- In the San Francisco of 1876, Ambrose Bierce reigned
as unchallenged literary king, the best known writer west of the Rockies. Some
of the contemporaries who nourished their lights in Bierce's shadow are
much better known today. Bret Harte, Jack London, and Joaquin Miller not
only rate larger space in the textbooks, but their works remain easily
available. Of Bierce's voluminous writings, only a collection of short
stories, In the Midst of Life, and fragments of The Devil's
Dictionary are easily obtainable. But if Bierce's literary endeavors
have not stood the test of time as well as those of certain of his contemporaries,
he still enjoys a last laugh, because the mystery of his strange disappearance
is better known than the entire life histories of Harte, London, and Miller.
- I first learned of Ambrose Bierce and his pioneering
journalistic forays into mysterious shadow worlds in 1949, when, at age
thirteen, I bought Tales of Haunted Houses ,a collection of his newspaper
articles that had been published originally by the Neale Publishing Company
and reissued by E. Haldeman- Julius as a title in the famous Little Blue
Book line. Since the original copyright by Neale had been obliterated in
the Little Blue Book edition, there is no way of affixing an exact publishing
date to these articles other than an occasional time reference given within
the text of individual articles. I have seen only a scant number of the
pieces in Tales of Haunted Houses collected in other anthologies,
so I have always valued the little book as being a rather rare volume of
- THE SPOOK HOUSE
- In his eerie account of the "Spook House,"
Bierce writes that it was on the road leading from Manchester in eastern
Kentucky, to Booneville, twenty miles away. The deserted house was destroyed
in 1863 by stragglers from the column of General George W. Morgan when
he was retreating from the Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River.
- For five years prior to its destruction, the mansion
had been known as the "Spook House," because the plantation owner
and his family had all disappeared one night without leaving a trace of
their physical bodies. It seemed apparent that the family had not undertaken
a planned excursion since their household goods, clothing, provisions,
as well as the horses in the stable, the livestock, the Negroes in their
slave quarters, all remained as they had before the man, his wife, and
their five children had vanished.
- Whatever strange disintegrating force may have existed
on the old plantation, it was able to exercise its power once again on
a stormy night in June, 1859, when Col. J. C. McArdle, a lawyer, and Judge
Myron Veigh, both of Frankfort, Kentucky, sought shelter within the foreboding
walls of the mansion.
- Judge Veigh never exited from the strange sanctuary.
- Col. McArdle's account of his friend's complete and mysterious
disappearance appeared in the Frankfort Advocate of August 6,
- According to McArdle, the moment the two men had entered
the mansion the terrible noise of the storm was immediately cut off. The
sudden silence was so overwhelming to the senses, that Col. McArdle believed
himself at first either to have been struck deaf and blind or to have been
killed by a stroke of lightning as he crossed the door.
- Then, after recovering their senses, the two men found
a room that was "suffused with a faint greenish light," the source
of which they could not determine, making everything distinctly visible,
though nothing was sharply defined.
- Within the blank stone walls of that room were human
corpses. Col. McArdle wrote: "In number they were perhaps eight or
ten ... They were of different ages, or rather sizes, from infancy up, and
of both sexes. All were prostrate on the floor, excepting one, apparently
a young woman, who sat up, her back supported by an angle of the wall.
A babe was clasped in the arms of another and older woman. A half-grown
lad lay face downward across the legs of a full-bearded man. One or two
were nearly naked, and the hand of a young girl held the fragment of a
gown which she had torn open at the breast.
- "The bodies were in various stages of decay, all
greatly shrunken in face and figure. Some were but little more than skeletons."
- While he stood stupefied with horror by this ghastly
spectacle and still holding open the door, Col. McArdle noticed that the
construction of the door was such that it could only be opened from the
outside. "On the inside there was no knob, nor any kind of projection--only
a smooth piece of iron."
- Judge Veigh ignored Col. McArdle's warning
and walked quickly to the center of the room so that he might closer examine
- "A strong disagreeable odor" overwhelmed Col.
McArdle, and he reeled, felt himself falling "and in clutching at
the edge of the door for support pushed it shut with a sharp click."
- Col. McArdle knew no more until he awakened six weeks
later in a hotel at Manchester. He had lain ill with a constant delirium
ever since he had been found by strangers several miles away from the house
and brought to the hotel.
- "No one believed a word of my story," he wrote
in the Advocate, "and who can wonder? And who can imagine
my grief when, arriving at my home in Frankfort two months later, I learned
that Judge Veigh had never been heard of since that night? I then regretted
bitterly the pride which since the first few days after the recovery of
my reason had forbidden me to repeat my discredited story and insist upon
- "With all that afterward occurred--the examination
of the house; the failure to find any room corresponding to that which
I have described; the attempt to have me adjudged insane, and my triumph
over my accusers--the readers of the Advocate are familiar. After
all these years I am still confident that excavations which I have neither
the legal right to undertake nor the wealth to make would disclose the
secret of the disappearance of my unhappy friend, and possibly of the former
occupants and owners of the deserted and now destroyed house. I do not
despair of yet bringing about such a search, and it is a source of deep
grief to me that it has been delayed by the undeserved hostility and unwise
incredulity of the family and friends of the late Judge Veigh."
- But Col. McArdle was never to convince the suspicious
survivors of Judge Veigh that he had not murdered his friend. And search
as he might, McArdle never found that eerie room wherein his friend had
disappeared forever. According to Bierce's article, Col. McArdle died in
Frankfort, Kentucky, on December 13, 1879.
- THE DIFFICULTY OF CROSSING A FIELD
- In this account, said to have occurred on a morning in
July, 1854, Bierce reported the fate of a planter named Williamson, who
lived six miles from Selma, Alabama, who vanished before the eyes of his
wife and child, and a neighbor and his son.
- Mr. Armour Wren gave the following account of the matter
while under oath in the course of legal proceedings relative to the settlement
of the Williamson estate:
- "My son's exclamation caused me to look toward the
spot where I had seen the deceased (sic) an instant before, but
he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the
moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence,
though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and
kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the
gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree,
but I reckon more by my sons manner than by anything he had himself observed."
(This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.)
- "As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the
field, and while Sam was hanging (sic) the team to the fence,
Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants,
came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: 'He is gone, he
is gone! Oh God! What an awful thing!' and many other such exclamations,
which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that
they related to something more than the mere disappearance of her husband,
even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not
more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason
to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor
heard of Mr. Williamson."
- James Wren insisted that he had seen Mr. Williamson disappear,
but he did not give testimony in court. Mrs. Williamson's manner had become
increasingly "wild," and she did come to lose her reason. The
slaves were judged incompetent to testify. The courts decided that Williamson
was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
- AN UNFINISHED RACE
- On September 3, 1873, an amateur athlete named James
Burne Worson made a tavern wager that he could run to Coventry and back
to Leamington, Warwickshire (England), a distance of a bit more than forty
miles. Worson set out with the gentleman who had bet against him, a line
draper, Barham Wise, and Hamerson Burns, a photographer, following in a
- Worson jogged along for several miles, boastful of his
endurance, scornful of the occasional cheer of jeer from the wagon ahead
- Then, as the record has it:
- "Suddenly--in the very middle of the roadway, not
a dozen yards from them, and with their eyes full upon him--the man seemed
to stumble, pitched headlong forward, uttered a terrible cry and vanished!
He did not fall to the earth--he vanished before touching it No trace of
him was ever discovered."
- As might be expected, the authorities were more than
a little skeptical of the fantastic account related by the three eye-witnesses,
and the men were taken into custody.
- "But they were of good standing, had always been
considered truthfnl, were sober at the time of the occurrence, and nothing
ever transpired to discredit their sworn account of their extraordinary
adventure, concerning the truth of which, nevertheless, public opinion
was divided, throughout the United Kingdom," Bierce writes. "If
they had something to conceal, their choice of means is certainly one of
the most amazing ever made by sane human beings."
- CHARLES ASHMORE'S TRAIL
- On the evening of November 9, 1878, sixteen-year-old
Charles Ashmore left the family circle in the farmhouse near Quincy, Illinois,
in order to fill the drinking bucket with fresh water from the spring.
When he did not return, the family grew uneasy, and Christian Ashmore and
his eldest daughter, Martha, took lantern in hand and went in search of
the tardy teenager .
- A light snow had fallen, obliterating the path, but making
the young man's trail conspicuous; each footprint was plainly defined.
- Bierce writes in his account of this classic case of
a strange disappearance: "After going a little more than half-way--perhaps
seventy-five yards--the father, who was in advance, halted, and elevating
his lantern stood peering intently into the darkness ahead. The trail of
the young man had abruptly ended, and all beyond was smooth, unbroken snow.
The last footprints were as conspicuous as any in the line; the very nail-marks
were distinctly visible."
- Ashmore and his daughter took a wide circle around the
tracks so that they might remain undisturbed, then they proceeded to the
spring. The spring was covered with ice, hours old. The teenaged Charles
had not progressed any further toward the spring than his final tracks
indicated. And there were no tracks leading away from that ultimate trail.
- Young Charles Ashmore had disappeared without a clue.
- But Bierce writes that four days later Charles' griefstricken
mother went to the spring for water and returned insisting that she had
heard the voice of her son calling to her as she passed the spot where
his footsteps had ended. She had wandered about the area, thinking the
voice to be coming first from one direction, then from another. She pursued
the source of the voice until she had become exhausted with fatigue and
- Later, when authorities questioned her as to what the
voice had said, she protested that even though the words were perfectly
distinct, she had been unable to receive any continuity of message.
- For months afterward, at irregular intervals of a few
days, the voice was heard by the several members of the family, and by
- Bierce concluded his account by stating that "all
declared it unmistakably the voice of Charles Ashmore; all agreed that
it seemed to come from a great distance, faintly, yet with entire distinctness
or articulation; yet none could determine its direction, nor repeat its
words. The intervals of silence grew longer and longer, the voice fainter
and farther, and by midsummer it was heard no more."
- Some researchers have speculated that in the tales summarized
above Bierce was writing horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe-style. However,
none of the accounts were presented as short stories, but as journalistic
- In the collection that I obtained as a teenager, Bierce
followed these accounts with a postscript entitled, "Science to the
- It seemed to Bierce that the theory of Dr. Hern of Leipzig,
which was expounded in the scientist's own book, Verschwindend und
Seine Theorie, might offer an explanation for the subject of mysterious
disappearances, "... of which every memory is stored with abundant
- According to Bierce, the theories of Dr. Hern had attracted
some attention " particularly among the followers of Hegel, and mathematicians
who hold to the actual existence of a so-called non·Euclidean space--that
is to say, of space which has more dimensions than length, breadth, and
thickness ..... space in which it would be possible to tie a knot in an
endless cord and to turn a rubber ball inside out without a solution of
its continuity, or, in other words, without breaking or cracking it."
- It was Dr. Hern's contention that in the visible world
that we call our reality there exist void places, vacua, and
something more--''holes, as it were, through which animate and inanimate
objects may fall into the invisible world and be seen and heard no more."
- Dr. Hern viewed Space as being pervaded by " . ,
. luminiferous ether, which is a material thing--as much a substance as
air or water, though almost infinitely more attenuated." The scientist
believed that "all force, all forms of energy must be propagated in
this; every process must take place in it which takes place at all."
- In an attempt to restate Dr. Hern's theory, Bierce writes:
"But let us suppose that cavities exist in this otherwise universal
medium, as caverns exist in the earth, or cells in Swiss cheese. In such
a cavity there would be absolutely nothing. It would be such a vacuum as
cannot be artificially produced; for if we pump the air from a receiver
there remains the luminiferous ether. Through one of these cavities light
could not pass, for there would be nothing to bear it. Sound could not
come from it; nothing could be felt in it. It would not have a single one
of the conditions necessary to the action of any of our senses. In such
a void, in short, nothing whatever could occur."
- Bierce next quotes the statement of an anonymous mathematician
who had studied the theory of Dr. Hern:
- "A man enclosed in such a closet could neither see
nor be seen; neither hear nor be heard; neither feel nor be felt; neither
live nor die, for both life and death are processes which can take place
only where there is force, and in empty space no force could exist."
- Out of genuine concern (or his genuine love of the macabre),
Bierce wondered: "Are these the awful conditions under which the friends
of the lost are to think of them as existing and doomed forever to exist?"
- The question remains whether Ambrose Bierce himself was
the victim of such a void, or if he deliberately devised a method whereby
it might appear as though he had simply vanished in the twinkling of an
- Bierce had been an extremely handsome man when he was
younger. He stood six feet tall, had reddish-blond flowing hair, and a
full beard. Several biographers have made much of his "animal magnetism,"
and one states that young women asserted that they "could feel him
when he stood ten feet away." Coupled with his strikingly good looks,
Bierce was obsessed with cleanliness and attractive clothing.
- Bierce felt that his finest hours had been spent during
the Civil War. He rose from drummer boy to first lieutenant, and he survived
the bloody battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kenesaw Mountain,
Franklin, and Nashville to be discharged brevet major. The war took its
physical toll of Bierce. He was wounded twice, once seriously in the head;
but each time he returned to the thick of the battle like a star quarterback
returning to the game after having been mobbed by a couple of three-hundred-pound
linemen. He truly seemed to love war, war as a science, war as some cosmic
chess game in which the pieces were living humans. His brother Albert,
however, felt that Ambrose was never the same after his head wound.
- In spite of his intense animal magnetism, Bierce failed
with women so often that he became an earnest misogynist. All the ingredients
were there: he was handsome, virile, and strongly attracted to the opposite
sex. But he worshipped women too much. He idealized women and tried in
vain to place them upon a pedestal. When he discovered that they, just
as he, were creatures of flesh and blood with idiosyncrasies and failings,
he grew disillusioned and even more bitter. His tirades against women were
filled with his harshest invective, and their potency increased after he
had destroyed his marriage to the lovely San Francisco society belle Ellen
- He was married long enough to father two sons and one
daughter. He never stopped hating his wife for having failed him, and he
loathed his sons for behaving as if they had come from a broken home. One
son died of alcoholism at an early age, and the other was killed in a knife
fight during a saloon brawl. Somehow, in spite of his sour view of the
virtue of women, Bierce maintained a voluminous correspondence of long-standing
with both his daughter and his secretary, Carrie Christiansen.
- Through all of his domestic difficulties, his struggles
to establish himself as a writer, and his petulant sniping at his employer,
William Randolph Hearst, Bierce continually rekindled his memories of the
Civil War as having offered the peak moments of his life. At age seventy,
many of his biographers maintain, he made two important decisions: one,
he would retrace the paths he had taken on the old Civil War battlefields;
two, he would go to Mexico where the counter-revolutionary forces of Carranza
and Villa had risen against the federal troops of President Huerta.
- On October 13, 1913, a reporter from a New Orleans newspaper
managed to obtain an interview from Ambrose Bierce in which the writer
claimed that he had never amounted to much after the Civil War. Then Bierce
told the reporter: "I'm on my way to Mexico because I like the game.
I like fighting; I want to see it."
- Bierce's last known communication to the world that he
regarded with bitter disdain was in the form of a letter that he sent to
his secretary on December 16, 1913. It was postmarked Laredo, Texas, and
it was filled with references to the Mexican Revolution then underway.
Within the letter was a sentence declaring his intention of going to Mexico
"...with a pretty definite purpose which is not at present disclosable."
As far as can be ascertained, Bierce crossed into Mexico and stepped into
- Bierce's biographers have theorized whether or not his
cryptic reference to "a pretty definite purpose which is not at present
disclosable" could have been either a presentiment of his fate or
a clue that he planned to engineer his own strange disappearance.
- Although that was the last word Ambrose Bierce ever set
to paper before he mysteriously disappeared, there seems to be a certain
amount of substantial evidence to indicate that the old warrior was seen
alive after that date.
- George F. Weeks, a friend of Bierce's from California,
set out on a personal search in February of 1919 for any trace of the author.
In Mexico City, he found an officer who told him that Bierce had been killed
in a campaign in January 1914.
- Other leads indicated that the author had been executed
by a firing squad, murdered by guides, or killed by soldiers who grew impatient
with his stinging tongue.
- One investigator theorized that the clever Bierce had
never really crossed the Mexican border at all, but had re-entered the
United States to live and die in obscurity and to have a last laugh at
all those who puzzled over his mysterious disappearance.
- Most of Bierce's biographers maintain, however, that
the lure of War would have been too strong for the author to have resisted
going into Mexico. Odo B. Slade, a former member of Pancho Villa's staff,
recalled an elderly American with gray hair and an asthmatic condition
who served as a military advisor to Villa. The American was called Jack
Robinson, and he criticized the Mexicans' battle strategies with the accomplished
eye of a military expert.
- In his book They Never Came Back, Allen Churchill
comments: '1t is easy to picture the malevolent oldster parading his military
knowledge before the Mexicans. It is also possible to relish him urging
companions to call him by the boyishly adventurous name of Jack Robinson."
- Slade and author Louis Stevens (Here Comes Pancho
Villa!) both state that this "Jack Robinson" quarreled violently
with Villa and was shot to death when he announced his intention of leaving
Villa and transfering his allegiance to Carranza.
- Edward H. Smith (Mysteries of the Missing) reasoned
that Ambrose Bierce "started out to fight battles and shoulder hardships
as he had done when a boy, somehow believing that a tough spirit would
carry him through. Wounded or stricken with disease, he probably lay down
in some pesthouse of a hospital, or in some troop train filled with other
stricken men. Or he may have crawled off to some waterhole and died, with
nothing more articulate than the winds and the stars for witnesses."
- The 1989 film Old Gringo, featured Gregory Peck
as Bierce, Jane Fonda as a kidnapped school teacher, and Jimmy Smits as
a revolutionary general. The plotline of the film has Bierce dying of a
disease and continually provoking Smits to kill him so that he might determine
his own fate of dying not by illness, but by falling in battle.
- It is well known to students of Bierce's life and career
that he once wrote three short stories under the collective heading of Mysterious
Disappearances.One of Bierce's biographers, Franklin Walker, suggested
that "The Wickedest Man in San Francisco" may have become so
intrigued by the prospect of men and women simply vanishing without a trace
that he set about planning his own enigmatic death. In Walker's opinion,
such a morbid joke would have appealed to Ambrose Bierce, the writer who
kept a human skull before him as he worked at his desk. Although the act
of physical death would be inescapable, Bierce would be able to escape
its normal attributes. He would cheat the undertaker, the biographer, and
the public "... by disappearing completely rather than dying in the
- It is possible to see the author of such works as Cobwebs
from an Empty Skull, The Devil's Dictionary, Mysterious Disappearances, and The
Damned Thing finding a final satisfaction in crawling off into some
cave and dying like a wounded, but free, beast. Others state that it is
also possible that Bierce may have toppled into a hole in Space "...
through which animate and inanimate objects may fall into the invisible
world and be seen and heard no more."