of erecting a marker was mine, and I financed it. A close friend of mine in Monterrey, originally from La Esmeralda, arranged to have the plaque made in Monterrey, then took it to Sierra Mojada and arranged to have it installed. In consideration of the fact that Ambrose was an agnostic, I gave instructions that no religous symbols should be included on the plaque.
A history of Sierra Mojada is in its final stages of being written. The author sent me a rough copy some weeks ago, and the saga of Ambrose Bierce is included. I recognized that much of the material is a Spanish translation of what is found in http://donswaim.com
I hope the foregoing satisfactorily answers your questions, and if there is any other way in which I can be helpful, I am at your service. Anything for Ambrose.
Note by Don Swaim: The last letter received from Ambrose Biece was postmarked Chihuahua City and dated December 26, 1913, sent to his secretary/companion Carrie Christiansen in Washington. For some reason Christiansen destroyed the letter, but its gist is summarized in Richard O'Connor's biography: "Trainload of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect next day to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail." Pancho Villa's revolutionaries had cornered federal troops in Ojinaga, 125 miles northeast of Chihuahua City, across the Rio Grande from Presidio, Texas. If Bierce had intended to go to Ojinaga, what was he doing in Sierra Mojada, about 150 miles southeast of Chihuahua City in the neighboring state of Coahuila, which was controlled by the federales? In the Carey McWilliams biography, a soldier of fortune named Edward S. O'Reilly, who clamed to have been an officer on the staff of Pancho Villa in 1914, alleges that he found Bierce's grave in Sierra Mojada. O'Reilly claims that while in Sierra Mojada he heard rumors of an old man who had drifted into the town searching for Pancho Villa, and was shot by local soldiers. I put this and some other questions to Mr. Lienert:
August 25, 2004
First of all, Sierra Mojada would not in any way be on the route between the city of Chihuahua and Ojinaga, on the contrary it is in the opposite direction. To go from the city of Chihuahua to Sierra Mojada is simple. Take an early morning train from Chihuahua south to Escalon, and supposing a convenient connection in Escalon, and one could be in Sierra Mojada by late evening. The train station is actually in La Esmeralda because in the course of the extra two or so miles to Sierra Mojada there is a rise of some 300 feet in elevation.
Now, about Ambrose in his final Dec. 26 letter stating that tomorrow he would be leaving for Ojinaga. Admittedly, I have never gone to original sources... I would not know where to find them. But I have read somewhere that Ambrose in his last letter stated only that tomorrow he would be leaving for "unknown parts," and did not specify Ojinaga. But let us say he did specify Ojinaga, still that only states his intention at the time of writing; it does not state a fact of actually going. The logistics of a campaign are fluid, and subject to quick changes. There could be many reasons for Ambrose altering his intentions. It is not inconceivable that he was asked to go to Sierra Mojada to ascertain the attitudes of the Huertistas, an opposing faction, who were in control of Sierra Mojada at the time.
I too have read about the account of O'Reilly, and that he actually went to Sierra Mojada, saw the grave, and placed a crude cross on it with the name of Ambrose Bierce burnt into the wood.
Some of the accounts written by other reporters of the times relating to Ambrose's fate seem to me to be the products of the necessarily basic objective in any reporter (and news medium): assure the next day's meal.
In my first correspondence with you I mentioned Mr. Leon Day, the man who enkindled my interest. He was/is making a detailed and thoroughly documented investigation into the fate of Ambrose. The fact that Mr. Day made the daunting trip to Sierra Mojada at his own expense attests to his dedication. He even insisted on reviewing the death/burial records. In 2000 he sent me a rough copy of his yet unfinished work. In this work Mr. Day did give an abridged account of Don Chuy's story. By this time Mr. Day had already came to the conclusion that the most probable scenario is that the gringo who was executed as a spy in Sierra Mojada was Ambrose Bierce. So all I know about the saga comes mostly through Mr. Day. My only contribution is the fortunate fact that I found Don Jesus (Chuy) Benites Avila, the last living witness to the execution of the gringo. (I buried Jesus' wife who lies about three meters from Ambrose's grave marker.) I only hope that Mr. Day's work will be published. He gave me reason to believe that he wanted to place his work in the library of the Berkley University of Oakland.
I can vividly envision the scene of a man placed up against the adobe wall of the cemetery in front of a firing squad, hear the barked commands: "Listos - Apunten - Fuego," hear the crack of the rifles, and see the victim crumble to the ground. I have no other imaginations. As for the report of Bierce laughing as he expired... and other rather bizarre accounts... they could be another instance of reporters' penchant for the sensational. I do not know.
By the way, I have many times crossed over the then yet unfinished railroad to Ojinaga, and have passed through the town, where I have many friends, on numerous occasions.________________________
February 7, 2004
The purpose of this communication is about an investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Bierce.
I do not know if you are aware that Mr. Leon Day of Oakland, California, has for some years been making a detailed investigation into Bierce's disappearance. He seems to me to be very professional. I am one who happened to uncover some pertinent and apparently important information. (See text that follows.) In the year 2000 Mr. Day sent me a copy of his unfinished manuscript. In this manuscript Mr. Day recognizes me and my contribution, and makes his assessment on my report. But he treats the information (About Don Chuy's recollections.) with a brevity that can lead to incomplete understanding. A case in point. On the web (under Ambrose Bierce) there is an article by James Williams posted June 6, 03. I think it was first published in an Austin newspaper. This article is precisely about the work Mr. Day is doing. Again I and my contribution are mentioned. But Mr. Williams is able to distort to his own liking the story of Don Chuy because he does not know it fully.
In the meantime I have lost contact with Mr. Day.
So I am concerned. I think the recollections of Don Chuy are pertinent and of merit, and they should be conserved as he related them. Of what use can they be if they are not known? Don Chuy was the last of those who were alive in Sierra Mojada in 19l3-1914. I am of an age where the future can make abrupt changes.
I was searching www with the precise intention of finding a secure place where the recollections of Don Chuy could be posted, or at least conserved for posterity, and so add to the pool of knowledge about Ambrose Bierce. Your site seems to be the best. I would like to ask you the favor of reading the text that follows, and if you deem it of merit and usefulness, would you please conserve it intact somewhere? My sole intent is to further the knowledge about Ambrose Bierce, and therefore what I have written may be used by anyone in any way. My intention is to send a printed copy of the following text to the Chester-Shade Historical Association at the Meigs County Court House in Pomeroy. It they were so interested and instrumental in erecting a memorial for the birthplace of Ambrose, maybe they would appreciate, and conserve, more information about his possible resting place. I thank you before hand, as they say in Mexico, for the attention you are pleased to give to this letter.
James Lienert aka Padre Jaime________________________
February 7, 2004 [elaboration of above email]
My name is Rev. James Lienert, M.S.F. From October 5, 1967 until August 7, 2000 I was the pastor of Nuestra Senora del Refugio parish in Sierra Mojada, Coahuila, Mexico. For practical reasons I resided in La Esmeralda, a town about two and a half miles from Sierra Mojada.
In the course of my tenure there, several historians interested in the old report that Ambrose Bierce had been executed and buried in Sierra Mojada, came to investigate. When they could not find a grave marker bearing the name of Ambrose Bierce, they left without any conclusive evidence, and maybe they came to the conclusion that the story was not true.
It was about the year 1989 when Mr. Leon Day of Oakland, California, and Mr. Dick Reavis of Dallas, Texas. came with the same intent, and asked me for any help I might be able to offer. I mentioned to them about others who had come, and that there was no grave marker in the cemetery. Still, they wanted to see and check for themselves. According to the original report, Ambrose was executed outside the cemetery, while standing next to the adobe wall of the cemetery. Later on the cemetery was enlarged, and is now surrounded by a cyclone fence. When Mr. Day and Mr. Reavis learned this, they concluded it was not possible to locate even a gravesite.
Then they asked me to help them obtain access to the official death and burial records. I assured them that such an incident would never have been recorded in any way, but still they wanted confirmation one way or the other. Looking through the records for the last part of 1913 and the first part of 1914 turned up negative results. As we were leaving the office, I suggested that we could stop and talk to Don Chuy (Jesus Benites Avila 1903-2001), a close friend of mine. Don Chuy listened to our story, But shook his head saying that he could not remember anything of the like. It was another dead end. Mr. Day and Mr. Reavis left disillusioned.
Several weeks later when I was passing in front of Don Chuy's house, we waved me down and wanted to talk to me. He said that he had been thinking about it, and, yes, he was remembering something. Don Chuy went on to relate: "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 (fusilamiento). 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. (A low field-stone retaining wall about a hundred yards away, and front of the cemetery.) Then they stood the man against the wall and shot him". (Don Chuy remembers that the man was an American, and was called El Ruso).
Don Chuy went on to say that he stayed for the burial. He mentioned the name of one of the men who buried the body, and the name of a lady who said some prayers at the graveside.
I asked Don Chuy if I took him down to the cemetery whether he could point out more or less where the execution and burial had taken place. Don Chuy's answer was prompt and affirmative. Don Chuy had broken his hip several years before. The fracture never healed correctly, and so Don Chuy was on crutches. Even to the end of his life, Don Chuy read the newspaper without the aid of glasses. When we arrived at the cemetery Don Chuy immediately went to his point of reference, toward the west end of the cemetery. He pointed out four tombs (monumentos) arranged one beside the other. He said they were the tombs of four contrarios (members of an opposition party) who had been killed together in a shoot out with the incumbent faction, which at that time was the Huertistas who were rivals of Pancho Villa (Doroteo Uranga). If Ambrose asked around about Pancho Villa, then he would be suspected of being a spy.
The first tomb, counting from the west, is that of Santiago Galindo, which later on was used to bury also Felix Galindo, The second tomb is that of Jos» Herrera. Then that of Manuel Hinostrosa, with a hand wrought iron cross. The last to the east is that of Antonio Tijerina. When I saw it, his name, carved into the wood of the cross, was still legible, but barely.
Don Chuy explained that when the four were buried, the cemetery was all but full, and so they were buried very close up to the old adobe wall. Don Chuy then showed where the old stone foundation of the west adobe wall ended, and then from there where the south wall, the front of the cemetery had been located. He then pointed over to where the old descanso had been. Next he hobbled over to a spot and said that this was just about the halfway point between the west wall and the descanso, the spot where the execution had taken place. I later took measurements, and the spot where Don Chuy stood is twenty-four meters from the present west fence, and thirty-four meters from the south fence. There are now graves very close to this spot. It should be noted that it is the practice that where there is no longer a grave marker, even though it is obvious that there had been a previous burial there, the plot is reused. Should bones be found, they are gathered and placed in a box or cloth bundle, and re-interred in the new grave. So it is well possible that the remains of the man whom Don Chuy saw buried there have been disturbed.
At the suggestion of Mr. Day I had asked Don Chuy if he remembered at what time of the year this had happened. Supposedly it would have been the first part of l914, and so winter. Don Chuy replied that he could not remember. It was just about two weeks before I left Mexico that I was talking to Don Chuy. The conversation was about the things of the day. Then Don Chuy abruptly mentioned that one of the men who were burying the body took off his chaleco and covered the face of the man before they started filling in the grave. Chaleco in Spanish means a vest or a light garment worn under the coat. So the implication is that the weather was chilly or cold. The elevation of Sierra Mojada is about 3500 feet, and since it is on the north side of the mountain, it does get cold there during the winter time.
Note: Comandante This word has several applications in Spanish. Here it indicates what is equivalent to County Sheriff
Note: Descanso The word means rest or stop. It is the law in Mexico that immediately prior to the actual burial, the coffin must be opened, and an official certifies and records the identity of the body. As a convenience, there is almost universally a room at the entrance to the cemetery where this takes place, and there is a final viewing of the body by the mourners
Note: El Ruso The word in Spanish means Russian. Almost without exception every man there is given a nickname of some sort, and is usually referred to by that name.This would especially be the case where the man's true name was not known. I have heard that older men who were alive at that time, spoke of the El Ruso, the American who was executed in Sierra Mojada. Was there any other case during the Mexican Revolution where in the north of Mexico an American reporter disappeared, and it was reported that he had been executed as a spy?
Note: Fusilamiento: This word denotes a formal execution before a firing squad, not a simple shoot-out or assassination. This is the word Don Chuy used in his recollections. It is also the word the old times used when talking about the event.
As soon as I learned this from Don Chuy I wrote to Mr. Day and to Mr. Reavis. There was renewed interest and enthusiasm. There was enough evidence to warrant bringing Mr. Clyde Snow, a forensic pathologist of international renown, to Sierra Mojada to look into the possibility of excavating and making a documentary of the dig. Nothing came of this proposal. It could still be done, and maybe a definitive answer is still in the offering. Or maybe Ambrose would define definitive as: Wishful thinking. It would be a rare stroke of luck to find the remains. Even Don Chuy would admit that his 'about' could be some meters off. There are marked graves near to where Don Chuy stood, and I do not think the authorities nor the relatives would permit these graves to be disturbed. And the bottom line is that a GPS position is not that important.________________________
June 14, 2005
[response to a question as to why a priest, such as James Lienert, would embrace an atheist like Bierce]
Your question came as a bit of surprise to me. It never entered my mind that there would be any inconsistency or contradiction in my role as a priest to set up a grave marker for Ambrose. The fact is that Ambrose is rightly famous because he was a great author; he had a very keen insight regarding realities, and especially in his The Devil's Dictionary, an engaging way of expressing his musings. Reading some of his works is a pleasure even though one does not agree with the content. Also there is the historical fact that his abrupt and mystery-shrouded end is intriguing. and in searching for an answer there is no evidence more cogent than that, on suspicion of being a spy, he was executed and buried in Sierra Mojada. For Ambrose, for those interested in his fate, and for history, Ifelt it quite appropriate that someone should mark his apparent place of rest.
The fact that Ambrose was a cynic, an agnostic, if not also an atheist, is irrelevant to the above. Had I erected a memorial to his philosophy of life, that would have compromised my belief. I have no right to judge Ambrose, and certainly hold no grudge against him because of the simple reason that at times we do not agree. To dislike him and to deny him the laud he deserves because at times he scoffed at what I hold dear would be quite un-Christian... and deserve›his scoff.
I specifically mentioned that I had given instructions that no religious symbols should be included on the plaque. This was in deference, not as a slight, to Ambrose. I would disapprove of a scarab on my tombstone!
I hope this answers what you were asking for. If not, feel free to pursue it more. Take and use any of the above as you like. I wish you the best in your revision of the of the AB site. Separate the trinkets from the jewels. At your service,
Note by Don Swaim: The author of the article in the Austin Chronicle cited by James Lienert is James McWilliams (not Williams). It is posted on the AMBROSE BIERCE RESOURCES page or at: Devil in the Details by James McWilliams. A similar story by Jacob Silverstein appeared in Harper's Magazine in February 2002. The McWilliams story quotes Leon Day -- and both stories quote Don Chuy. Leon Day's account can be read HERE. Despite all the expectation, the mystery of Bierce's disappearance is far from being solved. If the grave site WERE found and there were DNA tests (assuming Bierce left any DNA to sample) it would help to solve the disappearance.
Top of Page