“Death is not the end,” Ambrose Bierce wrote. “There remains the litigation over the estate.” The cynical Bierce, satirist, short-story writer, and columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire, met a mysterious death in Mexico at the age of seventy-one—or did he? His actual fate has never been known, though many stories abound.
Bierce was born June 24, 1842, in a log cabin in Meigs County, Ohio, to a poor but literary family that saw to it that he had a proper high school education. He was the youngest of ten children—all of whom were given first names starting with “A.” The family moved to Indiana, where Ambrose took a series of jobs, as a printer’s devil, a brickyard laborer, and a retail clerk.
In 1861 he enlisted as a private in the Indiana Volunteers and served with distinction as part of the Union army in the Civil War. At war’s end, he was discharged as a brevet major. He then found work as a Treasury agent, as an engineering attaché for an expedition through Indian territory, and finally as a watchman for the U. S. Mint in San Francisco. He also began to write and saw the publication of poems, articles, and short stories before becoming a full-time journalist.
Bierce married Mollie Day in 1871 and resigned his newspaper job, taking his new wife to England, where they remained for four years, as Bierce continued to flourish in the literary world. They had two sons in England, and upon their return to San Francisco in 1875, a daughter was born.
During the next several years Bierce held several jobs with the Assay Office, a mining company, and two newspapers. In 1887, he joined Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner as a columnist. In 1888 he separated from Mollie, after discovering some compromising letters she had exchanged with a male admirer. He continued his newspaper work and also published the satire for which he is most famous, The Devil’s Dictionary, which is filled with cynical definitions such as:
Grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.
Funeral, n. A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears.
Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Marriage, n. A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.
From the cynical tone of his definitions, one may correctly conclude that Bierce remained an agnostic in matters of religion. He once said, “Camels and Christians accept their burden kneeling.”
Bierce later wrote for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine, from which he finally resigned in 1908, saying of his employer, “Nobody but God loved him.”
In 1913, when he was seventy-one, Bierce decided to go to back to England, by way of Mexico and South America. By this time his divorce from Mollie was final, and his two sons had both died, one by suicide in a lovers’ triangle and one from alcoholism. Bierce intended to write about the legendary Mexican bandit and revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. He wrote to his niece on October 2, ““If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, and falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”
On November 6, he wrote to his niece, from Laredo, Texas, "...don't know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn't matter much. Adios.”
Bierce crossed the international bridge from El Paso to Juarez on November 26 and then signed on as an observer in Villa’s army. On December 26 he mailed a letter from Chihuahua to his secretary/companion, Carrie Christiansen, saying he expected to go the next day to Ojinaga, where Pancho Villa's revolutionaries were poised to attack federal troops—and that was the last anyone ever heard from him.
Many stories arose to explain his whereabouts: he had been shot in battle, he had committed suicide, he was confined in an insane asylum, he had made his way to Europe and was living there incognito. Most likely, he was shot by soldiers, possibly by Villa’s men—because, according to one account, he drank too much of their tequila.