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Ambrose Gwinett Bierce
1842 - 1914

The American writer Ambrose Gwinett Bierce expressed the cynicism of the post-Civil War era and shaped both the materials and the methods of writers who later voiced the disillusionment following World War I.


Ambrose Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, and reared in Kosciusko County, Ind. He was a printer's apprentice before enlisting and serving with distinction in the Civil War. He launched a journalistic career in California and continued it in London from 1872 to 1876. There he served on the staffs of the magazines Fun and the Lantern, contributed to Hood's Comic Almanac, and under the pseudonym Dod Grile published the books Fiend's Delight (1872), Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1872), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). Back in California he became an outstanding contributor to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. In 1897 he went to Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for the Hearst papers.

Bierce won attention as a fiction writer with Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), later titled In the Midst of Life (1892, revised and republished 1898), and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Both collections were reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's tales of terror, but Bierce's stories were often sardonic in tone and built to surprise endings. Other books that helped him win the nickname "Bitter Bierce" included collections of witty satirical verses, Beetles in Amber (1892) and Shapes of Clay (1903). The Cynic's Word Book (1906), retitled The Devil's Dictionary when it was reissued in 1911, was a gathering of succinct, witty, and usually vinegarish definitions; for example: "Patriotism, n., Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name"; "Edible, adj., Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to man, and a man to a worm." In Fantastic Fables (1899) Bierce adapted Aesop's techniques to narratives which moralized about the day's economic, social, and political dilemmas, and The Shadow on the Dial (1909) brought together a number of disillusioned essays.

Bierce spent several years editing his Collected Works (12 vols., 1909-1912). In June, 1913, he wrote a friend, "Pretty soon I am going … very far away. I have in mind a little valley in the heart of the Andes, just wide enough for one…. Do you think I shall find my Vale of Peace?" The next year Bierce went to Mexico, at that time torn and disrupted by civil war, and he disappeared.

Bierce's stress in his war stories on the psychological and physical impacts and on the meaninglessness of conflict anticipated Stephen Crane and the many writers who expressed disillusionment after World Wars I and II. Bierce mingled foreign phrases, latinate words, and vernacular phrasings in anticlimactic and periodic sentences to express forcibly his cynical attitude. His style foreshadowed that of one of the most influential American writers of the skeptical 1920s, H. L. Mencken.


Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – 1914?) was an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and his satirical dictionary, The Devil's Dictionary.

The sardonic view of human nature that informed his work – along with his vehemence as a critic – earned him the nickname, "Bitter Bierce." Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including the poet, George Sterling and the fiction writer, W. C. Morrow.

In 1913, Bierce travelled to Mexico to gain a firsthand perspective on that country's ongoing revolution. While travelling with rebel troops, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace.

Early life and military career

Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, and grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat of Warsaw. He was the tenth of 13 children, whose father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876), gave all of them names beginning with the letter "A". In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. His mother, née Laura Sherwood, was a descendant of William Bradford.

At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. In February 1862 he was commissioned 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.

He continued fighting in the Western theatre, at one point receiving newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain, West Virginia. In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, 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 the summer of 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

Bierce married Mary Ellen ("Mollie") Day on Christmas Day, 1871. They had three children; two sons, Day (1872–1889) and Leigh (1874–1901), and a daughter, Helen (1875–1940). Both of Bierce's sons predeceased him: Day was shot in a brawl over a woman, and Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer, and the couple finally divorced in 1904. Mollie Day Bierce died the following year.

Ambrose Bierce suffered from lifetime asthma as well as complications arising from his war wounds. For health reasons, he travelled to London, where he befriended a number of notable literary personalities.

In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army. He remained in San Francisco for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp.

Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he travelled to Rockerville and Deadwood, South Dakota in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company, but when the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.

In 1887, he published a column called The Prattle and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential among the writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.

Railroad Refinancing Bill

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received massive loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad—on gentle terms, but Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the money, amounting to $130 million (nearly 3 billion dollars in 2007 money).

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". 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 Goebel in 1900 into a cause célèbre.

Bierce meant his poem, written on the occasion of the assassination of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky, 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 neither revealed Bierce as the author of the poem, nor fired him.

Bierce in 1892

His short stories are held among the best of the 19th century, providing a popular following based on his roots. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "Killed at Resaca", and "Chickamauga".

Bierce was considered a master of "Pure" English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres.

In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry and verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that turned into a genre in the 20th century.

One of Bierce's most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil's Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item which was 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.

Under the entry "leonine", meaning a single line of poetry with an internal rhyming scheme, he included an apocryphal couplet written by the apocryphal Bella Peeler Silcox (Ella Wheeler Wilcox) in which an internal rhyme is achieved in both lines only by mispronouncing the rhyming words:

   The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
   Cries Pluto, 'twixt his snores: "O tempora! O mores!"

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.


In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had proceeded on 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 participated in the battle of Tierra Blanca.

Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent from there December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history.

Several writers have speculated that he headed north to the Grand Canyon, found a remote spot there and shot himself, though no evidence exists to support this view. All investigations into his fate have proved fruitless, and despite an abundance of theories his end remains shrouded in mystery. The date of his death is generally cited as "1914?".

In one of his last letters, Bierce wrote the following to his niece, Lora:

"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!"

By one account, Villa tacitly acknowledged that two of his men shot Bierce to keep him from revealing their position, and disposed of his body.

Legacy and influence

At least three films have been made of Bierce's story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". A silent film version was made in the 1920s. A French version called La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico, was released in 1962. This black-and-white film faithfully recounts the original narrative using voice-over. Another version, directed by Brian James Egan, was released in 2005.

The 1962 film was also used for an episode of the television series The Twilight Zone: "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". A copy of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" appeared in the ABC television series Lost ("The Long Con", airdate February 8, 2006). Prior to The Twilight Zone, the story had been adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo, starring Gregory Peck in the title role.

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

In the 2000 film From Dusk till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter Ambrose Bierce is played by Michael Parks citing his disappearance caused by vampires.

A fictional version of Bierce also appears in the Robert A. Heinlein novella Lost Legacy as well as the short science fiction story "I Like Blondes" by Robert Bloch.


Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was an American satirist, litterateur, short story and ghost story writer and journalist, known as "Bitter Bierce".

Born in Ohio, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army at the outset of the American Civil War and fought in several of its most important battles. He served as an advance scout, making topographical sketches of likely battlefields, and also participated in combat.

After the war he retired from the army with the rank of brevet Major, and in 1867 moved to San Francisco, where he worked for many years as a regular columnist and editorialist for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner.

His short stories are considered among the best of the 19th century. He wrote of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Chickamauga".

Bierce was reckoned as a master of "pure" English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote skillfully in a variety of literary genres, and in addition to his celebrated ghost and war stories he published several volumes of poetry and verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that turned into a genre in the 20th century. One of Bierce's most famous works is The Devil's Dictionary, originally a newspaper serialization, that offered an interesting reinterpretation of the English language in which cant and political double-talk were neatly lampooned.

Bierce's twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1912. At the end of 1913, he disappeared during the Mexican Revolution while serving as an observer with the army of Pancho Villa. Subsequent investigations to ascertain his fate were fruitless and his disappearance remains a mystery.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo), a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance that was later made into a movie with Gregory Peck in the title role.










This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008