The old man left the cantina, poking around in the dust with his black cane. He shuffled past the theater and the casino, down toward the fort and the cemetery, and heard the click of a revolver’s hammer. It was a familiar sound, one he knew well from his time as a soldier and later as a newspaper columnist. He stopped and turned slowly in the direction of the loaded gun. As he did so, he was blinded by the sun lording high over the desert and scrubby hills around Sierra Mojada, a mining town in northern Mexico.
In the winter light, the old man’s eyes looked somehow a more vibrant shade of blue, his tousled hair and mustache an icier shade of white. By the time he’d arrived in Mexico in the fall of 1913, he was 71, and those he encountered on his journey into the country at the height of the revolution noticed his fitness. “Except for the thick, snow-white hair no one would think him old,” a reporter had noted when he’d passed through New Orleans months before. His hands were steady, his posture erect, and his blue eyes “retained all the fire of the indomitable fighter.”
Alta Live presents 'What Really Happened to Ambrose Bierce?' with Alta Journal contributor Geoffrey Gray and historian William Deverell.
His time in Sierra Mojada had been uneventful, until now. The railroad tracks had been blown out in Escalón, and as he’d waited for Pancho Villa and his rebel army to march down and repair them, the old man, who’d arrived a few days earlier, had spent his mornings wandering the nearby valley and his afternoons in the cantinas. He was now drunk, a condition he’d once defined in The Devil’s Dictionary, one of his many books and collections of wit, as “boozy, fuddled, corned, tipsy, mellow, soaken, full, groggy, tired, top-heavy, glorious, overcome, swipey, elevated, overtaken, screwed, raddled, lushy, nappy, muzzy, maudlin, pious, floppy, loppy, happy, etc.”
Squinting, the old man saw them now. Three señores had come up behind him on the dusty road. He recognized these men. Only minutes before, he’d been drinking with them in the cantina. They had followed him, stalking him like a desert hare. Each of them was armed. One of the men stood in a shooting position, his arm stretched out in full, joints locked, leveling a handgun at his quarry’s chest.
The old man felt his vision was now unusually powerful and alert. He could see the tiny sight of the revolver rising like a steel tower from the end of the barrel. He could see the dirt under the shooter’s fingernail and the pad of flesh beneath it caressing the trigger. He peered deep into the gun’s barrel, and as his thoughts followed his gaze into this tunnel of darkness, they found their way, as they often did, back to her.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
Ambrose Bierce never wrote of Fatima Wright in his published work. But long before he became one of the most notable and feared voices in American journalism and literature, some of his earliest poetry had been to Tima, as he called her. Back in 1861, he’d sent a poem to her in an envelope, too afraid to sign his name for fear of rejection. He then disappeared with Indiana’s Ninth Regiment into the smoke of the Civil War.
Fatima, should an angel come from heaven,
Bright with celestial ardor from above,
And say no sin of mine should be forgiven,
Till I should cease to sigh for thy dear love,—
Fatima treasured the lines of the poem, looking to glean a clue to its anonymous author from the stanzas.
Two moments sweet I’ve been in paradise
Thy lips have twice met mine and only twice.
As she pondered whom she had kissed only twice, her secret admirer and his regiment marched south and entered some of the deadliest battles of the war. Then only 18, Bierce was relieved to escape the family farm in Warsaw, Indiana, where he and Tima had grown up. His parents were both “unwashed savages,” as he later recalled, and he worked as a waiter and a printer’s apprentice and performed odd jobs. He was the 10th of 13 children and looked to distinguish himself from his brothers and sisters, who also all had names starting with the letter A. To set himself apart, he went by the name Brady Bierce.
On the battlefield, he enjoyed his first taste of admiration and recognition. Only a few months after leaving home, Bierce was commended for bravery, and he was later promoted to first lieutenant after rescuing a gravely wounded officer under heavy fire at the Battle of Rich Mountain, in western Virginia. At Kennesaw Mountain, in Georgia, he was struck in the head with a musket ball. Riding the railcar to the hospital amid the piled-up corpses, he hoped the doctors could remove the bullet so he could live and see Tima again and reveal his love. When he returned to the family farm to recover, Brady Bierce was a war hero. Fatima came to visit her old friend, who now looked different draped in a military cape. She told him of the poem she had received, now three years old.
“If you knew the man that wrote the poem would you love him?” he asked her. “Certainly I would love him,” she replied. “How could I help but love anyone who loved me so much?”
He revealed his secret, and soon they were engaged. In the afternoons, Bierce and Fatima, accompanied by Clara, her sister and chaperone, often walked to an empty cabin at the edge of town with his favorite books. While his fiancée picked wild rosebuds and wove them into garlands, Bierce read his favorite passages aloud, hoping, each time, that the afternoons with her would never end. Soon he was back in uniform, writing her letters from the front. But after months of silence, he sensed that something was amiss.
“Oh, if I could be with you both again my measure of happiness would be full,” Bierce wrote Clara, desperately trying to win Fatima back. “The pleasant weeks with you, so like a dream, have nearly spoiled the soldier to make the—pensive individual…. Take my darling in your arms, and kiss her a thousand times for me.”
But Tima had destroyed his letters. Eventually, he learned that she’d married another man. His Tima was now Mrs. W.J. Fleming. Bierce marched on with his regiment, and after the war he signed on as an army mapmaker out West, before ending up in San Francisco. He retired a brevet major, at age 24, and began a career in journalism, reclaiming his birth name as his byline: Ambrose Bierce. His writing was powered by a contempt for a world he felt had betrayed him—just as Fatima had. Emotion was an ill, he felt, and he later defined it as “a prostrating disease caused by a determination of the heart to the head. It is sometimes accompanied by a copious discharge of hydrated chloride of sodium from the eyes.”
In that dusty Sierra Mojada street, the wind kicked up and swept through the cactus and with it the smell of mesquite and the chill of time. The old man looked again at the revolver, still directed at his chest, and heard the flutter of feathers above. A hawk was circling the desert valley, soaring over the smelters of the mines, which had once enriched tycoons like Rockefeller and Guggenheim, and then over the fort and to the nearby cemetery and its adobe wall, where federal soldiers executed members of the political opposition by firing squad.
The scene was reminiscent of the recurring nightmares that had chased him through every decade of his life. When he was a teenager on the family farm, hints of his own death came to him in these ghastly dreams. In one, a white horse appeared, talking to him, only he couldn’t understand what the horse was saying—that horse was a gatekeeper, he felt, to a world beyond. In another, he found himself in a dark room with a bed in the corner. He could see a corpse—decayed and rotting and grotesque. Under the eyelids, he sensed something peculiar. He stepped closer. “Imagine my horror how you can,” he later wrote. “The eyes were my own!”
What was happening now, however, was a nightmare of a different sort. The old man could hear the señores talking in Spanish, perhaps ready to signal the final moment he had contemplated for so long. He could not understand them, and his mind raced to catalog his movements—where along his route into revolutionary Mexico he had made his mistake.
After he’d set out from Washington, D.C., his first stops had been the battlefields of his youth, where he had yearned for Tima. He then traveled to New Orleans, to rest and hear the brass bands and taste the cocktails in the bars. There, he was recognized by a reporter from the New Orleans States, one of the city’s daily newspapers. He gave an interview.
“I’m on my way to Mexico, because I like the game,” he said. “I like the fighting; I want to see it.”
Bierce was dressed for a funeral. He was wearing black. Only black. “From head to foot he was attired in this color, except where the white cuffs and collar and shirt front showed through,” the reporter noted. “He even carried a walking cane, black as ebony and unrelieved by gold or silver.”
Bierce was coy about his plans. He talked about traveling southwest through Mexico, then hopping on a ship to South America to see the Andes. Or maybe not. As they spoke, the reporter noticed Bierce gazing off into the distance, as if considering his own fate in the months or days that lay ahead. “There are so many things that might happen between now and when I come back,” Bierce said.
Whatever those might be, he was no longer interested in writing, he told the reporter. “I’m leaving the field for the younger authors,” he said. “Don’t you think that after a man has worked as long as I have that he deserves a rest?”
He wasn’t telling the entire truth. Cantankerous and demanding, Bierce had threatened to quit, like he always did, but this time the Hearst papers, for whom he’d worked for decades, hadn’t fought to keep him on the masthead. He’d freelanced a few pieces around and then flamed out. He hadn’t had a byline in five years.
Privately, those who knew Bierce wondered about his motives. He hinted that his journey to Mexico was driven by another goal: to die. In one of his last letters, addressed to his niece Lora, he had offered a farewell.
“Good-by,” he’d written. “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that 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!”
He’d gone over the border in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Only days before, Pancho Villa, the outlaw bandit and revolutionary hero, had taken control of the border town after commandeering several trains, loading them with his troops, and initiating a surprise attack on the federal forces there. Villa had been friendly to the Americans and their press corps, which depicted him as a Robin Hood of the revolution. After sawing off the bars of his cell and escaping prison, Villa had gone on to recruit and organize an army of thousands of volunteer soldiers and to seize the haciendas of wealthy families.
In El Paso and across the border, reporters from the major news outlets were arriving to cover the war and Villa. Bierce secured his press credentials, and in the bars and hotels where reporters gathered, he avoided his colleagues. Older than most and unemployed, Bierce was now an outsider in the newspaper game. A reporter, to him, was nothing more than “a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.”
When he’d started in newspapers, in the late 1860s, he’d been that tempest. His first stories were dark satires, dispatching letters from a mysterious land he called the Kingdom of Hdkho. He then set his sights on San Francisco’s elite, employing elegant barbs and diatribes to mock politicians, magnates, and anyone who seemed to cross him. Unlike such contemporaries as Mark Twain, the folksy steamboat captain who wrote about jumping frogs, and Jack London, the hobo novelist who loved wolves, Bierce was a hardened soldier—scarred and grim.
Bitter Bierce—that was his nickname. He was the kind of man who, if shown the most fragrant rose, could show you the problem with the thorns, stem, and topsoil. He was so ruthless in his copy, and so liberal in his targets, that he carried a pistol to the newsroom as his own form of libel insurance. But even if he was a crank in print, well, he was a poetic crank, a takedown artist who gracefully and effortlessly poked at life’s contradictions and death’s absurdities. After all, life to Bierce, as he once wrote in an article on training writers, was merely “a world of fools and rogues, blind with superstition, tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions—frothing mad!”
One admirer was William Randolph Hearst, the young publisher of the San Francisco Examiner. He had stacked his masthead with talented editors and rabble-rousing reporters who could generate their own brand of news, but Hearst was seeking a voice of authority: a dean of the editorial page and a poetic gunslinger who could elevate the Examiner and take aim at the Bay Area’s ruling class.
Living in Oakland at the time, and struggling to find outlets for his biting work, Bierce one day heard a knock on his door. He opened it, presumably revolver in hand.
A bashful young man was on his stoop.
“Well?” Bierce demanded.
“I come from the San Francisco Examiner,” the man said.
“Oh. You come from Mr. Hearst?”
“I am Mr. Hearst,” the man said.
Hearst soon offered Bierce $100 a week for his copy, a sum that surely made him one of the highest-paid columnists on the West Coast. Over the next two decades, as Hearst’s ambition and success with the Examiner helped him build a national media empire, Bierce’s fortunes rose too. With unusual freedom and a steady paycheck, Bierce turned the editorial page of the Examiner into his own publishing house, writing poems and sketches, winking at readers in the margins, and capping his stylish hit jobs with satiric definitions that would later be compiled in his Devil’s Dictionary. He wrote long stories, too, macabre and riveting tales based on his service in the Civil War. He transformed the short story genre with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” published in the Examiner on July 13, 1890, and transpiring over the course of a lone second. He came to adorn his pieces with a signature element: the twist ending, embedded in his poesies and dispatches as a cryptic and absurdist finale. He was—proudly, stubbornly, and unabashedly—a cynic: “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
When Bierce arrived in Ciudad Juárez, Villa’s troop trains were departing. The rebels had confiscated the ammunition, canons, and horses of the federal troops and were heading deeper into Mexico, down toward Tierra Blanca, 30 miles to the south. The old man joined the procession.
The railroad cars were packed. Alongside the troops and matériel, thousands of residents were fleeing the border towns. Journey of Death, Bierce called their escape. He observed what came to be a familiar sight on these trains: mothers in vibrantly colored dresses holding the hands of their children, desperate to feed them and protect them from starvation and the fighting.
The old man thought of his own family. When he’d married her in 1871, Mollie Day was a socialite in San Francisco, an ideal companion to accompany him to the literary salons in the Bay Area and later London, where they lived for three years and where she gave birth to Day and Leigh, their sons and first two children. Upon returning to the Bay Area, Bierce had to handle his newfound prestige and the distractions of family life and now three young children. Eventually, he felt he was suffering the same fate he had years before with Fatima. He had found what he took to be love letters to his wife from a Danish gentleman, and soon thereafter he separated from her. She would die of heart failure before the divorce papers were signed, and one of the last times Bierce saw her was at a funeral, standing over the grave of Day, their first son.
Day had chosen to become a newspaperman in the Bay Area like his father, and like him, he was incapable of handling rejection. Just before their wedding, Day learned his fiancée was having an affair with his best friend. He approached them with his pistol loaded and committed suicide after nicking the ear of his fiancée and killing his best friend in the ensuing shoot-out.
Bierce turned his affections to Leigh, his second child, who had also followed his father into the newspaper business. Leigh was an editor, illustrator, and reporter for the New York Telegraph. And like his father, he was often seen with a drink in his hand. One Christmas Eve, he was asked to deliver holiday gifts for a children’s benefit the paper was hosting. He stopped off to warm up with a few drinks and, in his drunken state, gave all the children’s gifts away. He was fired, caught pneumonia, and died soon after. The old man found himself attending another Bierce funeral, wondering how soon he might join his boys in the hereafter. He also didn’t trust Helen, his only daughter and youngest child, whom he left out of his will. Now in Mexico, Bitter Bierce was truly alone, a state he’d once defined as “in bad company.”
At Tierra Blanca, the fighting erupted along the railroad tracks. Bierce scrambled to take cover under a sharp ridge with a few soldiers from Villa’s army. They were wary of him. To prove his loyalty, and marksmanship, he shot and killed a federal soldier—it could have been two—at long range. The Villistas gave him a sombrero as a gift. He no longer felt the same thrill of war as before, though, and seemed to have found a new appreciation for the fragility of life. “Poor devils!” he wrote to his daughter about his victims. “I wonder who they were.”
He followed the victorious rebels from Tierra Blanca into Ciudad Chihuahua, where thousands of supporters had gathered in the streets, shouting “Viva Villa!” He wandered around, drinking the afternoons away, writing a few letters. The farther he trekked into Mexico, the harder it was to send mail.
He wrote his secretary, Carrie Christiansen, describing what he’d seen: “Mexicans fight like the devil!” And he wrote Blanche Partington, the daughter of John Partington, a well-known painter and old friend, furious about what she’d done. As with Fatima and Mollie, the widowed Bierce was deeply enamored with Blanche, 24 years his junior. He’d mentored her in journalism and supported her career, and when she’d asked him to send a picture, he’d had a notable Bay Area artist, Frances Soule Campbell, create a sketch, which Bierce had sent to her.
Blanche had tossed out the sketch—yet another rejection. He was insensitive, lacking in emotion, she’d complained.
Not true, he retorted. “If I am what you think me I am unworthy of your friendship,” he wrote. “If I am not you are unworthy of mine.” He seized the final word, one last jab, and bid her farewell, saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
He arrived in Sierra Mojada by accident. The railroad to Mexico City had been blown up by federal troops, and the rebels and throngs of passengers were forced to get off in Escalón. The pueblo was tiny and boring. It could be weeks or longer before Villa’s troops repaired the tracks.
Where is the closest town? he asked.
Sierra Mojada, locals told him. There was a theater, a casino, and plenty of cantinas. He rode the rail spur the mining companies had used to carry fortunes out of the hills and to the States, and he found a room in town with an elderly landlord. In the mornings, when the air was cool and clear, he wandered the hills and valley, making maps and charts as he had done in the Civil War. In town, the locals called him El Ruso, the Russian, for his white hair and upright carriage. He asked around for Villa, too, wondering whether anyone knew where to find the general or his allies.
Ah, yes, now that was his mistake. Sierra Mojada was under the control of federal officers who watched over the mines. How could he have known? The federal officers in the rural parts of Mexico didn’t always wear uniforms. They looked like señores—just like the señores he’d been drinking with, who now stood in front of him with their weapons drawn. El Ruso, they believed, was a spy. Drinking with them, he’d fallen into their trap. He smirked at his own misfortune: “the kind of fortune that never misses.”
The old man watched the toe cap of the señor’s boot twisting into position in the dirt. He could hear the grind of stone and dust under the weight of the señor’s foot, the crush of seashells a millennia or more old. He thought once again about Fatima and those weeks with her and Clara in the empty cabin, reading the passages of Goethe and Chaucer and Wordsworth aloud to them, watching her weave the rosebuds into her garland, an adornment for a wedding and a life together that never was.
“I just wish I could pass my whole life with you both, and have nothing to do but give myself up to the delicious intoxication of your society,” he’d written to Clara in vain, hoping to reach Fatima. “For that, I would renounce the whole world and all the ties of kindred; throw away every ambition or aim in life, and make a fool of myself in the most approved style generally.”
He and Fatima had had a fight before he’d left with his regiment. Words had been spoken; things had been said. Words of his had once so magically kindled their romance, then had pushed her away and failed to win her back. Words. Useless words. Ever since, life to him had been “a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.” He didn’t worry about death. He’d been dead already, and for so long.
The old man now noticed that the barrel and cylinder and make of the firearm looked familiar. He reached for his own weapon. He could toss his cane into the cactus—a distraction!—and take out the first shooter, then worry about the other two. His hand grazed his shirt and moved gently across his belt buckle and over his holster. It was muscle memory finding his gun in this manner. But on this day, he found the holster empty.
The first bullet struck him in the belly. As he buckled over, squatting on his heels, he roared with laughter. Ah, what a fool he’d been! Before he’d left the cantina, one of the señores had asked to borrow his revolver. In his drunken state, the old man had done the unforgivable, an unpardonable sin. Ambrose Bierce, war veteran and grizzled writer, had given his gun to his assassins and forgotten to get it back. The trusty revolver now firing upon him was his very own!
He laughed again—louder, cackles that echoed through the desert. Witnesses emerged on the side of the road to take in the bizarre scene. The señor fired again and again. With each round, the old man laughed still louder. Ambrose Bierce had achieved the impossible in Sierra Mojada. He had become a character in his own story, one with a most absurd finale, a twisted ending involving yet another protagonist placed into a brisk narrative to ponder the absurdity of death and confront the finiteness of mortality as he had defined it decades ago: “the part of immortality that we know about.”
Finally, one of the men shot him through the heart, and the laughter of Ambrose Bierce ceased. His belongings in the room in town were seized, his money stolen, and his body dumped in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery wall.
By 1920, the fighting was over and the dictatorship toppled. Investigations into the disappearance of the old man were launched and never concluded. A handful of newspaper and magazine writers published speculative accounts of his fate. The longer the old man stayed missing, the more extraordinary the stories became. He had duped everyone and never gone to Mexico at all, and instead had gone to the Grand Canyon to commit suicide. No, he continued on to Honduras with a British spy to hunt for a missing Maya crystal skull. No, Villa shot him after Bierce insulted him. And so on.
Biographers told of his life and times. Scholars studied his letters and works. The mystery of Ambrose Bierce continued to grow.
This April, an Alta Journal reporter arrived in Sierra Mojada to visit the old man’s grave. Driving into the desert, the reporter imagined what had happened to the old man and what he must have been thinking at the end of his life.
The reporter had been living in Mexico for two years—another gringo who’d crossed the border as Bierce had done. He felt that with the right connections and enough bribe money, he could use ground-penetrating radar to determine whether the remains of Bierce—or any remains at all—were buried in Sierra Mojada, where witnesses had claimed they were more than 100 years ago.
He contracted a Guadalajara company of strong reputation and arrived in the old mining town with two of its engineers and the necessary gear. The reporter spoke to a few residents and noticed a sense of local pride that such a famous American writer would have graced the forgotten town with his death. The reporter befriended the mayor, who gave his blessing to the radar operation, and the local historian, who escorted him and the engineers down to the old cemetery and the suspected grave site of Bierce.
Under a beating sun, the radar engineers spent three hours scanning the grave site and surrounding areas. In total, 51 radio waves were beamed to make a determination. Finally, a report was made.
“We believe these are the remains of bones,” the analyst said, confirming the presence of a body between five and nine feet underground at the spot where a marker had been erected by a priest to indicate where he and other locals were convinced Bierce is buried.
But the radar could only detect so much. “You would need to exhume the body,” the analyst said, to determine whether the remains were Bierce’s. Seeking a fitting ending to the tale, the reporter looked up the definition of grave, a final resting place Ambrose Bierce defined more than a century ago—and perhaps prophetically—as “a place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.”•