Ambrose Bierce was one of the most successful American short story writers at the turn of the century. In December 1913 he disappeared, never to be seen or heard again.
Exactly what became of Bierce is still a mystery, although at the time Mexico was undergoing a violent revolution, and the most widely accepted theory is that he was killed during a military engagement there in 1914. Bierce’s body, however, was never identified.
Bierce was born at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford. His parents were a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing.
The boy grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat, Warsaw. He was the tenth of 13 children whose father gave all of them names beginning with the letter “A”.
In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. He left home at age fifteen to become a “printer’s devil” at a small Ohio newspaper.
In 1861, at the age of nineteen, Bierce found his purpose in life: the military. The Civil War between the northern and southern states broke out at that time, and shortly afterwards Bierce joined the northern army.
He loved military life and fought in many important battles. He was wounded twice, once quite seriously in the head. Bierce was never the same after this head injury; he became bitter, suspicious of people and concerned about de̳a̳t̳h̳.
When peace came in 1865 Bierce traveled west to San Francisco. There he met and married a socially-prominent young woman, Mary Ellen Day, and became the father of two sons and a daughter.
However, in 1871, because his marriage was no longer happy, he left San Francisco and went to England, settling down in London to become a writer. Two years later a collection of his stories was published. Because of his sharp tongue and the pessimistic nature of his stories, he earned the nickname of ‘Bitter Bierce’.
Ambrose Bierce also collected accounts of mysterious disappearances, on September 3, 1873 an ordinary English shoemaker named James Burne Worson bet some of his friends that he could run a distance of 20 miles (32.2m) and back without stopping. Once the bet was struck, Worson’s friends followed behind him in a cart, watching him to prevent cheating.
A few miles into the run, at a point where Worson was only a few yards ahead of the cart, he stumbled, screamed, and disappeared, right before his astonished friends’ eyes.
In another Bierce account, a sixteen-year-old boy named Charles Ashmore went to get water from a spring one winter, and when he failed to return, his family followed his footprints in the snow.
They stopped midway to the spring, as though the boy had been lifted into the air. There were no other footprints around to suggest foul play, and afterward the area was said to be haunted by Charles’s spirit.
Bierce theorized that the cause of such disappearances was holes in ordinary reality, from which nothing, not even light or sound, can escape. Bierce voiced his speculations many years before astronomers described black holes.
A few people believe that small black holes, similar to the ones in outer space, exist on Earth and are responsible for at least a few mysterious disappearances each year. Skeptics suggest that Bierce, who was a fiction writer, simply made up these disappearance stories.
Interestingly, Bierce himself disappeared, after going to Mexico. One summer’s day in 1913 Bierce told his secretary, Carrie Christiansen his plan: he was going to tour the Civil War battlefields; then he would go to Mexico. He carried out the first part of his plan as proposed.
From the moment he left Washington DC, Bierce wrote to his secretary almost daily. He also wrote, though less frequently, to his daughter Helen. To one of his friends in San Francisco he said he wished to end his career in a more glorious way than just dying in bed. “I’ve decided to go to Mexico to find a soldier’s grave,” he wrote.
Bierce’s last letter to his secretary, dated 16 December 1913, was from Laredo, Texas. “I go to Mexico with a definite purpose which I cannot yet disclose,” he said. He sent that letter from Laredo; the next day, as far as anyone knows, he entered Mexico.
Several months passed and when no one heard from Bierce his daughter asked the US State Department to locate her father. A search was made but the only result was an unconfirmed report that Bierce had actually reached Pancho Villa’s headquarters. Bierce was never heard from again.
There are various rumors about what happened to him. Some say he received classified information that there is a place in Mexico where mysterious disappearances are taking place. Maybe he went there and disappeared. Others put forward the version that he changed his name and surname in Mexico.
But still, all investigations into his fate have proven fruitless, and researchers concedes that despite a lack of hard evidence that Bierce had gone to Mexico, there is also none that he had not. Therefore, despite an abundance of theories (including de̳a̳t̳h̳ by suicide), his ultimate fate remains shrouded in mystery.
Even today the subject of what happened to Ambrose Bierce still fascinates people.