The Ambrose Bierce Site


My Hunt For Ambrose Bierce
by Leon Day

Back to the Research Trail

Everybody who wants to improve history -- to bring the record closer to what really happened -- must sooner or later decide just what newspaper reports are worth. The common citizen is usually disappointed when his adventures appear in print. We are lucky if they spell our names right. Deadline pressure tends to scramble other facts, and sometimes we can tell that the reporter has run away with the story, stuffed his views into the mouths of his informants, and fed the results back to a suffering public.

After some experience, you don't expect a press story to be Gospel. You are happy to find a clue, even when it's scrambled up with serious errors. Here's a good example from the San Francisco Chronicle, 4 April 1914:


Communications to Berkeley relatives of Ambrose Bierce, the author, who has made his home in Washington, DC since 1901, indicate that he has set out to "Gil Blas" it, unchaperoned, through the war-ridden districts of Mexico.

Mrs. Carlton A. Bierce of 2009 Francisco Street, Berkeley, wife of Bierce's nephew received a letter from the author, dated four weeks ago at Laredo, Tex. He has since been heard from in Chihuahua, where Villa and his Constitutionalists are trying their best to wipe the Federals off the earth.

Bierce, who is a veteran of the Civil War, has often said to his friends that he had "not seen enough fighting" and his relatives believe he has gone to Mexico in a spirit of adventure.

The "Gil Blas" reference is to a four-volume adventure novel of 1735 by Alain Rene Lesage. You might think of it as a precursor to Voltaire's "Candide." The education of newsmen, and their readers, seems to have been pretty good in those days.

The reporter says Lora Bierce has got a letter from Laredo dated early March. If true, this would be big news, for Carrie Christiansen had not heard from her boss since December. By April, Carrie had already begun annoying the State Department. The letters that Lora Bierce describes are pretty clearly the same ones recorded in Carrie's notebook -- but all those were written and sent at least three months before.

There is a way this story can make sense. If in early March Carrie decided to send Bierce's last letters to Lora, she might just sit down and record them in a notebook in case somebody wanted details for some investigation of his disappearance. The reporter confuses the date of the letters with the time when Lora received them.

When I first found this story, I was busy tracking the descendants of Carrie Christiansen, hoping one might have Ambrose's last letters stowed in the attic. Here was evidence that they were not destroyed, as most historians thought, but sent to Lora Bierce. So I had to track her relatives, as well.

The lawyer says, "This is wrong, throw it out." But the detective says, "What could explain this mistake?"

To the right sort of mind, a contradiction is as good a clue as a fact. And a lie is better still -- it has motive behind it, not just error. A good investigator spends more time with those who are lying--he tries to draw out some more lies, for all will point backwards at the truth.

It ought to work the same with historians, but it doesn't. The first biographer is honored with the assumption that he did a good job on the basic press reports, though he probably had to work with inferior indexes. The second life-writer will pick out some details that the first one missed, the third will find something important, and the fourth will decide the great man-- or woman-- was made of clay right up to the hips. This is a natural process, and the reading public should only complain that it takes too long.

Here we are only dealing with a literary figure. Nobody's vote will swing with what they think about Ambrose Bierce, but the same literary pattern prevails as with Wilson, both Roosevelts, the Kennedys, Johnson, Eisenhower and Nixon -- that is, good data arrives too late to help the consumer. This may change, for both fact and gossip are moving much faster now, through talk radio and tabloid TV, error and insight are available much more quickly.

Bierce saw the beginning of this process -- he invested some of his hard-earned cash in the Mergenthaler linotype process. He was luckier than Mark Twain, who backed an earlier gimmick that came to nothing. Bierce saw the birth of the modern mass press, and saw William Randolph Hearst bend the new machines to the service of profit and prejudice. If we had him around to watch Turner, and Murdock, and the other moguls who imagine they are statesmen, we might be a little safer. But Bierce is dead. We're on our own.

I returned to O'Reilly's book "Born to Raise Hell." I was looking for a story that was specifically checkable. And I found one:

On Christmas Eve I came into my hotel and found a telephone message asking me to come at once to the American Club around the corner. There was rioting in the streets that night; our troops were out putting it down, and fighting was under way within a couple of blocks. The message gave me an idea there was something wrong, and I went around to the club immediately. An excited meeting was going on. About forty Americans were gathered there. The American editor of a paper printed in English, the Mexican Herald, had been arrested by Villa's orders, and it was reported that he was to be shot next morning.

I thought probably he would be. They told me he had strongly supported Huerta in his paper and had made a trip to the States in Huerta's behalf. That was of course his business; he had every right to support Huerta if he wanted to. But I had no doubt that Villa would shoot him.

The Americans had been trying to save him. There was no American minister to Mexico. The other ministers had tried to reach Villa, and he refused to see them. The Americans had appealed to his staff officers, who would do nothing, saying that if Villa had the editor he would probably kill him and they could not stop it.

The Americans had sent for me to ask if I could do something. I had never heard of the editor before, but I always try to help an American. I told them, "Well, I cannot promise anything. Villa will do as he wants to, and nobody can stop him. But I can see him, and I will promise to go in to him and present the case, and do what I can."

That was more than any of them could do, but I said, "There is just one thing I want to ask. I don't know this town. Villa has moved to a private house this afternoon, and I have not been there yet. I don't know how to find my way around, and the rioting is pretty bad tonight. I want one of you to volunteer to come with me as a guide."

We could hear the fighting in the streets, and there was just a brief little hesitation but not long enough to show how many of them would have volunteered, because old General Agramonte stepped up.

"I will be glad to go with you. Just wait a minute till I get my pistol."

General Horace Montgomery y Agramonte was then eighty-five years old. He was an American, but he had lived in Cuba and Mexico so long that he used his mother's name, as the Spanish do.

He was still a fighting old general, the very picture of a soldier. He looked about fifty, hale and hearty, carried himself well, stepped out briskly.

He came back with his pistol, and we went out and got a carriage. There was fighting all around us -- street rioting.

But that was the last of it; our troops cleaned it up that night. At one place we had to go through a line of fire and had trouble forcing our cochero to proceed.

We arrived at Villa's house and went in. I was an officer on his staff and had no difficulty in seeing him at any time, of course. I was careful with him, because I knew if he went into one of his fits of rage nobody but Luz Corral would be able to save the prisoner, and maybe she wouldn't. He was very angry and at first refused to listen to a word.

"He has worked against us all the time. He worked here in Mexico, and he went to Washington for that traitor and murderer. I am going to execute him."

I said, "Well, General, of course that is your business. But you are in control of Mexico City now. We are no longer in the field, and at this time the very worst thing you can do for your own cause is to throw an American in jail and shoot him. It is all right if you want to bring charges against him and try him. That is your privilege. You are in command here. But he must be tried according to law. He must be represented by a lawyer and have a chance to plead his cause. You cannot take an American into a back yard and shoot him like a dog. If you do you will have all the foreign diplomats lined up against you from the start."

He walked up and down the room, back and forth, while we sat there, and finally he turned and said, "Good! I will tell you what I will do. I am going to try him, but I will release him in your custody. If you do not have him here when I want to try him I will shoot you."

That old bird would do it. It was just the kind of a thing he would do. He was that kind of man. I had never seen the editor in my life, and never heard of him before.

I turned to General Agramonte and said, "General, you know this man. Would you take him on those terms?"

He said, "I would guarantee his word with my life."

So I said to Villa, "All right. Give me an order for his release."

He called one of his secretaries and had him write an order to the Fourth Comisario of Police. I took it, and General Agramonte and I drove out to the penitentiary. It was surrounded by Villa troops and machine guns, but we finally got in by using Villa's written order.

The guards had taken the prisoner's clothes away from him and locked him in a cell. He was sitting there in his underdrawers, waiting to be shot in the morning.

I demanded that the guards fetch his clothes and the little personal belongings they had taken away from him and had probably divided among themselves since he was to be shot so soon, but the editor said, "Never mind that. Just get me out. Never mind waiting for clothes, just get me out of here. That's all I want. I just want to get out."

I took a blanket, and we wrapped him in it and put him in the carriage and drove across town to his house. He had his family there in Mexico City, his wife and three little children, and they had been fixing up a Christmas tree when he was arrested. They were all sitting there crying, with the tree left half trimmed. They thought he was dead, and then the door opened and we brought him in.

For months he was under arrest, released in my custody. He was never brought to trial, not because Villa forgot him, but because so many other things happened. After the battle of Celaya he went free. And he is living in New York now."

When I first read the above, I was pretty much saturated with Mexican history. It bothered me that such a dramatic tale wasn't in any of the books. Some authors are so fond of Pancho Villa stories that they'll neglect the details of a battle to make room for a good, lurid one.

O'Reilly's failure to name the editor didn't help. I went over Edith O'Shaunessy's gossipy books about Mexico City during the revolution. She often quoted Mexican Herald editorials, but she didn't mention the editor's name or report his arrest.

The University of California at Berkeley owns a few tattered bundles of Mexican Herald. They didn't have the editor's name on the masthead, and the issues covering Christmas of 1914 carried no hint that he had been jailed.

Then by accident I re-read Clarence Clendenen's "The United States and Pancho Villa." It mentioned in a note one Paul Hudson, editor of the Herald and PR man for both Huerta and Diaz.

This led to stories in the New York Times about Hudson and his wife lecturing in the US on Huerta's behalf, and his brief arrest on Christmas Eve.

O'Reilly was right again. I began to think of his book as a good historical source, though it was unquoted and unnoted by any of the pros. Hoping to find an account by Hudson that would mention O'Reilly and Agramonte, I turned to the great compendium of atrocity stories, Senator Albert B. Fall's "Investigation of Mexican Affairs." The report of Fall's Senate sub-committee contains much solid testimony, though his one-note tune that the US should invade Mexico and annex the northern half gets tiresome.

Paul Hudson hadn't told his tale of woe to the Senate. But I did find sworn testimony detailing how the Mexican Review, edited by Weeks and Melero, was a PR organ of the Carranza Government. This was an eye-opener, and I now had to consider all the Bierce fables with a view to their political effect and motive. I now re-read Mexican Review with a new perspective.

Weeks did a good job of parrying American interventionist propaganda. The magazine was a class act, even if it was free.

The first mention of Bierce was in September 1917, an article titled "Haven of Forgotten Men." Here Weeks related that he had been on the lookout for Bierce during the battle of Torreon, but didn't find him. Weeks didn't claim he had talked to Bierce, but quoted a reporter who had, in El Paso. Bierce was represented as saying that he would offer his service to the revolution, and if refused he would "crawl into some out of the way hole in the mountains and die."

Weeks seems to have written Carrie Christiansen, and she consulted Vincent Starrett. He wrote to Weeks and got the name of the source -- Willis, of the New York Herald. But when Willis was asked, he denied ever meeting Bierce, or even hearing any such story.

And that takes care of Weeks' first effort, but we must point out that while Bierce might respect an Army, it would be really surprising if this practiced cynic got starry-eyed over a whole revolution.

In April 1919, Mexican Review moved from Washington, DC, to Mexico City. Edmundo Melero became the business manager. That issue floated the first version of the Urbina-did-it story. That Melero was the prime source did not become clear until he died in Feb. 1920. Both stories make Bierce a Carranza partisan, the second has him die at the hands of Urbina, one of Villa's deputies. As Starrett pointed out, it makes little sense to suppose that Bierce ran around northern Mexico for more than a year without dropping a note home or learning enough Spanish to explain himself.

I then examined the official connections of some other Bierce disappearance sources. Dr. De Castro's "Portrait of Ambrose Bierce," pages 329 to 331 explain how he got himself a public relations job with the Obregon Presidency.

He goes on to claim that he wheedled from Villa an admission that Bierce was abandoned in the desert after criticizing Villa's conduct. The first critics of this story, Starrett, Sterling, and McWilliams -- dumped it because De Castro told it three years after Villa was assassinated.

If it was true, why not float it earlier? In his book, De Castro reprinted a letter from Villa, but it was a letter refusing an interview, not consenting to one. There was nothing to show that De Castro had ever gone to Canutillo, or that Villa had ever talked to him. Why Villa should confess killing Bierce, when he had always denied ever meeting him, was unexplained. And De Castro doesn't say how Bierce could escape notice by the newsmen and State Department folks attached to Villa's staff.

But those critics did not notice that De Castro had admitted being an employee of the Obregon regime. Perhaps they thought that since Villa was dead, nobody would bother framing him.

If so, they were naive.

In Mexico, assassination does not end with your heartbeat. First, your body is displayed so your fans can be persuaded you are really dead. Then, postcards of your corpse appear on sale. With giants like Villa and Zapata, the pygmy bureaucrats pay close attention to any relatives who might pick up the flag. After Villa was killed, his brother Hipolito took over the estate at Canutillo, which Villa had been building into an example of scientific agriculture that even his rival Obregon would have admired. Ten months after Pancho was killed in ambush, the Army invaded his spread and dispersed all his followers.

At about the same time, Jesus Salas Barraza, who had confessed to organizing the killing, was pardoned. He died in 1951, still saying it was all his idea.

Newsmen, though, had tracked the plot as high as the Secretary of War, Elias Calles, who still feared the "Cincinatus of Canutillo."

So far as anyone can tell, Villa was satisfied in retirement and sincere when he said the future of Mexico depended on education, not bloodshed. But they didn't have to trust a man who could form new armies with a wave of his arm.

In 1966, after a long and bitter debate, the Mexican Congress decided to admit that Francisco Villa was a hero of the Mexican Revolution. The final stage of the assassination - -the assault on his reputation -- had failed. Weeks, Melero, De Castro, and some other folks with better reputations will someday be lined up in the footnotes as the crew that worked hard to blacken a record that was only spotty -- full of confiscations, and seizures, and appropriations; ransoms and forced loans typical of all the other revolutionary armies.

But with all this, nobody has turned up Pancho Villa's treasure. He put it all back into the Army. Sometimes he appropriated, and sometimes he just took it. But nothing stuck to his hands. The so-called bandit retired with just what the bureaucrats agreed to give him.

Two and a half years after Villa's death, his grave was opened, his head severed and taken away. The American mercenary, Emil Holmdahl, was in the area looking for buried treasure -- he said. Local authorities couldn't pin anything on him, so after a week he was released. Where the head is, nobody knows.

The 1919 article in Mexican Review included a picture that did not look much like Bierce. De Castro, in his book, said Weeks had worked throughout his investigation using a picture of Benjamin Viljoen, a Boer War veteran who fought for Madero. De Castro could have known -- he was in touch with Weeks, and Mexican Review printed a De Castro short story, Nov. 1919.

I began to wonder if Major Gaston De Prida had set out on his search with a good picture of Bierce, or a bad one, or a good picture of General Viljoen.

De Prida was part of the Mexican Review coterie. In January, 1920, the paper reports that he is alive and well in New York City, not executed by Villa as some papers said.

Associations were forming here, coincidental or not. Weeks and Melero, PR men for Carranza, were the first to tie Villa's buddy Urbina to Bierce's death. Their friend Dr. De Castro, who worked for Obregon, was the first to claim Villa himself ordered it. And another friend, De Prida, seems to have done the only official Mexican government search.

McWilliams doesn't seem to have noticed the political ties and motives that joined the Bierce tales. But that's OK -- he proved his sincerity by looking for Bierce even when only the mystery was floating the sales of his book. He still tried to solve it.


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