In 1913 the seventy-one-year-old Ambrose Bierce crossed the border from Texas into revolutionary Mexico. He never returned.
Bierce was a Civil War veteran, journalist, author, bohemian, and wit whose outlook on life was so darkly misanthropic that his army friends knew him as ‘Bitter’ Bierce. He’s remembered today as a writer of ghost stories (Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge still appears in anthologies) and the The Devil’s Dictionary, his definitive exercise in cynicism.
“Acquaintance, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to.”
“Revolution, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.”
The Devil in Mexico
Bierce had no illusions about the dangers he faced in Mexico. He wrote to his niece Lora, one of the select group for whom he had a kind word.
‘If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags,’ he said, ‘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!’
Bierce disappeared soon after crossing the border. He was in the city of Chihuahua in late December 1913 accompanying Pancho Villa’s army. A letter to a friend announced he was leaving for “an unknown destination”. No-one ever saw him again.
There are many theories, which would not have surprised the man who said ‘Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate’.
A Murder Mystery
The conventional belief is that Bierce and the $1,500 in cash he was carrying disappeared in the siege of Ojinega, January 1914. Others have different views. Locals in the mining town of Sierra Mojada, Coahuila believe Bierce died in front a firing squad in the town cemetery. The adventurer Edwin “Tex” O’Reilly supports the story in his unreliable memoirs Born To Raise Hell. Tex claimed the old man laughed as they shot him down.
A short story by playwright and one time Mexican revolutionary Juan Ortega Melendez (1894-1939) features an elderly American having his throat cut by a group of Pancho Villa’s saboteurs when he encounters them preparing to dynamite a bridge. Some of Ortega’s stories were based on his experiences during the war.
A few researchers claim Bierce never went to Mexico at all and lived out his life in anonymity under a pseudonym. Maybe.
Soldiers of Fortune
Bierce was the geriatric arm of the flotsam and jetsam pulled across the border into the vortex of the Mexican Revolution. Thousand of foreign volunteers took sides, most from America but also other nations diverse as Wales, Japan, Sweden, and Germany. Bierce was on a death trip, hoping either to cheat or find it.
Other adventurers had more material gains: they wanted radical political change in Mexico or to get rich trying. Bierce got what he wanted. No-one else did.
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