Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

One of the missing

I had a discussion with a friend of mine a few days ago about one of the most frustrating things -- especially for those of us plagued with insatiable curiosity -- which is when we have plenty of reliable information about a situation, but not enough to figure out what actually happened.  As skeptics, we have to be willing sometimes to say "We don't know, and may never know" -- but that doesn't make it a pleasant way to conclude matters.  Famously, that's the situation we're in with Jack the Ripper.  Despite the number of books out there that have titles like The Ripper Murders SOLVED!, if we're being honest, there just isn't enough hard evidence to reach a definitive answer.  I've dealt with several less-known (but still fascinating) examples here at Skeptophilia -- the downright bizarre Devonshire footprints, the unsolved mystery of Kaspar Hauser, and the strange disappearance of Frederick Valentich are three that come to mind immediately.

In each case, we know for certain that the events took place; i.e., they're not hoaxes or tall tales.  But despite in-depth inquiries by skeptical investigators, in the end we're still left with highly unsatisfying question marks.

Another example of this frustrating phenomenon revolves around the American writer Ambrose Bierce, most famous for his war stories "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "A Horseman in the Sky," and "One of the Missing."  He was also a prolific writer of horror fiction; his short stories "Haita the Shepherd" and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" were profound influences on H. P. Lovecraft -- places like Lake Hali and Carcosa, and gods like Hastur, appear in the Cthulhu Mythos stories over and over, and a lot of people don't know that they originally came from Bierce rather than from Lovecraft.

Bierce was born in 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children.  He grew up with a deep love of books, and intended a career as a journalist, but the Civil War intervened.  He was a staunch abolitionist and enlisted on the Union side, fought at the Battle of Philippi and the Battle of Shiloh, and nearly died of injuries received at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.  His experiences during the war shaped not only his writing but his outlook.  Bierce was afterward deeply suspicious about the motives of his fellow humans, trusting very few people (and no one completely).

Ambrose Bierce in 1866 [Image is in the Public Domain]

His later life also shows a profound restlessness.  He spent time in San Francisco, Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, London, and Washington, D.C., never content to stay in one place for very long.  And these personality traits -- distrust of others, and a fundamentally restive nature -- both play into the most fascinating thing about Bierce, which is his mysterious disappearance.

In October of 1913 he left Washington to take a tour of Civil War battlefields.  He's documented as having passed through Louisiana and Texas, and crossed into Mexico at El Paso.  Mexico was at that point in the middle of a revolution; earlier that year President Francisco Madero and Vice President José Maria Pino Suárez had both been deposed and assassinated, and the country was an unsafe place by anyone's standards.  This didn't dissuade Bierce.  In his final letter, posted in December 1913 from the city of Chihuahua to his friend Blanche Partington, he said, "As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination...  Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is 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!"

He was never heard from again.

United States consular officials investigated the matter.  After all, the disappearance of an American citizen, and a prominent one at that, was serious business, even if he'd gone to Mexico of his own free will.  Members of Pancho Villa's senior staff claimed that Bierce had been in Chihuahua, but had left the city voluntarily and no one knew where he was.  Oral tradition in Coahuila is that he was executed by firing squad.  As for his friend, Blanche Partington, her belief was that Bierce had staged the whole thing, doubled back through Arizona, and finally committed suicide somewhere near the Grand Canyon.  No reliable reports of him -- alive or dead -- exist after December of 1913; no further trace of him was ever found.

His disappearance has been the subject of much speculation, as well as a number of works of fiction, something that no doubt would have pleased Bierce no end.  (A few of them worked on the premise that Hastur and the rest of the gang were real, and didn't like the fact that Bierce had given away their existence, so they whisked him out of the desert to Carcosa so he couldn't reveal any more of their secrets.)  Ironic that in the end, Bierce himself -- perhaps intentionally -- became one of the missing.

And as frustrating as it is, that's where we have to leave Bierce's story.  He very likely died somewhere in the southwestern United States or northern Mexico in late 1913 or early 1914, but how and why we probably never will know.  Nor can we be certain of whether he was a victim of the Mexican Revolution, took his own life (as Blanche Partington believed), or died of thirst and starvation out alone in the desert.  As with the examples I began with, we're left with a mystery -- and in the absence of further evidence, as good skeptics that's where we must conclude matters.

But given his secrecy and distrust of his fellow humans, perhaps that's what Bierce would have wanted anyhow.


No comments:

Post a Comment