the ripe of old age of 71, writer and civil war veteran Ambrose
Bierce wrote to his niece, "Goodbye. 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."
That last line inspired the title of novelist Carlos Fuentes highly
regarded novel of speculation about Bierce's fate, "The Old Gringo."
An aging Gregory Peck played Bierce, the old Gringo, in the movie
version. A hundred years later, the mystery and circumstances surrounding
Bierce's death are as well-known as his best work, including the
oft-cited "The Devil's Dictionary."
Historians generally believe that Bierce died in Mexico in search
of Pancho Villa and the next big story. The image of being "shot
to rags" is as good a guess as any about what happened to Bierce.
But it's still just a guess.
Because he passed through Texas on his way to Mexico, an alternative
history suggesting that Bierce died in Texas, in Marfa
to be precise, has arisen. The justification for this view is a
letter written to the editor of the Marfa Newspaper, the Big Bend
Sentinel, in 1990.
"Neither (Pancho) Villa nor his men had any involvement in the disappearance
of Ambrose Bierce," the letter read. "Bierce died on the night of
January 17, 1914, and was buried in a common grave in Marfa
the following morning, in a cemetery located southwest of the old
Blackwell school and across from the Shafter road."
The letter was written by a man from California named Abelardo Sanchez
who was born in Marfa
and lived there until he was 16. He was driving back to Marfa
from California when he picked up an old man named Agapito Montoya
who had a story to tell.
Montoya told Sanchez that he survived the battle of Ojinga against
Pancho Villa and was fleeing the scene when he and three fellow
soldiers came across a sick old Anglo man who said he was looking
to find Pancho Villa in order to write an article about him. The
soldiers told him that wasn't going to happen because they were
doing their best to get away from Villa. He offered the soldiers
20 pesos each to take him to Marfa,
and they agreed.
On the way, the old man told the soldiers he had written a popular
book. Montoya remembered that it had the word devil in it. The name
he remembered wasn't Ambrose Bierce exactly, but it was close. The
soldiers and the old man were captured by elements of the U.S. Third
Cavalry after crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. The cavalrymen
didn't believe the old man was a famous writer, and he was taken
prisoner. He supposedly died in Marfa
a few days later.
Jake Silverstein, the former editor of Texas Monthly and now the
editor of New York magazine, stumbled across the letter when he
was a young reporter in Marfa.
He was intrigued, as reporters often are.
"The more I learned about Bierce, the more credible Sanchez's letter
looked to me," Silverstein wrote. "His version of Bierce's end was
so Biercian…A proud old man of letters, intent on finishing his
life on a valorous note, sallies forth into a war-ravaged nation
in search of a heroic death before a firing squad or in the heat
Silverstein went looking for Bierce's grave and, with the help of
a friendly local, found the spot, but not the grave. Glenn Willeford
at Sul Ross College in Alpine
cast some serious doubts on the letter's validity when Silverstein
went to see him, and has continued to do so because the story got
legs after Silverstein wrote about it for Harper's magazine and
later in his book "Nothing Happened and Then it Did."
Willeford believes that neither the story's geography nor the time
of day (or night) when it happened match up. Beyond that, Willeford
notes that the soldiers were fleeing for their lives and finds it
doubtful they would have had the time or the inclination to befriend
an old gringo along the way. Also, the U.S. Cavalry would have sent
on old and ailing gringo, especially a famous one, to a Red Cross
Hospital in Presidio.
And there is no record of an Old Gringo dying in Marfa
around that time, leaving us with no more evidence than we've ever
had but with more material to fuel additional speculation.
What would have Bierce have thought of all this? Perhaps a clue
lies in "The Devil's Dictionary" where history is defined as "an
account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant…"
© Clay Coppedge
March 1, 2015 Column
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