Whatever happened to Ambrose Bierce?

One of the masters of the short story, horror, American witicism and cynicism alike is Ohio's own Ambrose Bierce. Famed for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "The Devil's Dictionary", a dozen or so short stories and extensive journalism, Bierce left a crater-sized hole impact with his prose and legacy. He also up and left to Mexico to follow Pancho Villa, never to return. It remains one of the great titillating mysteries in American literary history.

There's an outsized library of writing to dwarf Bierce's own output investigating exactly where and how the author, a celebrity in Mexico as in his home country, managed to mysteriously shuffle off this good earth. There are three dominant theories as to what happened to the man, all with equal credibility, and all readily disproven. If you find any of the following Rashomon chapters overwhelmingly probable, cease reading the rebuttal or the following conspiracy. It'll help you sleep easier.

There are a few details that we know as fact. Actually, everything known of his whereabouts following his leaving DC in 1917 necessitates a bit of conjecture. Bierce's last letter may have been to his friend Blanche Parting, though this letter was never found. Or to Carrie Christiansen, his secretary and companion. 

The three theories-

One, Bierce went off to the Grand Canyon to commit suicide. His two sons had died of suicide and alchoholism, he had split from his wife, who had been receiving letters from an admirer (Though the couple shared this penchant for infidelity), his health was failing, his ex-wife then died a year after their separation. Suicide plausible. And Bierce, who was fond of elaborate hoaxes, drumming up controversy under pen names and responding to them under different ones, may have amused himself by leading those left behind on a fool's errand to find his remains somewhere in distant Mexico. But why the Grand Canyon? 

He certainly saw no shame in suicide, he speaks of it rather heroically, on his own terms.

What an intolerable world this would be if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish — like going to Mexico and South America… Good-bye — 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!

Two, Bierce's lack of Spanish and advanced age had him caught following a mule raid by Pancho Villa's bandit squad. Bierce, eager for adventure and cognizant of danger, became a willing witness and defacto participant, perhaps, in some outlaw antics. He was shot and killed following the botched mule run, no last words in butchered Spanglish, no chance for explanation or opportunity to display press credentials. 

These events did occur, but whether they happened to our man of mystery or another monolingual American will probably never be confirmed. The man who recounted this story was given a thorough description of Bierce before he remembered in detail what had happened. Plus the dates for this account don't quite match up historically. Hmm.

The third is a bit more likely, though complicated and lacking substantial corroboration. It follows that Bierce, elderly, alone and functionally mute, arrived on horseback to the small, remote village of Sierra Mojada. He immediately garnered suspicion. The journalist asked about routes, trails, old mines and, eventually, the location of Pancho Villa's troupe, which led the federals in his company to believe him a spy. They decided then to have him killed, and they did it with his own pistol. Ever the cynic, when it dawned on him what was happening, he laughed.

Apparently he suspected nothing until the three men turned on him and began shooting.

The first shot must have struck him in the leg or belly, because he dropped down, squatting on his heels. And the two Mexicans were impressed by the strange way in which he died. He squatted there in the dust of the road and began to laugh heartily. The three men kept shooting him, hitting him, but they could not kill him, and he did not stop laughing.
He sat there and laughed till finally they shot him in the heart. The Mexicans were amazed because he was laughing as though it were a tremendous joke that he was being killed.

Just a glance at a few chance definitions from The Devil's Dictionary corroborates his reaction to the great absurdity of death.

Absurdity, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

Sierra Mojada now bears a gravestone dedicated to Bierce.

Read the whole account in remarkable detail.

Previously: Definitions of Art