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Bierce’s Second Act February 18, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Poor F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed, in a novel that he could not finish, that there are no second acts in American lives. However, Beachcombing has always wondered about a possible exception in Ambrose ‘Bitter’ Bierce ‘the Devil’s lexographer’, short-story writer, journalist, poet, sceptic and general stand-up guy.

Bierce had, by any standards, an undeservedly crappy life. Of his three children, two died while their father was in his prime: one in a brawl, the other through pneumonia aggravated by alcoholism. His wife and he divorced after Bierce learnt that she had betrayed him: then she committed suicide (just to round off matters).

With this kind of past no wonder that Bierce, aged 71 (1913), decided that he needed something new and headed towards the Mexican civil war that was then heating up. The last that anyone in the States heard of him was in a letter dated 16 Dec 1913. Then came merciful silence.

Beachcombing has long fantasised about that silence. Bierce, who spoke no Spanish, had met a lovely señorita and had set up a shack on a beach on the Mexican coast. He then spent his declining years eating watermelon and engaging in acrobatic sex acts.

Bierce certainly had  the guts to grasp at the unconventional solution. He also perhaps had the desire:  ‘Pretty soon I am going away – o very far away. I have in mind a little valley in the heart of the Andes, just wide enough for one.’  In this scenario the Incan princess arrives a little afterwards, but there would still be a sunset at the end of Bierce’s life and, Beachcombing repeats, watermelon et alia.

However, back in the real world Bierce was not going to the snowy peaks of the Andes, but ‘under the volcano’ into one of the most dangerous countries in the western hemisphere in the midst of a horrific war no less. Bierce may, like Beachcombing, have fantasised, but he also had his old mordant sense of reality and a philosophy to match:

‘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!’

Now one thing is certain, whether in the Andes, on the veranda of his beach shack or up against a ‘Mexican stone wall’ Bierce, sooner or later, popped his clogs. The question is when and why and how?

The different explanations of how Bierce died could, in fact, fill a small notebook – there are about twenty doing the rounds. They are, themselves, a lesson in how history distorts itself particularly when copy-hungry, lazy Anglo-Saxon investigators from the first half of the last century found themselves face to face with Latin braggarts who wanted another round of tequila.

The vast majority involve bullets: fired by Bierce or some ‘euthanising’ Mexicans.

But how to pick the correct story from this mélange of mongrels and strays? The best principle is, of course, to find a story that can be verified by two sources and only one makes the grade.

The winning tale appears in an autobiographical sketch of Tex O’Reilly (‘the Irish cowboy’) and relates to the town of Sierra Mojada. It was a story that Tex had been told.

One afternoon [an unnamed American] was drinking in a cantina with three Federal volunteers, and they decided to kill him then. They borrowed his pistol, and when he left they walked out with him to the edge of town. I talked with two eye-witnesses who had seen the whole thing. Apparently he suspected nothing until the three men turned on him and began shooting. The first shot must have struck him in the leg or belly, because he dropped down, squatting on his heels. And the two Mexicans were impressed by the strange way in which he died. He squatted there in the dust of the road and began to laugh heartily. The three men kept shooting him, hitting him, but they could not kill him, and he did not stop laughing. He sat there and laughed till finally they shot him in the heart. The Mexicans were amazed because he was laughing as though it were a tremendous joke that he was being killed. The Mexicans in Sierra Mojada described Bierce exactly. He was then an old man, past seventy, but he looked younger than that and was vigorous and very strong for his age. They said he was a dictatorial old fellow who wanted to be left alone and who insulted everybody who bothered him.

Now this is written by a man who seems generally to have been reliable as a witness (though remember here he was relying on other witnesses…) and it was written within twenty years (1933) of Bierce’s supposed death.

Luckily,  there is also a second source for this death. An aged priest, Don Chuy from Sierra Mojada recalled in 1989 seeing, as a child, a gringo being shot in his home town. The narrator is James Lienert: an American priest who worked for many years in Mexico.

‘Several weeks [after asking Don Chuy about Bierce] when I was passing in front of Don Chuy’s house, he waved me down and wanted to talk to me. He said that he had been thinking about [the Bierce mystery], and, yes, he was remembering something. Don Chuy went on to relate: ‘One morning when I was just a boy, a close pal of mine, Crysostomo, the son of Marcelo de Anda, the Comandante, came running up to me saying to come along because they were going to put someone to the firing squad (fusilamiento). So we went to the corral of the soldiers’ quarters, and while we were there a soldier came up to the captain and said:’  ‘We have him, and everything is ready’. With that the captain dispatched several other soldiers, and everyone headed down toward the cemetery. There were a lot of other people following too, and when we got to the cemetery the soldiers made everyone stand back as far as the stone wall. (A low field-stone retaining wall about a hundred yards away, and front of the cemetery.) Then they stood the man against the wall and shot him’. (Don Chuy remembers that the man was an American, and was called El Ruso). Don Chuy went on to say that he stayed for the burial. He mentioned the name of one of the men who buried the body, and the name of a lady who said some prayers at the graveside.

It should be noted that Don Chuy was not able to remember this event when first asked about it: but there is no reason to doubt the essential truth of what is told here. And Beachcombing, despite all his recent bad mouthing of childhood memory, would trust this over Tex’s second-hand account. In fact, he would suggest that the inconsistencies between them are almost all on Tex’s side of the balance. An American was killed in Sierra Mojada in 1913/1914 and some of the facts are suggestive of Bierce: dying laughing (!) and El Ruso (the Russian because blond like Bierce?).

The only point that disturbs in Don Chuy’s account is that the Mexican had no memory that the victim was old. A child thinking that all adults are pensioners? Or is it just that Bierce was quite youthful as Tex and other sources suggest?

This small objection aside Don Chuy’s friend and amanuensis James Lienert was likely right to have put a stone up to Ambrose Bierce in the cemetery of the town. No acrobatic sex, no Incan princess, no second acts, only a final burst of hilarity at the expense of death: and so one of those rare existentialists before the fact shuffles off this mortal coil.

drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com for other opinions on Bierce’s fate.