The Ambrose Bierce Site


My Hunt For Ambrose Bierce
by Leon Day

The Tex O'Reilly Story

There is only one account that puts Bierce's death in the first couple of months of 1914, and strangely, it is the least investigated of them all.

Edward Synott O'Reilly was an accomplished cowboy, soldier, and journalist, best remembered today as the man who first wrote down the Pecos Bill tall tales of West Texas. In the advance on Torreon, Tex O'Reilly was on the staff of the Gonzalez-Ortega Brigade. Their job was to repair and defend the railway that would be Villa's main line of support. At the same time, he was moonlighting as the field man for Timothy Turner of the Associated Press. In those days, war correspondents who strayed far from the telegraph lines weren't much use to the daily press, so they would often engage others to help gather the news. Only magazine writers like John Reed could range at will, serving only a monthly deadline.

In 1928, O'Reilly read accounts of an interview by Robert Davis with Adolphe Danziger (AKA De Castro}, in which Danziger claimed to have wheedled an admission from Pancho Villa that he had ordered Bierce killed after the author declared he was going to leave Villa for Carranza's camp.

O'Reilly disputed Danziger in a story in the New York Times of 23 May 1928. His full tale was first printed in Liberty Weekly, 27 May 1933, in a serialization of his autobiography, "Born to Raise Hell," which didn't achieve book form until 1936. Here's what he said:

At this time an interesting thing happened, which I have regretted ever since. We were preparing to advance on Mexico City, and I was frequently sent up to El Paso to arrange about our supplies. On one of my trips the newspaper men told me that Ambrose Bierce was in town. He had come down from New York across the battlefields of Virginia where he had fought in the Civil War, had spent a couple of weeks in San Antonio and then come on to El Paso.

The reporters had tried to interview him, but he would have nothing to do with them. He was drinking heavily and was morose and bad-tempered, would not talk to anyone.

That evening I came into my hotel and the clerk handed me a note from him. It said he had heard I was with Villa; he wanted to visit Villa's army and would like to talk to me about it. I left a note for him at the desk, saying that I would be back at ten o'clock to meet him.

At ten o'clock I came in, expecting to see him. He had got my note an hour earlier, but he did not show up. I waited till midnight, when my train left for Chihuahua and I had to go.

About a week later I went into the Foreign Club in Chihuahua City one day and found another note from Bierce. It said he was in town and wanted to see me. But he did not say where he could be found. I left a note for him saying I was at the Palace Hotel and would be glad to see him. I could not find anyone who had seen him or who knew where he was, and he never returned to the club to get my note.

It is a pity he did not talk with anyone in Chihuahua City. Villa was there at the time, and I would have been glad to introduce Bierce to him. It is always printed that Villa killed him, but Villa never even heard of him till after he was dead. Bierce did not go near any of Villa's officers or talk to any of the Americans there. Evidently he wandered around quite alone. He could not speak Spanish.

Almost immediately our advance to the south began. Toribio Ortega commanded three thousand cavalry as advance guard, and I was with him. We swept along in troop trains, an organized army of ten thousand men, cavalry, infantry, artillery. Almost all our artillery was taken from the enemy. Villa practically supplied his army with guns and supplies that he captured.

The Federals fought a rear-guard action and we met them a number of times. There were fights at Santa Rosalia and Conejos and several other little towns where I had fought before. We sent a detachment to the big mining camp of Parral and captured that.

At Escalon we were delayed several days. The railroad had been destroyed all along there, and we had to wait while the work train came up and repaired it. A little spur line runs up into the hills from Escalon to Sierra Mojada, a large mining camp. Work had stopped at the mines, there was no more traffic on the spur line, and it was abandoned. But we heard there was a little bunch of Federals at Sierra Mojada, and Ortega sent four hundred men to clear them out.

That morning I heard that an American had been killed at Sierra Mojada. I always try to look the matter up when an American gets into trouble in foreign countries and then report to our State Department. So I went up with our detachment to investigate this story.

There was no fight. The Federals decamped when they heard we were coming. I began to inquire about the American, and several Mexicans told me about him. They said he was an old man who had come riding in there on horseback, alone. He spoke only a little broken Spanish and did not explain who he was or what he wanted, and they were suspicious of him.

He stayed there several days, in the midst of the Federals, but apparently he did not know they were Federals. It is wild, mountainous country all around there, deserted mining country with very few ranches. He asked questions about the trails and made notes and maps, and they thought he was a spy. When the Federals heard that he was asking how to reach Villa's army they decided to kill him.

>One afternoon he was drinking in a cantina with three Federal volunteers, and they decided to kill him then. They borrowed his pistol, and when he left they walked out with him to the edge of town. I talked with two eye-witnesses who had seen the whole thing. Apparently he suspected nothing until the three men turned on him and began shooting.

The first shot must have struck him in the leg or belly, because he dropped down, squatting on his heels. And the two Mexicans were impressed by the strange way in which he died. He squatted there in the dust of the road and began to laugh heartily. The three men kept shooting him, hitting him, but they could not kill him, and he did not stop laughing.

He sat there and laughed till finally they shot him in the heart. The Mexicans were amazed because he was laughing as though it were a tremendous joke that he was being killed.

They took me to the house where he had stayed with an old Mexican. I asked if he had left any personal possessions, anything that would identify him, and the old Mexican said, "No, the three Federals came and took his things. He had only saddlebags and a blanket roll."

"You have nothing that belonged to him? No article of clothing? Not a scrap of paper?"

The old fellow reached up behind a rafter on the wall and brought out two old empty envelopes left by the Americano, and they were both addressed to Ambrose Bierce.

That was my first knowledge that the old man was Bierce. How he had wandered down there ahead of us I don't. know. We never found anyone he had met after he left El Paso. He said in Sierra Mojada that he was looking for Villa's army, when as a matter of fact he had left us behind him in Chihuahua City. But he was drinking heavily all the time, and he did not speak Spanish. Some Mexican may have told him where we were going, and he may have understood that we had already gone. Nobody knows why he acted as he did.

The Mexicans in Sierra Mojada described Bierce exactly. He was then an old man, past seventy, but he looked younger than that and was vigorous and very strong for his age. They said he was a dictatorial old fellow who wanted to be left alone and who insulted everybody who bothered him.

He had been buried a week or ten days before I arrived.

They showed me where he had been buried beside the adobe wall of the little cemetery. The envelopes and their descriptions convinced me he was Ambrose Bierce, and I burned his name into a board with a hot iron and set up this wooden headboard at the grave.

Then we went back to Conejos. Dr. Rusk, an American with our outfit; was going up to El Paso. I wrote a report on Bierce's death and gave it and the envelopes to Rusk to deliver to the American consul. One of the envelopes had a return address to Oakland, California. Rusk delivered my report and afterward told me that he had written a note to this address and enclosed the envelope.

Later Carranza ordered an investigation, and a report was made through our Consul General, Silliman, verifying the facts as I found them. My original report and the Consul General's report are on file today in the State Department in Washington.

Dozens of stories have been printed about "the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Bierce." But there is no mystery about it. I could go directly to his grave."

There it is. Let's look at the weak points of the story:

First, it appears fourteen years after Bierce vanished. The first telling of O'Reilly's adventures "Roving and Fighting" was printed in London in 1918 -- without this account.

Second, who was O'Reilly? A soldier, a Texan, a cowboy, a mercenary, a newsman, and a writer of fiction who made really good money from short stories he sold to "Pictorial Review" and occasional screenplays. None of these occupations are above exaggeration.

Third, the National Archives cannot find any reports from him about Bierce's death -- or about anything, for that matter. And nobody has turned up any note from Dr. Rusk to any friend of Ambrose in Oakland. So nothing confirms that Tex made any report at the time.

Some objections can be softened a little. We know that the State Department fell somewhat behind in WWI, and the Consulate in Juarez burned down in the 1920s with a loss of all records. There is some testimony that the Carranza regime looked for Bierce in Sierra Mojada in 1918. If so, they must have had O'Reilly's story or some parallel report.

The beginning of the World War put missing writers on a pretty low priority, and as we have seen, no major theory of Bierce's fate reached print until 1919. Until O'Reilly felt Villa was being purposely slandered, there was little reason for him to come forth. He had already told the right people, he said. He told his relatives that his tale was true, and said until he died, "The historians like the mystery better than the solution."

There are some mistakes in O'Reilly's account -- AB didn't tour the battlefields of Virginia, since all his fights were in the West with Grant and Sherman. West Virginia was as far east as he got, early in the war.

A death in Sierra Mojada agrees with the reports that Sommerfeld and Walker gave McWilliams in 1930, that Bierce died south of Chihuahua City. O'Reilly had no way of knowing what Carey McWilliams would discover and ignore two years later.

Tex has Bierce arousing the suspicions of the Huertistas by asking about trails and making maps. In 1928, there were no good bios of Bierce. His skill as a mapmaker wasn't common knowledge. And Sierra Mojada is a fine place for making maps -- the mountain above this little mining town stands 4,000 feet over the surrounding desert, commanding a view of seventy miles on a clear day. You can see the Central Railway all the way from Camargo to a few miles from Torreon.

And there's an appealing modesty to the story -- O'Reilly doesn't say he knew Bierce, or ever met him, or understood why he was so far ahead of Villa's troops. He doesn't say he saw Bierce die, just that he met folks who did, and by luck discovered the identity of the deceased. If this is a tall tale, it's a very restrained example of the genre.

Tex says, "Work had stopped at the mines..." and when I checked the records of the American Smelting and Refining Company, it turned out this was so. He says, "...we heard there was a little bunch of Federals at Sierra Mojada..." and when I asked the National Archives about it, they had a complaint about the behavior of the little bunch on record. W.M. Loeb, the lawyer for ASARCO, wrote to the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, on 10 Sept 1913:

...I beg to call your attention to the conduct of Captain Mateo Sanchez, of the Federal forces stationed at Sierra Mojada. We are informed that he is intoxicated most of the time, and is a menace to all foreigners, subjecting them to abusive and vile language.

He informed one of our employees, Mr. Gates, superintendent, that if he stopped working the San Salvador mine and threw the men out of employment, he would not give a snap of his fingers for Gate's life, and added that he would be unable to help Gates and that he would have to look out for himself. He also intimated that he would not allow Gates to leave until he had made arrangement for redemption in cash of about 60,000 pesos worth of scrip issued by another mining company with whom we have dealings.

Gates and Sheldon, our employees, are closing down and turning over our San Salvador mining property, on account of the expiration of the lease, and as soon as this is accomplished will leave for the United States. Gates has his family with him, and greatly fears for their safety.

Can you not call to the attention of the Mexican Government the conduct of this Federal Captain Mateo Sanchez, and ask that it take such steps as will secure the safety of our two employees, Gates and Sheldon, and Gates' family.

There followed the routine exchange of dispatches, and nothing shows us whether or not Gates escaped with a whole skin, or whether Sanchez was still in charge when and if Bierce appeared. It does show the tenor of the times pretty well -- Sanchez wants to keep the miners underground, where they belong, since if unemployed they are likely to run off and join Villa. ASARCO just wants to keep doing business as usual. They were so good at this that other US mining firms occasionally complained about the friendly relations between ASARCO and the Division of the North.

For example, Dr. Charles Ellsworth Husk, director of ASARCO's medical services, took a little break in early 1914 to help organize the hospital train attached to Villa's forces. Husk also wrote a rave review of Villa's character and ability, which he sent to the top US officers, Funston, Pershing, and Scott. Husk died of typhus in 1916. It's hard to trace his doings, for editors often assume a typo and change his name to "Rusk."

I worked very hard trying to track the Dr. Rusk that O'Reilly referred to -- with no luck. Finally, I found a reference to a Carlos Rusk in a prominent Mexican history text, and the confusion was resolved when it turned out that the historian and folklorist Haldeen Braddy had tracked down the family of C.E. Husk, and his letter to General Hugh L. Scott.

It was another case of something that seemed to work against O'Reilly making his tale more plausible. Husk died in 1916, a genuine medical martyr who perished trying to find a vaccine for typhus. ASARCO buried him in state in El Paso, giving all their workers the day off to attend. So he was gone before anyone could ask him to ratify O'Reilly's tale.

When I got to UCLA Special Collections, I was in part looking for evidence that would let me ditch the O'Reilly story and go on to other things -- some letter from Tex to McWilliams admitting that he made it all up would have been fine.

I was surprised to discover that McWilliams never wrote to O'Reilly. Or went to Sierra Mojada to ask around, when there might have been plenty of eyewitnesses still alive. Nor did he send any delegate there to look for the marker Tex mentioned. This puzzled me more than somewhat.

It was easier to understand on reviewing McWilliams's problems at the time. As we have seen, McWilliams only pried Helen's hands from the legendary trunk by arranging its sale to Mrs. Marion Getz. The $7500 was paid out in installments over a couple of years -- meanwhile nobody got to look at the stuff.

"But the sale of the "trunk" did not solve the problem of access... I was to have access.. only at "the convenience of the buyer." This seemed fair enough at the time. But like most collectors, Mrs. Getz had a strong proprietary feeling about her acquisitions. The trunk, I discovered, contained some real treasures. I should have been able to make a leisurely exploration of the contents, item by item. I should have been able to prepare copies or make photostats. But I discovered that I was to be given only a limited time... Going over the material proved to be a nerve-wracking, frustrating, utterly exasperating experience, the more so as by then I had a deadline to meet for delivery of the manuscript. The hurried hours I spent looking through the material were for me a nightmare; when I think back upon the experience, even after all these years, I still feel cheated.

It was a pretty stiff deadline, too. Charles and Albert Boni, the publishers who had tried to rope in Paul Jordan-Smith back in 1921, sent McWilliams a contract and a $250 advance after his article on Bierce appeared in the Feb 1929 "American Mercury." There was no time to lose, for that year was to see three other books about Bierce -- C. Hartley Grattan's "Bitter Bierce," a literary study; Walter Neale's personal reminiscence, "Life of Ambrose Bierce," and Danziger-De Castro's "Portrait of Ambrose Bierce," which was almost worthless. All these hit the presses well before November, when McWilliams's work came before a public that was pretty much Bierced-out. It was the best book, but a little late.

Maybe this is why the $250 was all McWilliams ever saw for six years' careful study. He actually made rather less than Tex O'Reilly was used to getting for a single short story in "Pictorial Review".

To his credit, McWilliams didn't drop the subject after press time. He kept on working, and enlisted an El Paso newsman, Tom Mahoney, to help check out the vanishing. It was the most serious search for Bierce -- although Helen often said she was sponsoring Mexican investigations, it always turned out that she couldn't cover anybody's expenses. The efforts of the US Government were pretty ineffectual, and it's easy to forgive the Mexicans, who had lost a million citizens over ten years of civil war, if they didn't think one gringo writer a big deal.

Mahoney's inquest had a good chance of finding what had happened -- he was based in El Paso, within easy reach of the rumored death-sites. Mexico was peaceful when he began work, and there were lots of veterans at hand with fresh memories. Any modern researcher would kill for this chance, but it came to nothing. They blundered into a source who claimed to know everything -- Gaston De Prida.

The effort to find Bierce was well described by McWilliams in "The Mystery of Ambrose Bierce," American Mercury, Mar 1931. Tom Mahoney did the same in Esquire, Feb. 1936, "The End of Ambrose Bierce."

These versions agree with each other pretty well. Basically, it was a good journalistic dig -- they wrote letters to every reporter, diplomat and mercenary who might know something about it. Most inquiries came up dry, but the disappearance tales began to group themselves in a way suggesting that some of them inspired others.

Odo B. Stade, a merc who worked for Villa, said that in 1914 he knew an old American who was attached to the Division of the North. He was about seventy, medium height, grey hair, and asthmatic.

He told his fellow officers that he was an American, and that, if they wanted to give him a name, they might call him Jack Robinson. He scoffed at the tactics of the Mexicans, sneered at their campaigns, and pointed out errors with the eye of an expert. Toward the end of his service he showed a keen interest in hospital trains and the transport of the wounded. He wore a beard and told Mr. Stade that he had been a writer in the States. After the engagement at Guadalajara, in November, 1914, 'Jack Robinson' quarreled with Villa. Mr. Stade does not know the origin of this quarrel. But a squad under Fierro took Robinson out one evening and shot him, under Villa's orders. A member of this squad, Lieutenant Luis Rojo, told Stade the story the morning after the execution. In company with Rojo, Stade went to the scene, saw the body, and assisted in the burial. Later, after his return to the States, Mr. Stade associated 'Jack Robinson' with Bierce, and gave his story to the New York Times in 1920.

So said McWilliams in the American Mercury. We could be tempted to think that this is the first "Villa did it..." tale, and that the accounts of De Castro, Louis Stevens, and Mexican historian Elias Torres are mere variants. But the Times is barren of any reference to Stade in 1920, so it would be just as logical to presume that he copied and elaborated De Castro's story. McWilliams rejected Stade's tale, using the excellent criteria of Vincent Starrett -- the story assumes Bierce didn't write home for ten months, traveling all the time accompanied by war reporters and State Department consuls who didn't notice him.

Villa only went to Guadalajara after his somewhat lurid occupation of Mexico City. Had Bierce been there, he would have found infinite opportunities to get in touch through dozens of embassies and foreign companies.

Stade's tale has some good points -- we are referred to Lieutenant Rojo, and either he or Stade should be able to find the grave. Was Jack Robinson really Bierce? Stade never claimed to know for sure.

Mahoney and McWilliams kept sifting the stories, coming up with an occasional clue. Otis Aultman, the famous El Paso photographer, remembered being in the same rooming house with Bierce in Chihuahua City in December, 1913. (So much for Marion Letcher) The mercenary Emil Holmdahl said an "old gringo" went to the battle of Ojinaga, and was shot there. Zach Lamar Cobb, collector of customs at El Paso, remembered a rumor after the battle that Bierce was killed at Ojinaga. Such reports shaded a little the stories from Norman Walker and Felix Sommerfeld that Bierce left Chihuahua going south, and died there.

But suppose he did go to Ojinaga, after all, his last letter to Carrie Christiansen, 16 Dec 1913, she recorded this way"

Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. "Jornada del Muerto," thousands of civilian refugees, men women and children. Train loads of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect next day to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Mexicans fight like the devil, though not so effectively as trained soldiers. Addicted to unseasonable firing, many times at random. Incident at Tierra Blanca. Refuge behind a sharp ridge. Story of gringo; present of sombrero.

Note the three phrases about the Tierra Blanca fight. They are stenographic, to say the least. Here's how they are expanded in "Ambrose Bierce, the Devil's Lexicographer" by Paul Fatout, 1951: "...The Gringo observer was regarded with some suspicion by the Mexicans, but he removed their doubts by calmly walking to the top of a ridge and picking off one of the enemy. Whereupon his delighted comrades, astonished at such sharp shooting, presented him with a sombrero in token of his acceptance as a soldier..."

Of course, you couldn't extract a story like that from Christiansen's notes alone -- you'd have to talk to somebody who had read the actual letters, or read them yourself. So far as we can tell, only Vincent Starrett and maybe George Sterling had the chance. In "The Shadow Maker," American Mercury, Sept. 1925, Sterling floated this story first, with the characteristic exaggeration that Bierce had killed twelve Huertistas to prove his bona fides.

It's a good story, and maybe it's true, but unless the details were passed by word of mouth from Carrie to Vincent to George, there's no basis for it -- unless maybe Carrie didn't destroy Bierce's letters after making her notebook record.

In fact, three postcards from Bierce to Carrie in the Bancroft Library contradict the usual idea that she destroyed everything he wrote back on his last trip. He was on record as opposing the publication of people's letters after their death. But he never told anybody to destroy what he wrote. Are his last letters still out there? I'm still looking.

If you show that Bierce went to Ojinaga, the confusion of that battle leaves you guessing whether he lived through it. If he did live, he only had to cross the bridge to Presidio. From there, he could telegraph back to his Laredo hotel, telling them to ship his trunk back to Washington. While the press was busy with the internment of the Federals, he could take a bus to Marfa, a train west to El Paso, and another south to Chihuahua again, keeping about a week ahead of the common scribes. He could then move south, ahead of the Division of the North -- as related by Walker, Sommerfeld, and O'Reilly.

The stories that point him to Ojinaga don't contradict the others that track him south. It's simpler to assume he got killed at Ojinaga, but it's only simple. What's right might be trickier.

Mahoney and McWilliams proceeded to knock apart the sillier stories, leaving O'Reilly's to the last -- after all, you could only disprove it by going to Mexico and talking to Mexicans, which is a lot more trouble than writing letters to diplomats. About that time, Gaston De Prida walked into the newsroom of the El Paso Herald-Post with publicity photos of the Mexico City police motorcycle stunt team. While there, De Prida noticed a story about the Bierce disappearance, and mentioned that he had investigated the case in 1918 on the orders of the Carranza Government.

De Prida said he had visited Chihuahua City, Icamole, Sierra Mojada, and some other places, tracing Bierce rumors. He commonly showed informants a photo series including AB, and stopped listening if they picked the wrong snap. Only Salvador Ibarra, a Chihuahua City telegraph operator, passed this screening. In 1914, Ibarra had been a second-captain in the brigade of Toribio Ortega, top troopers of the Division of the North. In the same outfit served Tex O'Reilly and Edmundo Melero, also featured in Bierce tales. Ibarra only said that Bierce went to the battle of Ojinaga. He hadn't seen him afterwards.

Intriguing -- If De Prida snooped in Sierra Mojada in 1918, he must have had O'Reilly's account or some parallel report. It would add a lot to Tex's story if it was actually in circulation ten years before he hit the New York Times in May, 1928 -- even if De Prida threw it out.

There was just one trouble. I had already run into some stories about Gaston De Prida in Timothy Turner's book "Bullets, Bottles, and Gardenias." Turner spends about twenty pages detailing the adventures of De Prida, as thief, gambler and gunfighter. Turner had plenty of data, for De Prida was the boss guide that Carranza always attached to top correspondents like Richard Harding Davis and Lincoln Steffens. His role was rather like that of the KGB guides who tagged along with western writers in the USSR in the 1930s -- he could steer them to what the Government wanted to showcase, and run past anything embarrassing.

Mahoney and McWilliams did not do any background on De Prida -- when he pointed them toward Ojinaga, McWilliams dug into Christiansen's notes and decided the inquiry was finished.

I have to take a longer perspective -- if De Prida was so unreliable, what does it say about Carranza's attitude toward the Bierce puzzle that he got the job of sorting it out?

On 21 May, 1920, Carranza was assassinated while running off with all the easily portable treasures of Mexico. Or maybe just plain killed is more to the point. You can't look into it from the point of motive, for by that time he had double-crossed everybody in the Mexican political spectrum at least twice. The ensuing government, headed by Elias Calles, negotiated the retirement of Pancho Villa, who had survived everything but the cynicism of the civil war. De Prida's probe, good or bad, was canceled, and he found work as a Mexico City cop. It would be nice to find his report, if it exists.

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