Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

Bierce around 1866
Born Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
(1842-06-24)June 24, 1842
Meigs County, Ohio, United States
Died Circa 1914 (aged 7172);[1]
last seen in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico
Occupation Journalist · Writer
Genre Satire
Literary movement Realism
Notable works "Chickamauga"
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
"The Death of Halpin Frayser"
"The Moonlit Road"
The Devil's Dictionary
Spouse Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day (m. 1871; div. 1904)
Children Day (1872–1889), Leigh (1874–1901), Helen (1875–1940)


Military career

Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1861–1865
Rank First Lieutenant
Unit 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars American Civil War

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842[2] circa 1914[3]) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. He wrote the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and compiled a satirical lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary. His vehemence as a critic, his motto "Nothing matters", and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work, all earned him the nickname "Bitter Bierce".[4]

Despite his reputation as a searing critic, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including the poets George Sterling and Herman George Scheffauer and the fiction writer W. C. Morrow. Bierce employed a distinctive style of writing, especially in his stories. His style often embraces an abrupt beginning, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, impossible events, and the theme of war.

In 1913, Bierce traveled to Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. He was rumored to be traveling with rebel troops, and was not seen again.

Early life

Bierce was born in a log cabin at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842, to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce.[2] His mother was a descendant of William Bradford. He was the tenth of thirteen children whose father gave all names beginning with the letter "A": in order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, and Ambrose.

His parents were a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing.[2] Bierce grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat, Warsaw.

He left home at 15 to become a "printer's devil" at a small Ohio newspaper.[2]

Military career

At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry. He participated in the Operations in Western Virginia campaign (1861), was present at the "first battle" at Philippi and received newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain. In February 1862 he was commissioned a first lieutenant, and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields.

Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir "What I Saw of Shiloh". In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain,[5] and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865.

His military career resumed, however, when in mid-1866 he rejoined General Hazen as part of the latter's expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving toward year's end in San Francisco, California.

Personal life

Ambrose Bierce, by J.H.E. Partington

Bierce married Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day on December 25, 1871. They had three children: sons Day (1872–1889)[6] and Leigh (1874–1901)[6] and daughter Helen (1875–1940). Both of Bierce's sons died before he did. Day committed suicide after a romantic rejection,[7][8] and Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism.[6] Bierce separated from his wife in 1888, after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer. They divorced in 1904.[6] Mollie Day Bierce died the following year.

Bierce was an avowed agnostic.[9] He suffered from lifelong asthma,[10] as well as complications from his war wounds.[1]


In San Francisco, Bierce was awarded the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army. He remained in San Francisco for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor or editor of a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. A selection of his crime reporting from The San Francisco News Letter was included in The Library of America anthology True Crime.

Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. His first book, The Fiend's Delight, a compilation of his articles, was published in London in 1873 by John Camden Hotten under the pseudonym "Dod Grile".[11][12]

Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he traveled to Rockerville and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company. When the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.

From January 1, 1881 until September 11, 1885 he was editor of The Wasp magazine, in which he began a column titled "Prattle". He also became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists on William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner,[2] eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1909.[13]

Railroad Refinancing Bill

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received large, low-interest loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Central Pacific executive Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the loans, amounting to $130 million (worth $3.7 billion today).

Bierce's residence (right), 18 Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.

In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads' advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce's answer ended up in newspapers nationwide:

My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.[14]

Bierce's coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.

McKinley accusation

Because of his penchant for biting social criticism and satire, Bierce's long newspaper career was often steeped in controversy. On several occasions his columns stirred up a storm of hostile reaction, which created difficulties for Hearst. One of the most notable of these incidents occurred following the assassination of President William McKinley, when Hearst's opponents turned a poem Bierce had written about the assassination of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky in 1900 into a cause célèbre.

Bierce meant his poem to express a national mood of dismay and fear, but after McKinley was shot in 1901, it seemed to foreshadow the crime:

The bullet that pierced Goebel's breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

Hearst was thereby accused by rival newspapers—and by then-Secretary of State Elihu Root—of having called for McKinley's assassination. Despite a national uproar that ended his ambitions for the presidency (and even his membership in the Bohemian Club), Hearst kept employing Bierce.[15]

Literary works

Bierce, 1892

During his lifetime, Bierce was better known as a journalist than as a fiction writer. His most popular stories were written in rapid succession between 1888 and 1891, in what was characterized as "a tremendous burst of consummate art".[16] Bierce's works often highlight the inscrutability of the universe and the absurdity of death.[17][18]

Bierce wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war[19] in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "A Horseman in the Sky", "One of the Missing", and "Chickamauga". His grimly realistic cycle of 25 war stories has been called "the greatest anti-war document in American literature".[20]

According to Milton Subotsky, Bierce helped pioneer the psychological horror story.[21] In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that became a more common genre in the 20th century.

One of Bierce's most famous works is the much-quoted Devil's Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item, first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book. It consists of satirical definitions of English words which lampoon cant and political double-talk.

Bierce's twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1909, the seventh volume of which consists solely of The Devil's Dictionary, the title Bierce himself preferred to The Cynic's Word Book.

Bierce has been criticized by his contemporaries and later scholars for deliberately pursuing improbability and for his penchant toward "trick endings".[17] In his later stories, apparently under the influence of Maupassant, Bierce "dedicated himself to shocking the audience", as if his purpose was "to attack the reader's smug intellectual security".[22]

Bierce's bias towards Naturalism has also been noted:[23] "The biting, deriding quality of his satire, unbalanced by any compassion for his targets, was often taken as petty meanness, showing contempt for humanity and an intolerance to the point of merciless cruelty".[24]

Stephen Crane was of the minority of Bierce's contemporaries that valued Bierce's experimental short stories.[25] In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature", H. P. Lovecraft characterized Bierce's fictional work as "grim and savage." Lovecraft goes on to say that nearly all of Bierce's stories are of the horror genre and some shine as great examples of weird fiction.[26]


In October 1913, Bierce, then age 71, departed from Washington, D.C. for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had passed through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer, and in that role he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca.[27]

Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. His last known communication with the world was a letter he wrote there to Blanche Partington, a close friend, dated December 26, 1913.[28][29][30] After closing this letter by saying, "As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination," he vanished without a trace, his disappearance becoming one of the most famous in American literary history. Skeptic Joe Nickell argued that no letter had ever been found;[31] all that existed was a notebook belonging to his secretary and companion, Carrie Christiansen, containing a rough summary of a purported letter and her statement that the originals had been destroyed.

There was an official investigation by U.S. consular officials of the disappearance of one of its citizens. Some of Villa's men were questioned at the time of his disappearance and afterwards, with contradictory accounts. Pancho Villa's representative in the U.S., Felix A. Sommerfeld, was contacted by U.S. chief of staff Hugh L. Scott and Sommerfeld investigated the disappearance. Bierce was said to have been last seen in the city of Chihuahua in January.[32]

Oral tradition in Sierra Mojada, Coahuila, documented by a priest named James Lienert, states that Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery there.[33] However, Nickell[31] finds this story to be incredible. He quotes Bierce's friend and biographer Walter Neale as saying that Bierce had not ridden for quite some time, was suffering from serious asthma, and had been severely critical of Pancho Villa. Neale concludes that it would have been highly unlikely for Bierce to have gone to Mexico and joined Villa.

All investigations into his fate have proven fruitless, and Nickell concedes[31] that despite a lack of hard evidence that Bierce had gone to Mexico, there is also none that he had not. Therefore, despite an abundance of theories (including death by suicide), his end remains shrouded in mystery.

Legacy and influence

Bierce and autograph

At least three films have been made of Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". A silent film version, The Bridge, was made in 1929.[34] A French version called La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico, was released in 1962;[35] this black-and-white film faithfully recounts the original narrative using voiceover. It aired in 1964 on American television as one of the final episodes of the television series The Twilight Zone: "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".[36] Prior to The Twilight Zone, the story had been adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.[37] Another version, directed by Brian James Egen, was released in 2005. It was also adapted for the CBS radio programs Suspense and Escape.

Actor James Lanphier (1920-1969) played Bierce, with James Hampton as William Randolph Hearst, in the 1964 episode "The Paper Dynasty", of the syndicated western television series Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. In the story line, Hearst struggles to turn a profit despite increased circulation of The San Francisco Examiner. Robert O. Cornthwaite appears as Sam Chamberlain.[38]

Two adaptations were made of Bierce's story "Eyes of the Panther". One version was developed for Shelley Duvall's Nightmare Classics series and was released in 1990. It runs about 60 minutes.[39] A shorter version was released in 2007 by director Michael Barton and runs about 23 minutes.[40]

"The Damned Thing" was adapted into a Masters of Horror episode of the same title directed by Tobe Hooper.[41]

American composer Rodney Waschka II composed an opera, Saint Ambrose, based on Bierce's life.[42]

Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance; it was later adapted into the film Old Gringo (1989), starring Gregory Peck in the title role.[43] Bierce's disappearance and trip to Mexico provide the background for the vampire horror film From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (2000), in which Bierce's character plays a central role.[44] Bierce's fate is the subject of Gerald Kersh's "The Oxoxoco Bottle" (aka “The Secret of the Bottle”), which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on December 7, 1957, and was reprinted in the anthology Men Without Bones. Bierce reappears in the future on Mount Shasta in Robert Heinlein's novella, "Lost Legacy".

The short film "Ah! Silenciosa" (1999), starring Jim Beaver as Bierce, weaves elements of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" into a speculation on Bierce's disappearance.[45]

In the fall of 2001, An Occurrence Remembered, a theatrical retelling of Bierce's An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge and Chickamauga, premiered off-Broadway in New York City under the production and direction of Lorin Morgan-Richards and lead choreographer Nicole Cavaliere.[46]

Bierce was a major character in a series of mystery books written by Oakley Hall and published between 1998 and 2006.[47]

Bierce's short story "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" is one of the first works of fiction to deal with an inexplicable occurrence. In this story, a man disappears from existence while crossing a field. The story precedes several stories in modern folklore and urban legends regarding mysteriously vanishing individuals.

Biographer Richard O'Conner argued that, "War was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer... [he became] truly capable of transferring the bloody, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses of the battlefield onto paper."[2]

Essayist Clifton Fadiman wrote, "Bierce was never a great writer. He has painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination. But... his style, for one thing, will preserve him; and the purity of his misanthropy, too, will help to keep him alive."[2]

Author Alan Gullette argues that Bierce's war tales may be the best writing on war, outranking his contemporary Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) and even Ernest Hemingway.[2]

Author Kurt Vonnegut once stated that he considered "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" the "greatest American short story" and a work of "flawless... American genius".[48]

American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena Charles Fort wrote about the unexplained disappearances of Ambrose Bierce and Ambrose Small, and asked, "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?" [49]


Volumes published

Published during Bierce's Lifetime

Published Posthumously

Collections of Mixed Types of Content

Short stories

War stories
Supernatural stories

Other stories
  • The Haunted Valley (1871)
  • The Little Story (1874)
  • Mr Swiddler's Flip-Flap (1874)
  • Curried Cow (1874)
  • The Baptism of Dobsho (1874)
  • The Race at Left Bower (1874)
  • The Failure of Hope and Wandel (1874)
  • A Providential Intimation (1874)
  • A Holy Terror (1882)
  • A Cargo of Cat (1885)
  • An Imperfect Conflagration (1886)
  • A Revolt of the Gods (1886)
  • The Man Out of the Nose (1887)
  • A Bottomless Grave (1888)
  • My Favourite Murder (1888)
  • The City of the Gone Away (1888)
  • A Watcher by the Dead (1889)
  • Oil of Dog (1890)
  • The Widower Turmore (1891)
  • Haita the Shepherd (1891)
  • An Heiress from Redhorse (1891)
  • The Applicant (1892)
  • An Adventure at Brownville (1893)
  • The Hypnotist (1893)
  • Moxon's Master (1899)
  • John Mortonson's Funeral (1906)
  • The Time the Moon Fought Back (1911)
  • The Ingenious Patriot
  • The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (with Adolphe De Castro)
  • One Summer Night
  • Perry Chumly's Eclipse
  • The Tail of the Sphinx

See also


  1. 1 2 "Ambrose Bierce". The Literarure Network.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Floyd 1999, p. 18.
  3. D'Ammassa, Don (2006). Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction. New York: Facts On File, Inc.
  4. Ousby, I, ed. (1996), The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 85.
  5. "1861–67. The Civil War", The Ambrose Bierce Project (timeline).
  6. 1 2 3 4 Floyd 1999, p. 19.
  7. Morris 1999, pp. 206–08, 238.
  8. "Along the Pacific Coast". Sacramento Daily Record-Union. July 27, 1889. p. 1. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  9. Donald T. Blume (2004). "The Boarded Window". Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and soldiers in context: a critical study. Kent State University Press. p. 323. ISBN 9780873387781. Contrary to McWilliams's claim; however, in the public arena Bierce was not merely an agnostic, but a staunch unbeliever regarding the question of Jesus' divinity.
  10. Floyd 1999, pp. 19–20.
  11. Bierce 2003, p. 8.
  12. Morris 1999, p. 143.
  13. Joshi, S. T. (2010). Student's Encyclopedia of Great American Writers: 1830 to 1900. vol. 2. New York: Facts On File, Inc.
  14. Beam, Alex (June 24, 2008). "Ambrose Bierce, mon amour". The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 5, 2015. (subscription may be required or content may be available in libraries)
  15. Morris 1999, pp. 236–37.
  16. M. E. Grenander. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971. p. 55.
  17. 1 2 Ye Qi. Megashift from Plot to Character In American Short Fiction. ISBN 9780983875369. p. 48.
  18. Curran, Ronald T. (2016). "Bierce, Ambrose". World Book Advanced. World Book. Retrieved 15 Jan 2016.
  19. "Ambrose Bierce's Civil War". Opinionator. Retrieved 2016-01-14.
  20. A. Teodorescu. Death Representations in Literature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781443872980. p. 143.
  21. Jones, Stephen; Newman, Kim, eds. (1990). Horror: 100 Best Books. New York: Carroll and Graf. p. 74. ISBN 0881845949.
  22. Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. Penn State University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780271041124. p. 112.
  23. Judy Cornes. Madness and the Loss of Identity in Nineteenth Century Fiction. McFarland, 2007. ISBN 9780786432240. p. 52.
  24. H. Hendin, A. O. Haas. "Posttraumatic Stress Disorders in Veterans of Early American Wars." Psychohistory Review 12 (1984): 25–30.
  25. Bierce, Ambrose (1984). The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. Compiled with Commentary by Ernest Jerome Hopkins; Foreward by Cathy N. Davidson. University of Nebraska Press. p. 5. ISBN 0803260717.
  26. s:Supernatural Horror in Literature/The Weird Tradition in America
  27. Varhola, Michael (2011). Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State (First ed.). Cincinnati: Clerisy Press. p. 176. ISBN 1578604583.
  28. Starrett, Vincent (1920), Ambrose Bierce, WM Hill, p. 39.
  29. Bierce 2003, pp. 244f.
  30. Day, Leon (August 8, 2007). "My Hunt For Ambrose Bierce". The Ambrose Bierce Site. Retrieved April 6, 2016.
  31. 1 2 3 Nickell 1992.
  32. Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998, p. 865.
  33. Lienert, James (2004), "Monument in the Sierra Mojada cemetery", The Ambrose Bierce Site, with inscription stating that Bierce was shot there.
  34. Vidor, Charles (2009-09-22), The Bridge, retrieved 2016-04-11
  35. Enrico, Robert (1962-05-01), Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved 2016-04-11
  36. Enrico, Robert (1964-02-28), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved 2016-04-11
  37. Stevenson, Robert (2000-01-01), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved 2016-04-11
  38. "The Paper Dynasty on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. March 1, 1964. Retrieved August 7, 2015.
  39. Black, Noel (1989-11-26), The Eyes of the Panther, retrieved 2016-04-11
  40. Barton, Michael (2007-08-10), The Eyes of the Panther, retrieved 2016-04-11
  41. Hooper, Tobe (2006-10-27), The Damned Thing, retrieved 2016-04-11
  42. Waschka II, Rodney, Saint Ambrose, Capstone Records.
  43. Fuentes, Carlos, Gringo Viejo (Planeta, 2004) ISBN 978-968-6941-67-8
  44. Pesce, P. J. (2000-01-18), From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter, retrieved 2016-04-11
  45. Cline-Márquez, Marcos (2000-01-01), Ah! Silenciosa, retrieved 2016-04-11
  46. Civil War Times Illustrated, December 2001
  47. Latiolais, Michelle. "In Memoriam Oakley Hall". University of California. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  48. Vonnegut, Kurt, A Man Without a Country, pp. 7–8, And I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce. ...It is a flawless example of American genius...


  • Bierce, Ambrose (2003). Joshi, ST; Shultz, David E, eds. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Ohio State University Press. 
  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. pp. 32, 147. 
  • Cozzens, Peter. 1996. "The Tormenting Flame: What Ambrose Bierce Saw in a Fire-Swept Thicket at Shiloh Haunted Him for the rest of his Life." Civil War Times Illustrated. April 1996. Volume XXXV (1). pp. 44–54.
  • De Castro, Adolphe (1929). Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (New York and London: Century).
  • Eckhardt, Jason. "Across the Borderlands of Conjecture with Mr Bierce." Studies in Weird Fiction 4 (Fall 1988), 26–31.
  • Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Lexicographer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
  • Floyd, E Randall (1999). The Good, the Bad, and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 978-0-7607-6600-2. 
  • Grenander, M.E. Ambrose Bierce. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1971.
  • McWilliams, Carey (1929; reprinted 1967). Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Archon Books.
  • Morris, Roy (1999) [1995]. Ambrose Bierce: alone in bad company. US: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512628-0. 
  • Nickell, Joseph ‘Joe’ (1992). Ambrose Bierce Is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries. 
  • O'Conner, Richard (1967). Ambrose Bierce: a Biography, with illustrations, Boston, Little, Brown and Company.

Further reading

External links

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