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The Death of Bierce

"As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."
-- The last line of the last letter from Ambrose Bierce,
December 26, 1913

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ambrose Bierce's life was its end. After a tour of the Civil War battlefields of his youth, the septuagenarian Bierce crossed the border into revolutionary Mexico and was never heard from again. Although there should technically be a question mark at the end of the title to this section, we can safely assume Bierce's death since he would be over 150 years old if he were alive. (Although, as you'll see below, there are some theories that overcome even this.) Ambrose Bierce's date of death is usually placed in 1914.

The facts of the matter are this. The build-up to Bierce's disappearance began in letters that expressed an interest in going to war-torn Mexico to cheat a lingering old age, perhaps even hooking up with rebel leader Pancho Villa. Before a long visit to Civil War battlefields, Bierce made a series of arrangements for the control of his various interests that can be seen as either preparation for a lengthy trip or an ordering of someone's final affairs. After the battlefield visits, Bierce crossed into Mexico, sent out a final letter, and vanished. Bierce's daughter Helen, alarmed by the disappearance, petitioned the United States government to help find her father. An official inquiry by the government failed to turn up anything.

The mystery sparked a great deal of interest and controversy. Uncountable reports, theories, and conjecture followed the event as to the final fate of Ambrose Bierce. These theories largely fall into two camps. One assumes that he did go to Mexico; the other assumes he did not.

The "traditional," or at the least the most widely believed theory, holds that he did go to Mexico. Although the specific details of the death vary, the most common story is that after crossing into Mexico, Bierce was killed during the fighting of the war. In different tellings, he was executed by rebels, federal troops, or Villa himself -- or died in a battle before or after joining up with Villa's forces. One story even tells of an old gringo advisor in Villa's camp who constantly mocked the rebel leader. Although various people claimed to see Bierce or his grave after December 26, there is no definitive contact with Bierce after that last letter.

Some of the Mexican scenarios are right out adventure novels. One holds that Bierce was really going to Mexico to spy on suspected German and Japanese plots against the Panama Canal. Bierce apparently went with British adventurer and spy, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Heading through Guatemala, Bierce and Mitchell-Hedges manage to stop and steal an ancient Maya artifact called the Skull of Doom. Mitchell-Hedges and Bierce then part ways in British Honduras, with Bierce vanishing into history. Another tale told was that a Central American explorer named Johnson ran across an old man with long, white hair matching Bierce's description. Clad in jaguar skins, the old man was being held prisoner by a tribe of natives who believed that he was a god.

Perhaps the most convincing of the Mexico stories is that of soldier-of-fortune Edward "Tex" O'Reilly in his Born To Raise Hell. He claims to have been contacted by Bierce in El Passo and then in Chihauhua City -- but never met with him. O'Reilly says that several months later, he heard that an American had been killed in a nearby mining camp of Sierra Mojada. He investigated and heard how an old American, speaking broken Spanish, was executed by Federal Troops when they found out he was searching for Villa's troops. The locals told how he kept laughing, even after the first volley of his execution.

Although most of theories that posit that Bierce didn't go to Mexico are fairly far-fetched, at least one has some interesting possibilities. This one holds that Bierce's build-up to his Mexican adventure was a total ruse to disguise his true intention: suicide. In this version, Bierce made one last tour of his fields of honor, then diverted to the Grand Canyon, where he shot himself. Although the theory is psychologically consistent with Bierce and would explain why someone as famous as Bierce was never recognized despite the heavy American press presence in Mexico at the time (especially around Villa), it forces us to ignore the final letters from Mexico.

The other theories based on the idea that Bierce didn't go to Mexico skew towards the fantastic. Right after his disappearance, one source went so far as to claim that Ambrose Bierce never existed at all. Another theory stated that Bierce never went to Mexico, but instead checked himself into a hospital for the insane in Nappa, near the home of his faithful secretary, Miss Christiansen. In 1915, there came reports that Bierce was actually in Europe attached to British Lord Kitchener's staff in France during World War I. Perhaps my personal favorite was one put forth by a paranormal investigator, Charles Fort. He claimed that since Ambrose Bierce disappeared at roughly the same time as one Ambrose Small, it provided definitive proof that evil supernatural forces were collecting Ambroses.

The fictionalizations of his death range wildly. The novels Old Gringo and Yellow are variations of "Bierce into Mexico." A supernatural twist on the Mexican myth is found in the movie From Dusk Till Dawn: The Hangman's Daughter. After traveling into Mexico and escaping bandits, Bierce ends up at a vampire temple. The film's original ending had him falling during the final battle and turing into an undead vampire, certainly one of the most original takes on his disappearance. However, in the final cut, Bierce assists in dispatching the forces of evil and then disappears into Mexico and history.

Certainly the most fantastic fictionalization comes from the comic series, Lost Planet. Lost Planet defies brief explanation. It details the quest of an American fortune hunter, a wizard, an alien Amazon, and her pet ape against the evil mage king who subjegated a dinosaur-infested planet of super-science after a devestating war. Yet there is more. The evil king's mistress is a drugged and amnesic Amelia Earhart. The wizard is Ambrose Bierce.

After tiring of the Mexican Revolution, Bierce travels to Venezula, where he meets up with some colonists from the aforementioned planet who were escaping the cataclismic war. Bierce accidentally enters the portal to their world while trying to dispatch a "demon" who was menacing the settlement. He is quickly captured by the mage king, but the evil elixir which gives the king his power is slowly driving him crazy. Bierce is able to pacify the king and impose some authority on him, giving Bierce free reign of the castle. Finding a hidden sanctuary, Bierce is taught the magic arts by the ghosts of the scientists imprisoned and killed by the king, allowing Bierce to escape.

At the end of the series, the group dispatches the king and restores power to the scientists' descendent. Trapped on the other world, Bierce is still alive -- and will continue to be so, as the other planet imbues a life span three times that of Earth.

EULOGY n. Praise of a person who either has the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.