Like many artists who live long enough to stare down old age, Ambrose Bierce was, by 1913, when he turned 71, focused on embalming his body in alcohol and turning his life into a self-help masterpiece on how to lose friends and alienate people. The irreverent cynic and American wordsmith’s best days were behind him, and in the wake of publishing his most famous work,The Devil’s Dictionary, it was clear that his best work was too.
But Bierce, possessing a knack for transforming platitudes into snarling literary gems — a bride, in his definition, was “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” — saw the chance to escape a clichéd existence and compose a more appealing ending to his story. The author’s obsession with death and gift for narrative misdirection had already produced some of the best American short stories, including the influential “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a Twilight Zone–type tale of a Southern plantation owner about to be hanged by Union soldiers who dreams of escaping death in the moment before the noose breaks his neck.
Bierce got his “pretty good” death — and an enduring mystery to embellish his literary tombstone.
And so, on Oct. 2, 1913, the cantankerous writer kick-started his own certain-death fantasy, setting off for war-torn Mexico to partake in Pancho Villa’s revolution. “Goodbye,” he wrote in an almost joyfully macabre letter to his cousin, “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.” Bierce got his “pretty good” death — and an enduring mystery to embellish his literary tombstone.
For a man who posed for portraits with a skull, death had been a preoccupation long before his Mexican sojourn. As a teenager, the Indiana native had dreams of his body decomposing and enjoyed reading Edgar Allan Poe stories to his future fiancée. Yet, still a young idealist, he enlisted in the Union Army two months before his 19th birthday in 1861. During the Civil War, the curly-haired Bierce would rise to the rank of lieutenant, witnessing the horrors of battles like Shiloh and Chickamauga before being shot in the head by a Confederate soldier. He recovered from his wound and returned home, only to learn his fiancée had left him for another man. Cue the cynicism.