Ambrose Bierce was an American short story writer and journalist at the turn of the century. According to Times Magazine, he’s most famous for his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. His book “The Devil’s Dictionary” was dubbed one of the “100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature”. He was said to have had a “morbid fascination with horror and death”. (Who here can relate?) (Time Magazine). A civil war veteran, Ambrose Bierce accomplished a lot in his 71 + years of life. But it’s his disappearance and presumed death that has had everyone speculating and theorizing over the last hundred years.
Back in 1913, Ambrose Bierce was 71 years old. Instead of moving to Florida like many snowbirds do, he decided to travel to Mexico. He wanted to experience their civil war firsthand. At least, that’s what he said in his letters. He wrote many letters over the course of his life, many of which were kept. His niece, Lora, was the recipient of many of those letters, and she received the last one he’s known to have mailed.
There are two predominant theories as to what happened to him, which I will address briefly before getting into the nitty gritty of the least likely—yet infinitely more interesting—theory. The first theory is that he travelled to Mexico and took up with the rebels. Many believe he died in a battle – most likely the battle of Ojinaga in January of 1914.
Some have speculated that he never went to Mexico and it was all a ruse to hide his suicide. One of his last letters ended with the line “To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that’s euthanasia!” This is an odd thing to say. It’s as if he was expecting to die. Mind you, he was a 71-year-old man who was going into war-torn territory, possibly with the full intent of finding and joining the rebels. Any person with half a brain would think that death might be on the table.
His last letter ended on a peculiar note. It said “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and I don’t know where I’ll be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” As a writer, I find the last line rather surprising. It leads me to believe that there might be credence to the suicide angle. One would think that an author would want a famous last line – one that could be quoted for centuries after his death. But if he didn’t want his suicide to be recognized as such, having a less than emphatic goodbye would be smart. It could cover up his intentions.
One thing that’s been frustrating has been how different the accounts of Ambrose Bierce’s final months are. Some websites say he definitely went to Mexico, others say that’s only speculation. Do we have proof of him going there? There are no firsthand accounts of anyone who actually saw him in Mexico. The letters don’t have postmarks providing any information, which in itself could be telling. Many resources online even get his last line from his letters wrong. Some say it was the euthanasia line, which was actually received in October of 1913 by his niece, Lora, which was only his third-to-last letter, at least according to the book of letters I found at Project Gutenberg Online. Some websites paraphrase his last line, and others give something that’s not even remotely close to the truth. I’m more inclined to believe the official book of letters on Project Gutenberg than resources that pulled information second-hand from God knows where. (Even Wikipedia got it wrong, and Wikipedia is always right, right?).
Some resources even say that Ambrose Bierce decided to stay in Mexico, whether to become a leader for the rebels or an (awkwardly racist) leader for the indigenous peoples, which is one predominant theory that I won’t cover here today.
The most intriguing theory is that Ambrose Bierce was involved in espionage. In a letter to Josephine Clifford McCrackin (lovely name), he wrote that his reason for going to Mexico is “not at present disclosable”. What does that mean? Does that mean that it’s confidential? If so, he really shouldn’t have been writing these kinds of letters to the women in his life. However, it was mentioned on one less than reputable website that he’d asked people to destroy the letters after reading them. If this is true, then maaaybe he put too much trust in his friends and family?
The most fascinating theory is what I’ll talk about next. The theory that he went down to Mexico to retrieve an ancient artifact—the crystal skull.
First I should provide some background into what exactly a crystal skull is—in case none of you saw that horrible Indiana Jones movie. The crystal skulls are literally crystal skulls that were discovered in the 19th century by collectors who believed that they were created in a pre-Columbian era. There is a group of theorists online who still, to this day, believe that these are advanced technology computers, providing insight into both the past and future. Studies have revealed that these skulls are not in fact pre-Columbian, and they were actually created by human tools no earlier than the mid-nineteenth century. There’s an interesting scholarly article that dissects why some people still believe that crystal skulls might be a form of alien or future technology, and I’ve linked to this study here. The authors focus on how individuals can attach themselves to a theology and believe it wholeheartedly in such a short period of time (within decades). They believe this is a prime case study in “interpretive drift”. I won’t bore you with the details (it’s so interesting!) but check out the article if you’re curious.
While it is certain without a doubt that the crystal skull was not crafted in ancient times, nor is it some kind of super-computer (unless magic really does exist?!), that’s not the point. The point is whether or not Ambrose Bierce believed it to be real. He could have gone to Mexico with the intention of stealing or finding a crystal skull.
Now this brings me to a man named F. A. Mitchell-Hedges. He was an owner of one of said crystal skulls. His crystal skull was different from others in the sense that it had a detachable jaw. I’m not sure what that signifies, but I already wrote it so now you know. Mitchell-Hedges refused to tell anyone where he’d gotten the crystal skull from (maybe because he crafted it himself in his workshop?). HOWEVER, it is known that Mitchell-Hedges was in Mexico around the same time that Bierce was allegedly there. While I’m sure that a lot of people plan to go to Mexico at the same time, a lot of people probably don’t plan to go during a revolution. That’s off-season. Mitchell-Hedges had spent time with the rebels. Some have speculated that this is where he found the crystal skull. In 1931, Mitchell-Hedges wrote a book called “White Tiger”, which was a fiction account of finding a crystal skull in a cave. Is it possible that this book was partly autobiographical? Is it possible that Mitchell-Hedges found a crystal skull in a cave in Mexico?
There is literally an entire book written about the connection between Mitchell-Hedges and Ambrose Bierce and the crystal skull. I found it at the library I work at, but I only skimmed parts of it (let’s be honest I don’t have that much free time on my hands).
One interesting point is that Mitchell-Hedges never mentioned Ambrose Bierce in his autobiography, and apparently he was one to name-drop frequently. There are only two possibilities for this. The first is that he and Ambrose Bierce were not in Mexico at the same time. Mitchell-Hedges never met the famed short story writer and journalist, so he never mentioned him in his book. This might be because Bierce never went to Mexico, or because he’d ended up elsewhere in a rather large country. The second theory is that he did meet Ambrose Bierce. Maybe he paired up with him to look for the crystal skull. Maybe they fought over who would win the glory of owning it. Maybe something horrible happened in that Mexican cave. Did Mitchell-Hedges bash Ambrose Bierce over the head with the crystal skull? That might explain why the jaw is detachable—he broke it!
All joking aside, I think there might be some credence to this theory. Mitchell-Hedges refused to say where he’d gotten the crystal skull. Is it possible that he made it himself with the plan of pretending to find it in Mexico? If Bierce had caught him in the act, told him about how stupid and transparent his crystal skull plans were (see what I did there?), then Mitchell-Hedges might have backed out of telling this long tale. I’m not entirely sure how lucrative a scam about having or finding a crystal skull is, but hey, we’re still talking about it 100 years later, so clearly Mitchell-Hedges did something right.
*Disclaimer – we have no way of knowing where Mitchell-Hedges acquired the crystal skull, since he refused to give up his source. It is quite possible that he’s entirely innocent of fraud (and did I just accuse him of murder?) and that he was given it as a gift by a crafty friend.
It’s hard to tell what happened to Ambrose Bierce, especially since any people who might have been there to witness it are long gone. Unless any of the witnesses were prone to writing as many letters as Bierce was, and these letters are uncovered in some kind of time capsule, we may never know what happened to him.
What do you think? Do you think he went to Mexico and joined a rebel group? Do you think he became a leader for the rebels? Or do you believe the much more plausible theory that he was a 71-year-old spy sent to find the crystal skull?
Bierce, A. (2011). The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, With a Memoir by George Sterling. (B. C. Pope, Ed.). Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/36218?msg=welcome_stranger
Laycock, J. P. (2015). The controversial history of the crystal skulls: a case study in interpretive drift. Material Religion, 11(2), 164–188. https://doi.org/10.1080/17432200.2015.1059128
MacGowan, D. (2014, November 20). The Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce. Retrieved from https://www.historicmysteries.com/disappearance-ambrose-bierce/
Morrill, S. S. (1972). Ambrose Bierce, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges and the crystal skull. San Francisco: Cadleon Press.
Top 10 Famous Disappearances. (n.d.). Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1846670_1846800_1846845,00.html