Devil in the Details

Why is 'Talented Amateur Historian' Leon Day obsessed with the death of Ambrose Bierce?

Ambrose Bierce -- an iconoclastic, politically conservative, wickedly humorous, and often acerbic atheist who admired Pancho Villa and wrote <i>The Devil's Dictionary</i> -- disappeared mysteriously in 1914.
Ambrose Bierce -- an iconoclastic, politically conservative, wickedly humorous, and often acerbic atheist who admired Pancho Villa and wrote The Devil's Dictionary -- disappeared mysteriously in 1914.

Death is not the end; there remains the litigation of the estate. -- Ambrose Bierce

Obscurity is obscurity, but disappearance is fame. -- Bierce biographer Carey McWilliams

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Leon Day sat on his porch, sipped whiskey, chain smoked, and spewed out his true feelings for professional historians. "Most historians say no one will ever know. But saying we'll never know is a hideous cop out. What they're really saying is that they're too lazy to look up the details. I think I work harder than they do." He cackled.

Regarding the mysterious question of Ambrose Bierce's death, his hubris is justified. Day, whose education consists of an Army GED and a year of college, has spent much of the past nine years investigating the strange death of the notorious author of The Devil's Dictionary. A self-described "talented amateur historian," Day holds down a half-day job determining the whereabouts of "very creative people" for the IRS. It's a calculated strategy; Day is a kind of senior slacker intent on clearing his days of obligations in order to pursue the eccentric esoterica that the rest of us dismiss as irrelevant.

"Eccentric" would be the key word here. Over the course of four visits, I noticed that Day wore the exact same clothes: Wranglers with a hole in the knee, a gray T-shirt covered by a tobacco-stained work shirt, and black shoes. The only variation was a green stocking cap, which he wore perched high atop his head, gnome-like, in 70-degree weather. The hole in his jeans appeared larger with each meeting. Literature on ammunition and hand grenades litter the carpeted floor of his living room. Rifles sit propped up against walls in his dining area. Our last meeting broke up when his partner Mary reported that his tomcat that had been missing for two weeks was spotted four houses down. "I commune with that cat," he explained as he rushed out of his Austin duplex, ambled down the sidewalk, and left me standing by my car.

For his part, Bierce was an iconoclastic, politically conservative, wickedly humorous, and often acerbic atheist who admired Pancho Villa and wrote definitions for The Devil's Dictionary that confirm Day's own jaded view of the world. "Liver," for example, is "a large red organ thoughtfully provided by nature to be bilious with." "Mad" becomes "affected with a high degree of intellectual independence." And "cynic": "a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be."

For Day, the irreverent writer is a kindred spirit well worth the obsessive investigation. Gesturing proudly to his place -- which is stacked floor to ceiling with books crammed into milk cartons, a small television airing the History Channel, and seven cats (well, six, I guess) who seem to have the run of the place -- the 58-year-old talented amateur historian says, "I'm doing pretty well here."

Day's life is a better one than he ever imagined. "I saw myself picking potatoes out of dumpsters when I got older," he explains. Indeed, instead of picking through dumpsters, Day now picks through the past. And he does so with a voracious appetite and a fine-toothed comb. The question of Bierce's death has become his mother lode. Day's reason for pursuing this question is, as with any scholarly interest, difficult to ascertain, but he's dropped a few hints. Bierce was a Civil War soldier who specialized in making topography maps of especially dangerous terrain. He became San Francisco's leading newspaper columnist at a time when, according to Day, "the writer stood behind his work with a gun, not a lawyer." Bierce wrote the first Civil War fiction that "included the terror and put the glory in its place." He became "a sort of literary cult leader" who never forgot that the end result of war would be "flowing blood and shattered bone." He was, finally, "good at writing spooky stories." But today, for all of these accomplishments, Ambrose Bierce is best known because he vanished. Day wants to "put a cap on this thing" so all of us can turn our attention to Bierce's real accomplishments, and perhaps start paying more attention to his definitions.

Bierce's disappearance has naturally attracted its share of kooks. "The more crackpot the theory is," Day says, "the better chance it has of going somewhere." His obsession with such a question -- not to mention the tomcat business -- might suggest that he, too, might be a bit cracked. But, as San Antonio journalist (and author of The Ashes of Waco) Dick Reavis assured me, Leon Day is the world's authority on the issue of Bierce's disappearance and death. Reavis, in an e-mail, also impugned a recent overly written Harper's piece on Bierce's disappearance as a typical "What I Saw in Deepest Africa" story, condemning it as an entirely superficial account of the legendary mystery. The fact that the Harper's writer never consulted Day was, he implied, the article's main downfall.

Day has done his work on Bierce quietly -- publishing only a small piece in a tiny journal called Studies in Weird Fiction in 1999, and pecking away at a manuscript that has swelled to about 70 single-spaced pages. For all his obscurity, though, Day might be so close to solving this 90-year mystery that the final step might simply involve nothing more than raising the cash to carry out a professional exhumation. "It'd be awful if we found some Swede," Day jokes. But he's sure that he knows the plot under which the remains of Ambrose Bierce slowly decay. "If the truth is under a thin layer of dust, rather than yards-deep in lies," he quips, "where's the glory?" Glory or not, he's eager as hell to dig in.

Ambrose Bierce left Washington, D.C., on October 2, 1913, to visit Mexico, where the Mexican Revolution was raging at full throttle. "I want to be where something worthwhile is going on," he wrote to a friend, "or where nothing whatever is going on." Throughout his journey, he mailed updates to his secretary in Washington, Carrie Christiansen. When Pancho Villa seized Jaurez on November 16, 1913, Bierce immediately went to El Paso and obtained press credentials. His last surviving letter to Christiansen came on December 16, 1913, in which he expressed his intention of going to the border town of Ojinaga. Villa was closing in on the town and was poised to take it. In Ojinaga, Bierce reasoned, something worthwhile was definitely going on.

Leon Day, intent on clearing his days of obligations in order to pursue the eccentric esoterica that the rest of us dismiss as irrelevant
Leon Day, intent on clearing his days of obligations in order to pursue the eccentric esoterica that the rest of us dismiss as irrelevant (Photo By John Anderson)

Cobbling together a life from scant evidence, Bierce biographers have leapt to a number of questionable conclusions concerning the writer's death. "It's a sad fact," Day has written, "that biographers generally stand on each others' shoulders." It's sad, he explains, because the first serious biography of Ambrose Bierce, published by Carey McWilliams (no relation) in 1929, was a book that would shape nearly all subsequent studies. And it's a book that Day "can't read six pages of ... without throwing against the wall." As if the point needed reiteration, Day explained that McWilliams "was a shithead. Does that clear it up for you?"

Day discovered a disingenuous error in McWilliams' study. Confronted in his concluding chapter with the mystery of Bierce's death, McWilliams fudged a fact to suggest that Bierce had landed in a compromising situation in Chihuahua City, just before the sack of Ojinaga. McWilliams quotes from what he (mistakenly) presents as Bierce's last letter, written to "his friend" J.H. Dunnigan on December 24, 1913: "Pray for me -- REAL LOUD!" The implication was clear enough: Bierce had obviously landed in some deep trouble and, one could safely assume, must have been killed by suspicious federal troops in Chihuahua City. Case closed, book completed. Royalties collected.

Well, not quite. Day found that the actual letter was written to John S. Dunningan, clerk of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on October 1, while Bierce was still planning his trip in Washington, D.C., and a good six weeks before he left. The letter includes no expressions of danger. The quotation -- "Pray for me -- REAL LOUD" -- was nothing but a joke poking fun at the fact that prayers for an avowed atheist like himself better be pretty enthusiastic. This falsification, committed by a biographer just out of college, sent Day scrambling for the right answer. "Digging for new material delays publication," he says, "while simply rewriting the old speeds it." He was in no rush.

Day, who believes that "historical research is largely a matter of reading other people's mail," went to the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley, which houses the Blanche Partington papers, to do just that. Blanche Partington was the daughter of Bierce's friend J.H.E. Partington, a British artist. At the tender age of 26, she was also the 50-year-old Bierce's lover. The affair, according to Day, "boiled merrily for a year or two" until Blanche left Bierce to try out other writers (including Jack London). Day thought the letters might be worth a glance, for their literary pillow talk if nothing else.

In the Blanche Partington papers, Day discovered a letter from Bierce to Blanche dated December 26, 1913, from Chihuahua, Mexico -- two days after what McWilliams misidentified as Bierce's last letter. In it, Bierce takes Blanche to task for her interpretation of a comment that he made in his previous correspondence. Blanche, perhaps understandably, assumed that Bierce's reference to "a little valley in the heart of the Andes" meant that he was literally off to visit the Andes Mountains. Bierce chided her for her literalism, clarifying that his mention of the Andes was "merely a geographical expression used because I did not care to be more specific. ... The particular region that I had in mind," he clarified, "has lured me all my life." And he was already there. Mexico. The Revolution was on, Villa had created the Division of the North, and Bierce was poised to track Villa's military progress, and hopefully meet the man he so admired.

Bierce's indication in this letter that he was going to a concrete place for a concrete reason also defused a second hypothesis that Day finds ludicrous. In another "authoritative" biography of Bierce published in 1929, the author -- Walter Neale -- argued that Bierce left Laredo, crawled off into a cave (perhaps in the Grand Canyon) and killed himself in order to hoax the world. On the surface, the theory sounds less insane than it seems. After all, Bierce had written that death should be quick, and he was on record as favoring rational suicide as a viable alternative to the incremental deterioration that often accompanies slow death. Plus, there was his cryptic remark to Blanche that, "Pretty soon I am going away -- O very far away." Neale's theory picked up enough steam over the years to find its way into the most recent biography of Bierce, 1995's Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr.

"This wasn't a great idea 69 years ago," Day explains, "and time has not improved it." Neale liked his subject too much to admit that he was down in Mexico chasing that rogue bandit Villa, so he simply refused to entertain the thought that Bierce ever went to Mexico at all. Now, of course, Day's discovery in the Partington papers proves Neale wrong. Day believes that Morris, for his part, never bothered to follow up on the Neale theory, which has caused Day to "become sour on the biography trade." Anyone who knows Bierce, he says, knows that, if he had indeed killed himself, "he would have written the best essay on suicide and then shot himself." When the Morris biography was published, Day finally realized that if anyone was going to get to the bottom of the question of Bierce's death, it was going to be him. So he chose to do what no biographer had previously done: He went to Mexico and started asking questions.

Before his trip, Day returned to an obscure piece of evidence that he had yet to fully consider. It was a 1928 New York Times article by Edward Synott O'Reilly, a Texas writer, cowboy, and soldier known locally as "Tex." In the article, O'Reilly, who was traveling with Villa's army, reported hearing that "an American had been killed in Sierra Mohada." O'Reilly knew that Bierce was in the area because Bierce, who desperately wanted to meet Villa, had been leaving notes for him at hotels from El Paso to Chihuahua City to that effect. And, as Day adds, "strangers didn't get killed in Sierra Mojada every day." So O'Reilly was curious, and immediately "went up with our detachment to investigate this story." As reported in his autobiography, Born to Raise Hell, here is what he discovered:

I began to inquire about the American, and several Mexicans told me about him. They said he was an old man who had come riding in there on horseback, alone. He spoke only a little broken Spanish. ... He asked questions about the trails and made notes and maps, and they thought he was a spy. When the Federals heard that he was asking how to reach Villa's army they decided to kill him. One afternoon he 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 there 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. ... He squatted there in the dust of the road and began to laugh heartily. The Mexicans were amazed because he was laughing as though it were a tremendous joke that he was being killed.

The stranger was buried outside a cemetery wall. Astonishingly, no biographer has ever checked out the O'Reilly story, despite the obvious clues: the man's age, his interest in trails and maps, the reference to Villa, the fact that he was alone, the maniacal laughter in the face of death. "I began to think it was time to do some traveling," Day explained.

On the edge of town in Sierra Mojada sits a dusty old boneyard surrounded by an adobe wall, just as O'Reilly described. In 1999 Day and Reavis -- the veteran reporter whose Spanish is flawless -- looked over the graveyard in frustration after several hours of unsuccessfully checking burial records. Their journey to Sierra Mojada had been an adventure. The men rode and slept in a rented car, followed directions provided by store owners and drifters, rambled their car through cowpaths, ate little more than peanuts and Coke, and incessantly chewed over the O'Reilly story. They asked the oldest villager if he had remembered the killing. He hadn't. They spoke with Father Jaime Leinert, head of the La Esmeralda church, who evidently "knew everything about everybody, forever" within 200 miles. He couldn't confirm the O'Reilly account. So now, looking at the crumbling wall that O'Reilly had described as the place where Bierce taunted his maker, Day and Reavis "drew a blank," and went back through the desert wondering if O'Reilly had pulled a fast one on them.

"That's where things sat," Day writes in his unpublished manuscript, "when I got a curious letter from Father Jaime." Turns out an old Mexican man named Don Chuy recalled witnessing the execution of an old, bearded gringo in 1914, when he was a small boy. The graveyard location matched O'Reilly's, and Chuy was even able to point to the spot where he remembered the man being buried. Chuy recounted a story that had Bierce drinking in a cantina with some soldiers when one of them suggested that the group step outside to shoot targets. Bierce was asked to hang the target against the cemetery wall. When he turned around after doing so, the soldiers riddled him with bullets. He fell to his knees, as O'Reilly said, laughed, and died.

Naturally, Day remains skeptical of Chuy's account. Nevertheless, he admits, it was "hard to pick holes in Chuy's memory," and while "Chuy remembered something a little more formal than O'Reilly reports," their stories hardly contradict each other. It would have been unlikely, finally, for Chuy to have heard of, much less seen, O'Reilly's article. All of which leads Day to conclude that "unless somebody could say Bierce died somewhere else, Don Chuy's incident had to be investigated, and I am ill qualified to dig up bodies."

It is a crowning testament to Day's persistence and thorough historical and archeological research that he convinced Clyde P. Snow, one of the most famous forensic anthropologists in the world, to agree to conduct an exhumation of the alleged boneyard plot. Snow, an Oklahoman who travels the world "sticking names on skeletons," has already gone so far as to visit Sierra Mojada and clear the bureaucratic hurdles to conduct his test. All that's needed now is cash. Day won't be specific on the matter, saying that it will require "serious bucks," the kind of bucks that "leads to things like 'grants,' 'advances,' and 'documentary rights' -- and other such bewildering trivia." One gets the sense, in fact, that it might be one mystery that he lacks the patience to solve. Should his ship ever come in, though, I'm sure I won't be the only one hoping that the skeleton that Snow identifies is a 5-foot-10 gringo with a hole in his leg and a smile on his face -- a smile no longer reacting perversely to a violent death, but quietly acknowledging the righteousness of Leon Day's dream. end story

James McWilliams teaches history at Southwest Texas State University.

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Ambrose Bierce, Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, Leon Day, Civil War history

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