Ambrose Bierce and the oddness of “disappearing”

So Luke asked about Ambrose Bierce. 


Ambrose Bierce is one of those figures in American letters. He’s beloved of everyone who enjoys the fine art of being outrageously rude about people, and to top it off he wrote some weird and jagged fiction. 

But what Bierce might be most famous for is dying — or, more accurately, not dying where anyone could see him. Bierce — 71 at the time — was in Mexico accompanying Pancho Villa’s army when he vanished. His last letter was written the day after Christmas, 1913. 

What has always interested me about the Bierce disappearance is that it’s the most famous example of its kind in American literature — and in American history, it’s probably only surpassed by Amelia Earhart. But in neither Bierce nor Earhart’s case is there any real mystery at all about what happened. A 71-year-old Gringo in the middle of a particularly unpleasant shooting war? It would be a surprise if there weren’t some kind of an incident. And Bierce agreed: 

Good-by — 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 his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!

So Bierce was not completely uninterested in the idea of doing himself in. But because we don’t know the exact place, date and time of his death, we regard him as some kind of mystery man. We get very fixated about these things. 

Perhaps it’s because my background is as a medievalist, but I have never quite understood this thing. We’re very interested in how people die, as if we don’t know a person until we understand the time and the manner of their death. For a medievalist, it’s not so weird to have someone who isn’t a king or something just disappear from the written record. 

Doubly so for an archaeologist, who has a tendency to see a lot of people who don’t appear in the written record. In all my research, I only really encountered one person whose death I could date — that is, one person I could identify, Ranulf Flambard. 

And the thing is, I think Ranulf Flambard is amazing. He is easily my favourite 11th-12th century cleric, and I’m including both Adhemar of Le Puy and Odo of Bayeux in that. And Anselm of Canterbury. So think about that

And is it partly because I somehow feel like the grave makes him special? Yeah, kind of. 

Also, it is the last day to enter the banner competition! Although, honestly, if you send me something over the weekend, that’s also cool. 

Ambrose Bierce and the oddness of “disappearing”