Ambrose Bierce was a true nineteenth-century American success story. Born in a log cabin in Ohio in 1842, Bierce grew up in Indiana and later served in the greatest conflict of his generation—the U.S. Civil War. Bierce’s war experience left him with deep emotional scars, but it also gave him plenty of grist for his later writing career.
After the war, Bierce traveled around the country and to England before settling down to write for the San Francisco Examiner. While making a nice career for himself as a journalist, Bierce also wrote a number of fictional stories that were quite dark and bizarre for the time; they focused on the horrors of war and often contained supernatural subject matter.
But, like many writers, Ambrose Bierce was a tortured soul.
He struggled with his wartime experiences his entire life, and he experienced several tragedies while at the height of his success. He outlived both of his sons and he divorced his wife after learning that she was unfaithful. But the most interesting chapter of his life, which also happened to possibly be his last, took place when he left Washington, D.C. in October of 1913.
At the age of seventy-one and suffering from asthma, Bierce told his friends and family that he was going on a tour of Civil War battlefields he’d fought at. Although many thought the trip was macabre, they didn’t consider it strange because they knew that Bierce was an eccentric person. No one heard from Bierce for months. Then a friend received a letter from him postmarked December 26, 1913 from Chihuahua, Mexico. According to the letter, he was traveling with Pancho Villa and his army, recording their campaign.
This is where things begin to get confusing.
Some later “witnesses” said that Bierce was either executed by Villa’s men as a spy, or by the federales for being a revolutionary. His body was never recovered, and it should be pointed out that there is also no record of that December 26 letter.
There are plenty of other theories, some more believable than others.
One of the more plausible theories is that he committed suicide in a location where his body wouldn’t be found. Bierce was an admirer of the Grand Canyon, so many think that his remains are there, although skeptics point out that millions of people have visited there in the subsequent one hundred years years and haven’t found anything. With that said, the Grand Canyon is a big place and tourists only see a small fraction of it.
Some of the more bizarre theories have to do with Bierce continuing south from Mexico and being abducted and eaten by cannibal tribes in Central or South America. Since Bierce was an early sci-fi writer, some weird theories have him entering a portal into hell or another dimension.
Regardless of whatever happened to Ambrose Bierce, he would probably be happy to know that his disappearance created so much mystery. He’d also probably be wondering why no sci-fi writer has turned it into a story!