Ambrose Bierce, "the Old Gringo": Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Ambrose Bierce, "the Old Gringo": Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Glenn Willeford

MISDEMEANOR, n. An infraction of the law having less dignity than a felony and constituting no claim to admittance into the best criminal society.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

War is fertile ground for the creative mind. In 1913 a writer who had experienced the American Civil War came to Chihuahua in order to see more bloodshed, this time in the Mexican Revolution. The two conflicts were similar in nature. Had Ambrose Bierce survived his visit to Mexico he would, no doubt, have written some gripping literature about Mexican warfare. But he did not survive, and his literary legacy does not extend beyond his retirement from journalism in 1913. Who was Bierce, and what brought him from the safety of a comfortable retirement to the battlefields of the Mexican desert? To answer the question, one must understand what events made the man, especially his service as a soldier.

Like the Mexican revolution, the American Civil War was a conflict between paisanos, or countrymen. It was fought because the southern states, which were agricultural areas, and the northern states, which were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, could not agree on a central power structure for governing the country. The South believed in the autonomy of the state. In other words, they believed that the federation of the states was intended solely for economic and military protection in time of emergency; they felt that Washington, D. C. had no right to tell the individual states how to govern themselves. Southerners felt so strongly about it that they believed their home states, such as Texas, Virginia, or Alabama, to be their countries rather than the United States of America as a whole. One issue that became especially important was the future of negro slavery on the North-American continent. The agricultural South, with its huge cotton plantations, felt that it could not function without the inexpensive labor that was provided by slaves. Consequently they did not want the northerners interfering with their "states rights" through Legislative or Presidential mandate.

The North, on the other hand, had about four times as many people as the South, and most of them were willing to work at low-paying jobs. Slaves, therefore, were not needed and the intellectuals and religious leaders of the North could speak out against the institution of slavery without fear of reprisal from the industrial elitÈs. And speak out they did! By 1861, when Abraham Lincoln became President, the South could see the direction in which the country was moving. Slavery would not be permitted in any of the newly recognized states. In the southern mind, Lincoln's presidency signaled the end of their way of life. Ultimately war broke out when South Carolina militia units cannonaded Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, in April; it did not end until 1865 when the South surrendered, but by then about 600,000 Americans had been killed in battle. From the standpoint of casualties, the Civil War was the most horrific war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. That had been Ambrose Bierceís war. The experience, including a head wound suffered personally, helped to mold the man into a misanthrope as well as a composer of darkly realistic literature.

It is therefore interesting that Bierce, who was 71 years old at the time, came to Chihuahua in order to observe the Mexican Revolution. In fact, he seems never to have left! And therein lies one of the most intriguing -- as well as unsolved -- mysteries, that remains from that difficult period of history.

Ambrose G. Bierce was born in Ohio state on June 24, 1842. As a young man he served as a United States Army officer and fought for the North during the American Civil War. He later became a journalist and an author. Bierce first gained the attention of literary critics with his book of Civil War stories entitled: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, wherein his most famous story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is found. His most famous work is a book entitled: The Devilís Dictionary. For thirty years Bierce resided in San Francisco, California, where he gained notoriety as a journalist with the Hearst newspaper chain.

One of the many ironies about Bierce is that he detested William Randolph Hearst, his employer. Hearst, who owned extensive hacienda lands in northern Mexico, had been involved in intrigues that were calculated to reestablish the pre-revolutionary dictatorship. Bierce had written a lengthy exposÈ of the newspaper magnate but, not wanting to embarrass Hearstís aging mother, a woman the writer admired very much, he stored the manuscript with the manager of a Laredo, Texas, hotel for safekeeping before he went to Mexico. Bierce, it seems evident, intended to return for the material at a later date and then submit it for publication. However (and this complicates the puzzle), before the manuscript could be recovered by Bierceís representatives in 1914 or 1915, it vanished from the hotel, never to reappear! This issue raises the question of the possibility of Hearstís involvement in the confiscation of the manuscript by some means, and even of the possibility of some complicity on the part of Hearst, or of his henchmen, in the final disappearance Bierce.

Nonetheless, Bierce is best remembered today not only for his literary work, but for his quixotic journey into Mexico during the winter of 1913 -- at the apex of the Mexican Revolution -- and then for his sudden disappearance in January 1914. The latter topic has resulted in many theories about what actually happened to him, most of which are purely speculative. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel entitled Gringo Viejo that was centered around Bierce. That story was re-written for film and produced as the movie, Old Gringo, by the Fonda Films Company. (Screen legend Gregory Peck played the role of Bierce.) The movie is excellent, but, it must be remembered, it is a fictional account based on the rich imagination of both Fuentes and the screen writers who were employed during the making of the film.

In fact, very little hard evidence concerning the fate of Bierce has ever been found. Nevertheless, what has been learned, especially regarding the last month of his life and travels, may lead to reasonable conclusions concerning his demise. For one thing, Bierce had been making plans for his long journey since the previous spring. Rebecca Tuttle, one of the helpful people at the Huntington Library (a major repository of "Bierciana") in a response to my inquiries in 1999 said that she had located the following in a letter from Bierce to Walter Neale that was written on May 29, 1913: "Iím going to rediscover Tennessee (discovered in 1862) - a feat in which I hope for your assistance. Later still, I mean to go into Mexico - where, thank God, something is doing - and, in all probability, in to South America, a region that has held up a beckoning hand to me all my life."

Except for occasional attacks of asthma, Bierce was in good health when he left the United States. He was relatively wealthy and probably not worried about money. On the other hand, his family life was in a shambles. His two sons were dead, one by suicide after a failed love affair, and the other from acute alcohol intoxication; additionally, he had, by his own choice, been long separated from his wife. Nevertheless, the writer stayed in close contact with his daughter, and she was the only family member who supported him to the end.

Bierce did, however, have friends, associates, and even extended family members who also cared about and maintained contact with him. One of those was Carrie Christiansen, his devoted secretary in Washington, D. C.

Since his best fiction writing had been the war stories the old writer wanted to obtain more war material in order to continue in his profession. The only way to accomplish that was to go and experience another war. On his way to Mexico, Bierce stopped in New Orleans for a rest. While there he was interviewed by several newspaper reporters. One of them asked him why he was going to war-torn Mexico; he replied: "I like the game. . . . I want to see it." Then, by way of San Antonio, Texas, where author Paul Fatout said he was "royally entertained by Fort Sam Houston cavalry officers," he traveled on to Laredo, Texas, on the Rio Grande border. Bierce had intended to cross the international frontier at Laredo, but having heard stories about General Francisco Villa and his Constitutionalist Division del Norte in Chihuahua, and realizing that most of the action was taking place there rather than in Coahuila, he boarded a train for El Paso. In November, soon after Villa captured Ciudad Juarez, Bierce crossed the Rio Grande and, in Fatout's words, had been "cordially received and given credentials as an observer attached to Villaís army marching to Chihuahua." On November 26-27 the Constitutionalist army under Villa engaged and defeated a strong force of reinforced federal huertistas and colorados (Redflaggers) at Tierra Blanca, a railway station some thirty miles south of Juarez. Bierce not only witnessed that battle but participated in it when, after having been taunted by boyish soldiers, he took a rifle, aimed carefully, and killed a federal soldier at some distance. University of Chicago historian Friedrich Katz, in his 1998 tome on Pancho Villa, says that the revolutionaries were so delighted that they gave the grey-headed old man a large Mexican hat (un sombrero villista) as a prize for his marksmanship.

The Constitutionalist army, utilizing railroad trains captured from the federals, then moved on toward Chihuahua City which was in the process of being vacated by the huertistas (as the adherents of the usurper president Victoriano Huerta were called). The federal commander, Gen. Salvador Mercado, along with his army, retreated to Ojinaga, Chihuahua, on the Rio Grande across from Presidio, Texas. Bierce was then present at or near Ciudad Chihuahua for most or all of the month of December, 1913.

Some detractors, such as author Roy Morris, Jr. (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 1996), give utterance that Bierce never came to Chihuahua at all, and that the story was a ruse for him to mysteriously disappear from this life. One of their arguments has been that Bierce was so well known that he could not have been overlooked by the other North American reporters who were present at the same time. However, Bierce, the man who had written so well about one war, was remaining as close to the fighting as he could - so close in fact that it may have gotten him killed. He knew from experience that one could not accurately describe a combat unless he had been present and witnessed it. (I, for one, like to think of Bierce as a forerunner of the gutsy Robert Capra, Martha Gellhorn style journalist.) The fledgling reporters and others who might (or just as likely might not - this was pre-television) have recognized Bierce were undoubtedly lodged at either the Hotel Palacio or the Apolo, where they would be safe and warm as well as sumptuously-fed and lubricated. That is, if they had not already gone back to the United States for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season! Indeed, Paul Fatout in Ambrose Bierce: The Devilís Lexicographer said: "In late December he (Bierce) was just outside Chihuahua, expecting to move to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Trainloads of troops left Chihuahua every day. . . . He rode in four miles to Chihuahua to mail a letter that spoke of these and other matters, and that was dated December 26, 1913. The rest is silence." (Fatout cited: "Bierce papers, the Stanford University Libraries.")

In an earlier letter to his nephewís wife, Bierce, who was perhaps sensing trouble ahead or, more likely, simply making one of his devilish jokes, said: "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!"

The letter Fatout attested as having been sent on December 26, 1913, was addressed to Miss Christiansen in Washington, D. C., and was the final communication that was ever received by anyone from Ambrose Bierce. It remains today as the most important piece of evidence that he was, in fact, at Chihuahua City and that he planned to go to Ojinaga, for he said as much to Miss Christiansen in the text. Some detractors, however, speculate that Bierce wrote the draft of the letter in El Paso and gave it to someone to mail from Chihuahua City. In reality, how likely is that? Would Bierce have tried to fool his trusted secretary in Washington? When the accomplice noted the ballyhoo concerning the disappearance of Bierce would he/she not likely have stepped forward with information about depositing a letter in the post office at Ciudad Chihuahua? Another point, remembering that Bierce said in the same letter he was planning to go to Ojinaga with Villa, consider how Bierce could possibly have known for certain that the Constitutionalist army was even going to the Rio Grande fight unless he was there, in person, at Chihuahua City during the time. Pancho Villa did not determine to take a leave of absence from his new post as military governor of Chihuahua state and journey to Ojinaga himself until his forces there failed to take the town on the fourth day of January. (This necessarily implies that Bierce, when composing his letter of December 26, meant he was going to Ojinaga with forces under the command of Gen. Villa rather than with Villa himself. When he actually planned to depart we cannot be sure; nonetheless, as he spoke of the matter in the letter it seems that his leaving was more or less imminent. Constitutionalist forces had been leaving, and continued to depart, by train for several days by the time December 26 arrived.)

Villa, with 1,500 to 2,000 fresh troops arrived near Ojinaga on January 9 after an arduous expedition of seventy-odd miles horseback from the railhead near the Rio Conchos. A cold norther was blowing in. US Army Major Michael M. McNamee, commanding US troops at Presidio, kept an official soldiers log of the events. He said that on the forenoon of January 10 the Constitutionalists sighted in their cannons at a distance of 2,000 to 4,000 yards. There was then a long lull in activity until 6 p. m. when small arms fire broke out. "Shortly after dark there was quite a heavy firing of cannon on both sides," he said. The fighting went on for about two hours until the federal front broke just before 8 p. m. A general rout ensued and an entire army of the Mexican Federal Republic fled across the Rio Grande and surrendered to US Army troopers up and down the river at Presidio. The Mexican federal soldiers, officers, and camp followers (3,352 officers and men as well as 1,607 women) were detained by these forces. Provisions and firewood were made available to them as was provender to their animals. The sick and wounded were taken to the American Red Cross Hospital that had been set up on the school ground nine days earlier.

It is possible to piece together what probably happened to Bierce after the last letter had been mailed. The first part of the journey from the state capitol to Ojinaga was to be made over the newly constructed Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway. Since, however, the rails had not been laid any farther northward than San Sostenes (near the Falomir Hacienda along the RÌo Conchos), the last part of the trip would have necessarily taken place by horse, wagon, or even in motor-driven conveyances. The winter of 1913-1914 was severe, and cold weather was a factor that the opposing armies had to consider. And severe weather is known to have had an adverse impact on the asthmatic Bierce. (Richard Saunders, author of Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope tells of Bierce having been caught in a storm in New Orleans during the last part of October, 1913, and put to bed with a resultant asthma attack.) The possibility that cold weather and/or overall conditions in the field proved too much for the aged Bierce cannot be discounted. For all we know he may have had an attack and died any time after the 26th of December. Considering the time frame and combat conditions, if that happened in Chihuahua it is unlikely that any death record would have been made, especially if he died someplace outside of the city. Neither is his having been murdered for monetary gain out of the question, for Bierce is purported to have carried $1,100 US dollars into Mexico with him - a lot of money at that time.

One rumor that began to circulate in 1990, seventy-six years after the disappearance, says that Bierce died at Marfa, Texas, after having been transported there from Presidio in an ill condition sometime after January 10, 1914. It is important to refute this tale because it has received a following in parts of western Texas and more recently in a national magazine. The story, found in the Notes and Comments section of the Journal of Big Bend Studies IV (1992) published by the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University as well as in another format in the Big Bend Sentinel November 29, 1990 edition, says:

Abelardo Sanchez of Lancaster, California recently informed the editor that in 1957 he was driving in northern Mexico south of Yuma, Arizona, and picked up a man who, in the course of conversation, mentioned that he had served with the colorados opposing Villa in 1913. . . . When Ojinaga fell to Villa in January 1914 he crossed the Rio Grande seeking refuge in the United States. . . . [During the conversation the man told Sanchez that during the retreat from Ojinaga to Presidio, Texas, he met an old norteamericano.] The gringo was ill and not able to speak well, but it was determined that his name was "Ambrosia" and that his last name was something like "Price" [or Pierce, or Bierce?]. The man told Sanchez that he and several other soldiers put the gringo on a two-wheeled cart and helped him across the Rio Grande at a point [on the Rio Bravo] above Ojinaga. They were taken into custody by soldiers of the [United States] Third Cavalry and escorted to Marfa, Texas, along with hundreds of other refugees. By the time they arrived [in Marfa] the old man was delirious and almost in a coma. He died shortly afterward. . . . Supposedly he was buried in the old Camp Marfa cemetery. . . .

Sanchez story, however, is flawed in at least three ways. First, one must understand that the line of federal withdrawal from Ojinaga to the Rio Bravo was at no point more than about a mile in distance, and was less than that for many of the combatants. More important, because the retreat did not begin until 8 p. m. and, as it was wintertime, darkness would already have fallen. In other words, the circumstances would have permitted neither the time, the opportunity, nor an inclination to stop and make friends along the way. Second, it does not seem logical that hardened soldiers who were fleeing for their lives would have taken the time to assist an ill person whom they did not know. One could speculate that they had hoped to receive better treatment from the United States Army if they brought a U. S. citizen to safety, but, if that be so, why did they not utilize that resource once they were arrested on the Texas side of the river? According to the story, they did not. Third, it is very unlikely that the US Army troops who, due to an outbreak of smallpox among the federalist refugees, detained all of the refugees from the Ojinaga battle for three days of observation before transferring them to Marfa, would not have transported a sick old man to the American Red Cross hospital that had been set up at Presidio. This is especially so if the man had been an Anglo-American, and even more true if that man had been the famous writer, Ambrose Bierce. In other words, the story told by S·nchez must be discounted for a lack of sufficient evidence as well as for its extreme improbability. Additionally, the editor of the Journal mentioned above, Dr. Earl H. Elam, made a systematic search of records in the Presidio County courthouse and found no trace of anyone with a name resembling Bierce having died there during that period. Importantly, Elam also spent a lengthy period in the military records at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. during 1989. While there he located and recovered reams of documentation concerning military activities on both sides of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande border during the Mexican revolution, but he found no trace of Ambrose Bierce having died at Marfa, or anywhere else for that matter.

Nevertheless, Bierce probably did see Marfa, Texas, one time. It was from a train coach window as he passed through on his way to El Paso during November. Certainly, he never returned.

The most rational explanation for the disappearance of Bierce is that he came north with Villa, arrived near Ojinaga on January 9, and was either slain during the battle on January 10 or that he died of natural causes sometime during that entire time frame. There is even a small piece of information that tends to prove this proposition: after the revolution several groups of investigators went into Mexico looking for Bierce. One method they used in their research was to interview former villistas who were known to have been at Chihuahua and then at Ojinaga during the same time that Bierce was believed to have been there. One officer, a man reportedly named Ybarra, when shown a photograph of Bierce, said that he had indeed seen him at Ojinaga but that after the assault on the federal garrison (which assault we do not know) he never saw him again. So, it is most reasonable to conclude that Ambrose Bierce died at Ojinaga.

Many of the dead at Ojinaga were buried in trench graves. Many others however, were interlaced with dry wood, mostly vigas and wooden planks that had been taken from the wrecked structures in Ojinaga, then doused with kerosene and set afire on the plaza de armas in front of the Nuestra Padre de Jes™s church. So, was Bierceís body burned to ashes, or was he buried in an unmarked grave? It is doubtful that anyone will ever know. Doubtful I said, not certain. For tantalizing clues are occasionally brought to light. There is, for example, that piece of information concerning the execution of an old American journalist by huertista soldiers in an old mining village of northern Zacatecas. And, if Roy Morris, Jr. is correct and Bierce never left the United States, there is a yellowed scrap of newsprint about the finding of scattered human remains in the mountains somewhere out of El Paso along with an old key watch, and a United States coin dated 1852, and a rusting old revolver with one shot fired, and most important, a serial number from the firearm! (Try as I have to locate one, a source that can give a description of Bierce's personal handgun or the all important serial number still eludes me. If anyone out there can help, I promise youíll be remembered in the story, whether or not it belonged to Bierce.)

Me? I would like to think that yours truly has been mistaken and that logic, in Bierce's case, must be given a wide berth. His manifest intention had been to take a look at the situation in revolutionary Mexico and then head on farther and farther south into South America. Perhaps, along the way, he was made to stand bravely in front of his "Mexican stone wall." And if that was the fate that overtook him I, for one, must agree that it would, as he put it, have beaten "old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs."

In summation, all we definitively know about the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce (and all that we are likely to ever know) is that his death left a body of work unfinished. Nevertheless, there are those of us who continue to be intrigued by the man and his legend. We know that something tangible about "the old sinner" (as one searcher from Lincoln, Nebraska, calls him) could turn up even yet. We are waiting.


CHRISTIAN, n. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary



Some military strategists might have insisted that Mercado's army, which was then isolated and cut off from any reinforcement, should simply have been bottled up and left to rot at Ojinana. The more important military objectives, particularly TorreÛn, Coahuila, and Cd. Zacatecas lay far to the south along the Mexican Central Railway. Villa, perhaps sensing that the United States could not be trusted (later on US President Woodrow Wilson recognized Venustiano Carranza as the power in Mexico and allowed Carranza to use American railways to move troops back and forth to fight against Villa), refused to permit the existence of an substantial enemy force at his back. Ojinaga would have to be taken.

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