By Reub Williams, Editor
In the autumn of 1860, a young man, residing with his parents, about three miles south of this place, applied to the editor of this paper for a situation to learn the printing business. He was, at that time, about sixteen years of age, and was possessed of a common school education far in advance of other boys of his age. A contract was made, and the young man set in regularly to learn the "art preservative of all arts," and was taken into the family as one of its members, as was our custom in those days. He learned rapidly; and it did not even then take the vision of a prophet to predict that the young man would make his mark in the world. While he was as industrious as any boy we have ever seen before or since, he was likewise pretty full of mischief, and-as was very often the case in those days, with boys of his age-got himself tangled up in some shape in a "scrape" with two or three other boys of about the same age, which resulted in his leaving our employ. We investigated the matter at the time, and found to our own satisfaction that he was entirely innocent of any wrong in the matter, and we advised him to leave for a few days. This he did, arriving at Elkhart about the time that the first call for troops in 1861, reached that place. he immediately enlisted in a company forming at that town, which was afterwards assigned to the old 9th Regiment-the "Bloody Ninth," as the boys delighted to call it. He served through the first three months as an enlisted soldier, and upon its re-organization, was again attached to the same Regiment, this time with the rank of Second Lieutenant. We are not well posted in regard to his military record, more than to know that it was most excellent. He rose from one rank to another, and filled every position in which he was placed, with credit and fidelity. During the Atlanta campaign, while the troops were resting one day, near Altoona Pass, and just before the struggle for the victory of that strong-hold commenced, a young man rode up to us, shook hands, and called us by name. It was no wonder that we did not recognize the youth of sixteen that had commenced learning the printing business four years previously, in the tall, good-looking and bearded young man that stood before us. Yet it was the identical individual, now grown to manhood. He was then attached to Gen. Hazen's staff, as Topographical Engineer, and enjoyed the confidence of that gallant officer to the fullest extent. After serving through the war with distinction and rising to the rank of Major, he went to California, where he was employed in the United States Mint, in San Francisco. The young man's name is AMBROSE G. BIERCE, and is the youngest son of our old friend, Marcus A. Bierce, now residing in Elkhart, and well known to nearly everybody in this county. In his boyhood days the Major went by the cognomen of "Brady" Bierce, and was better known among his associates and neighbors by that than his real name. Without further comment, we subjoin the following article, in reference to the young man, taken from the correspondence of the New York Arcadian, and which is printed under the head of "Dod Grile," a "non de plume" under which Mr. Bierce has won distinction, and which, we doubt not, will be read with as much interest by his former acquaintences and friends as it was by ourself and "better half," who has often wondered what had become of "Brady" Bierce:
There is a bright, saucy little Ishmael of a sheet published in San Francisco under the title of Figaro. It is distributed gratuitously in various parts of the city, but it derives its chief importance and utility from the fact that it is used as the house programme of the leading theaters and places of amusement. A majority, at least, of the San Francisco Bohemians have taken a turn at editing the Figaro; the splendid irresponsibility of the little paper, to say nothing of the easily-earned salary, being an irresistible attraction. In 1867 or 1868, I forget which, it contained every now and then queer, irregular paragraphs, each pungent and striking in its way, and all pervaded with a new and puzzling flavor that was a combination of eccentric wit and utter unconventional form. These were read with avidity, and their authorship was eagerly inquired after. All that could be ascertained was, that a clerk in the San Francisco Mint-what his name was, or anything definite about him, nobody seemed to know-was the writer, and that he "threw them off" just for the fun of the thing.
A paper which stands by itself apart from all other papers in the world is the San Francisco News Letter, the recognized organ of the California Aerial Steam Navigation Company. The proprietor of this remarkable organ is a Mr. Frederick Marriott, an English gentlemen, of eccentric habits, much shrewdness and enterprise, and entire originality. Mr. Marriott founded the London Illustrated News, so I suppose his connection with practical journalism is of some antiquity. He certainly founded the News Letter to some purpose-a paper which impresses on its readers that it "cares for neither God, Man, nor the Devil," and that naught shall divert it from the sinful originality of its way. In this paper was a reckless, fiendishly abandoned department of humor, satire, and ruinous disregard of all principle and natural law, called the "Town Crier." To those who had watched the clerk in the Mint, it was a matter of small surprise that he should ultimately drift into the News Letter, and become the presiding genius of that strange establishment. Those were the palmy days of the News Letter, when James T. Watkins wrote up material interests and leading editorials, and when the "Town Crier" indulged in all the delicious freedom of unrestrained liberty and an unlimited field to sport in. Very few people knew anything about him personally, for he was a most retiring character, and altho' genial and merry as possible in the company of personal friends, shunned all manner of publicity. Scarcely a man connected with the press of San Francisco knew his name. One thing, though, was certain-they hated him most cordially. He was most unsparing in his attacks upon them, and the venom of his wit never failed to sting to the quick. The shortcomings of the daily press was a favorite theme with him, and he showered upon them a sarcasm under which they fairly writhed. Only on one occasion did they get a chance to retaliate, and then they availed themselves of it rather unfairly.
A great, red-headed Irishman, named Fennell, conducted a sort of weekly hibernian organ in San Francisco, called the Monitor. He was a rather ignorant person, and the stupidities of his sheet constituted a fair target for the "Town Crier's" wit. I do not recollect now very distinctly the causa belli, but I think that it was an outrageous disquisition upon an herb known as goose-fennell that aroused the pachydermatous Irishman's ire. At any rate, he called in, inquired for the editor, and hit him a murderous and cowardly crack with a bludgeon that felled him senseless to the floor. Mr. Fennell's departure was expeditious and wise, but his version of the affair was given in highly-colored language in the morning papers, and with it the name of the "Town Crier" -Major A. B. Bierce. It was just as well for Fennell that his singleness of purpose and promptness of execution were as effective as they were, as it was also well for him that he subsequently kept out of Major Bierce's way, for if the latter should have got a chance at him there would in all probability have been a dead or grievously injured Irishman.
At this time the News Letter began to attract a great deal of attention, and its circulation largely increased. The "Town Crier" was quoted all over the country, and the English journals copied all of his paragraphs that were not of purely local application and elsewhere unappreciable. The New York Nation, the Glasgow Herald and other papers, had long articles on the subject, and the quality of the "T.C.'s" wit was analyzed, and a prominent position accorded him among American humorists, to whom, as a class, he never did and never could belong. The News Letter was spoken of everywhere, and the writer of such strange and often such outrageous and preposterous articles became the object of a great deal of curiosity. Major Bierce and Mr. Marriott did not get along very well. The "Old Man," as he is familiarly known to the press of the city, and he, could not agree, and as Major Bierce was extremely quick tempered and independent of spirit, rows ensued. These resulted in the departure of the "Town Crier," and the subsequent humiliation of the proprietor, who could not get along very well without him. He would then negotiate, smooth matters over, increase the number of sheckels, as Bierce used to say, until the latter was induced to return to the paper for a while.
About this time he wrote some very good things for the Overland Monthly, then under Bret Harte's management. These consisted of a California sketch and a series of papers called the "Grizzly Papers," by "Ursus." They were charmingly witty and polished, but were discontinued-I don't know why-probably because Harte came East, and the magazine became more conservative and more inclined to enlist the good will of the church. Harte admired Bierce's work very much, and if I am not mistaken, to his advice was in a great measure due Bierce's moving to England, and his ripening into the popular "Dod Grile" of the London Fun and the "Passing Showman" and "Town Crier" of the London Figaro. Harte read the famous "Heathen Chinee" in the News Letter office to Major Bierce, and asked him if he thought the stuff good enough to go into the Overland. Indeed, I am not sure that he did not offer it to him for the News Letter. I recollect, however, that Major Bierce's prompt recognition of its literary value and true nature to a certain degree brought about its appearance in that magazine.
Major Bierce, about two years since, shook the yellow dust of California from his feet, and, with his family, went to London. Here his reputation had preceded him, and he found no difficulty in obtaining plenty of the most remunerative kind of literary work on the journals I have just mentioned. John Camden Hotton induced him to prepare a compilation of his News Letter work for publication in book form, and brought it out under the title of "The Fiend's Delight," a title possibly suggested by the Nation, which spoke of his work as reminding one of the exuberant capering of an active fiend with a pair of budding horns. "The Fables of Zambri, the Parsee," and a lot of curious, comical and preposterous conceits in the shape of short stories, of American origin and flavor, appeared in Fun, and attracted a great deal of attention. A volume of these, with the title of "Cobwebs from an Empty Skull," has been published with fine illustrations by E. Griset and the Daniel Brothers, by George Routledge & Sons, of London, and will shortly be followed by another. His work for Fun and Fiaro is immensely popular, and its peculiar originality, and the quaint American character it possesses, seem to have a great charm for English readers.
What the London daily and weekly press think of him I cannot conceive. His Figaro paragraphs must excite their wonderment and alarm. Fancy the dignified and superior, the infallible Pall Mall Gazette considering the following morsel which I extract from Figaro of January 17th: "The Town Crier' has just been scoring the paper that is 'conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen,' and has exposed its supreme ignorance as betrayed in an article upon the gold mines of Nevada." He goes on to say:
"From the same article I extract the following geographical 'gem: But although men like Carson were useful pioneers, the assimilation of Central America would have gone on but slowly had it been left to them.' This allusion is to the territory lying between the Mississippi River and the Sierra Nevada Mountains; Central America happens to be the narrow country between the southern border of Mexico and the Ishmus of Darien. The Pall Mall, however, has this justification: "It can always plead that, in comparison with its general ignorance, any particular instance of it is trival and insignificant."
What could be nicer than the turn of that last sentence? and this:
"It appears that Mr. Wm. Van Praagh has an establishment in Fitzroy Square for the 'oral instruction of the deaf and dumb.' I have not the advantage of knowing much about Mr. Van Praagh's system, but his pupils speak of it with approval, and hear it criticised with impatience."
Major Bierce is now over thirty years of age, is very handsome, and looks somewhat as Thomas Bailey Aldrich might look were he a blonde. He served with distinction in the U.S. army during the late war, and was seriously wounded and disabled for a time. However, he left a gallant record behind him with his regiment for undaunted courage and true gallantry, one episode of which was narrated in the New York Graphic some time since by a fellow soldier who witnessed it. At present we have only begun to hear of him, and a brilliant career of letters is before him if he but live to realize it.
Northern Indianian March 19, 1874
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