L.O.W.F.I's Guest Editorial
The League of Western Fortean Intermediatists presents...
Ambrose Bierce and Strange Disappearances
by Brad Steiger
I was honored when not long ago Bob Rickard at Fortean Times noted that “author Brad Steiger’s influence on forteana equals John Keel’s on ufology.” I have also been pleased with Skylaire’s mention of my being in the lineage of Charles Fort in a number of her articles. However, before I discovered Fort in the early 1960s, I had another hero of the weird, strange, and unknown --Ambrose Bierce.
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 unusual.
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, 1876.
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 the bodies.
“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 its truth.”
“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.
Here we clearly see Bierce’s fascination with mysterious disappearances. First, an entire family disappears, including their field hands. Years later, (as if returning from another dimension), decaying bodies, that may have belonged to the family, are discovered when “gentlemen” of rank and position decided to visit the “Spook House.” The result of that macabre discovery is that one of them disappears without a trace. The great mystery after all these years is whether this story was written as a newspaper account of an actual baffling event, as Bierce claims, or if it was the product of his imagination. In other words, a spooky short story.
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 son’s 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 light cart.
Worson jogged along for several miles, boastful of his endurance, scornful of the occasional cheer of jeer from the wagon ahead of him.
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 truthful, 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
The previous stories are startling in their affect upon the reader. Consider your emotions seeing a loved one vanish before your eyes in the simple acts of crossing a field or running a race. Bierce again claims witnesses for the strange disappearances and presents them as documented occurrences.
In the case of Charles Ashmore, I was bitten early in my career writing about such an incident that occurred step by unsettling step by a farm boy with another name, thus indicating that the tale might be an urban/rural legend upon which Bierce drew to fashion another account of a mysterious disappearance.
When I first read it, as a farm boy of thirteen who did have to bring in the water from the well, I was looking over my shoulder at every step.
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’ grief-stricken 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 emotion.
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 others. 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, as I have suggested, that in at least some of 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 reports.
In the collection that I obtained as a teenager, Bierce followed these accounts with a postscript entitled, “Science to the Front.”
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 example.”
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?”
Bierce would have had a great time in an era such as ours that freely discusses quantum mechanic physics, other dimensions, and multiple universes
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 eye.
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 Day.
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 oblivion.
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: “It 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,” which we have previously reviewed in this article. 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 traditional manner.”
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.”