On the cold evening of November 8, 1878, a sixteen year-old
boy named Charles Ashmore walked out of the back door of his familyís farm
house near Quincy, Illinois. He carried with him a bucket with which to fetch
fresh water from the spring a short distance away. When he did not return, his
family became uneasy and Christian Ashmore and his oldest daughter, Martha,
took a lantern and went in search of the boy. A new snow had just fallen and
Charlesí footprints were plainly visible as they went out the back door and
started across the yard. His father and sister followed his trail for a short
distance but after going about 75 yards, they saw that the trail abruptly
ended. Beyond the last footprint was nothing other than smooth, unbroken snow
- the boyís tracks simply came to an end with nowhere for him to go!
Ashmore and his daughter made a wide circle around the
tracks, careful not to disturb them, then went on to the spring. They found
the water covered with a layer of unbroken ice and it became apparent that
Charles had gotten no closer to the spring than his tracks had indicated. The
boy had vanished without explanation!
But the story does not end there. Four days later, the
grief-stricken mother of the young man went to the spring for water and
insisted that she heard the voice of her son calling to her when she passed
the spot where his footprints had ended. She wandered the area, thinking that
the voice was coming from one direction and then another. Later, when
questioned about the voice, she said that the words were very clear, and the
voice definitely that of her son, and yet she could make out no message from
For months afterward, the voice was heard every few days by
one family member, or sometimes many of them. It seemed to come from a great
distance and yet was entirely distinct, although none of them could determine
its message or repeat its words. Soon, the intervals of silence grew longer
and longer and the voice much fainter and by mid-summer of 1879, it was heard
Those with an interest in the strange and the unusual have
likely heard of this story before. Or perhaps the reader may have run across a
slightly different variation of it, with the name of Charles Ashmore being
changed to that of David Lang and the location being moved from Illinois to
Gallatin, Tennessee. Or the reader may have heard another version (enhanced by
the young man crying for help before vanishing) that changes the boyís name to
Oliver Larch and moves the location to South Bend, Indiana. It should not be
surprising if you have read any one of these stories for they have all
appeared in various books on ghosts, unsolved mysteries and the unexplained
over the years.
The problem with each of these
stories is that not a single one of them is true!
The story of Charles Ashmore first appeared in the writings
of a journalist named Ambrose Bierce, who penned not only newspaper articles,
but several books, scores of stories about ghosts and the Civil War and a
number of acerbic and cutting essays over the course of his career. Bierceís
style and journalistic background gave his stories of war and strange
disappearances such an uneasy realism that many mistook them for being true.
Such was the case of the story of Charles Ashmore and many others that he
wrote and as time has passed, the stories have changed and have been presented
as being real disappearances that took place years ago. It seems obvious to
all of us that no one could simply walk out their door one day, start walking
and then simply vanish into space! Such a thing simply cannot be! Or can it?
Author Ambrose Bierce
It may surprise the reader to learn that although stories
of the disappearance of Charles Ashmore and others were not true, they were
based on a real experience that intrigued Bierce during his journalistic
Ironically, the author of stories like that of Charles
Ashmore, and the chilling tale called The Spook House, in which two
travelers enter a house in Kentucky but only one emerges, also vanished
without a trace in 1914. No clue has ever been found to explain what may have
become of the one of Americaís most famous writers of that time. But Bierce
was a strange, unusual and eccentric man and his life was riddled with many
In San Francisco of 1900, Ambrose Bierce reigned as the
unchallenged literary king of the city and was considered the best-known
writer west of the Rocky Mountains. In my opinion, he still stands today with
Jack London as one of the best writers of the period but a long road led from
the beginnings of his career to his mysterious disappearance. And there were
many who believed that if anyone actually deserved to disappear, it would have
been the man known by many as "Bitter" Bierce.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio in
1842. As a young man, he was an ardent abolitionist and worked for an
anti-slavery newspaper in northern Indiana. As he began writing, he realized
his lifeís work and spent the next number of years as a journalist. He briefly
attended the Kentucky Military Institute but left in 1859 without a degree.
This lack of education would dog him through his critics for the rest of his
life as they complained of his poor grammatical skills. Bierce never let this
stop him and as a born storyteller, he was able to achieve success with those
who mattered, his readers.
Bierce was always considered cynical and aloof, but he
reveled in the unknown and his life was pockmarked with adventure. Both his
writings of war and adventure and his writings of ghosts and horror were
separately influenced by events in Bierceís life. Itís possible that his
interest in weird happenings and strange disappearances stemmed from an event
that he heard about that occurred in 1854.
One hot day in July of that year, a planter named Orion
Williamson from Selma, Alabama was sitting on the front porch of his farm
house with his wife and child. As he squinted out into the bright sunshine,
his gaze fell on the field where his horses were grazing. Williamson stood up
and announced to his wife that he was going to put the animals into the shade
of the barn. She later remembered him stepping down from the porch and walking
out into the field. He picked up a small stick in his hands and he
absent-mindedly swished it back and forth as he walked across the ankle-high
At that same time, a neighboring farmer, Armour Wren, and
his son were returning from Selma in a buggy and they were passing by the
field on a road on the far side of it. They stopped when they saw Williamson
approaching and Wren stood and waved to him. At that split second, with four
sets of eyes upon him, Williamson abruptly disappeared! A moment earlier, he
had been walking away from his family and waving at friends - and the next
moment, he had vanished into thin air!
Stunned, Wren and his son jumped from their wagon and ran
into the field, where they soon met Mrs. Williamson and her child. They
breathlessly searched the area where Williamson had vanished but saw nothing
but bare ground and sparse grass. It seemed impossible but the man was gone!
For two hours, The Wrenís and the Williamsonís searched the
field. They found nothing and almost as the realization of what had happened
occurred to her, Mrs. Williamson collapsed in shock. She was taken to Selma
and hospitalized. When news spread of what happened, 300 men from town
gathered at the field. They formed three hand-to-hand ranks and moved across
the field by inches at a time, stopping every few feet to kneel down and to
search for openings or holes. They searched the field dozens of times and when
night fell, they used torches and lanterns to light up the area. Bloodhounds
were brought in, but no trace of the farmer could be found.
The following morning, hundreds of other volunteers arrived
from nearby communities, along with a team of geologists. They began digging
at the point where Williamson disappeared but a few feet below the surface,
they hit solid bedrock. There were no cave-ins, crevices or holes to explain
where he had gone. He had simply vanished.
The sensational word of Williamsonís disappearance
attracted the attention of journalists from around the south and Midwest. One
of those who read about the story while still a young man was Ambrose Bierce,
whose own fascination with the unknown attracted him to the case and later,
inspired him to write a short story about it. The unexplained tone of the
story would inspire him to pen many other variations on the same theme.
And while what happened to Orion Williamson was certainly
strange, it did not prepare anyone for what happened next. The following
spring revealed an odd circle that appeared in the field at the exact spot
where Williamson was last seen. The grass within the circle died and this
curious event was pointed out to Mrs. Williamson by investigators who were
still interested in the mystery. By this time, Mrs. Williamson was still so
traumatized by the vanishing that she was reluctant to mention her husbandís
name or to consider what had become of him. Her strange behavior brought many
questions from volunteers and the authorities alike. Why was the woman still
in such a state of shock? True, the disappearance of her husband was
undoubtedly bizarre but why did she refuse to talk about him?
In a quavering and fearful voice, Mrs. Williamson finally
explained. She told the searchers that in the days following her husbandís
disappearance, she and her child distinctly heard Williamsonís voice calling
for help from the spot where he had vanished. They had run to the spot each
time they heard him, but there was no one and nothing there. The calling
continued for almost two weeks with Williamsonís voice becoming weaker and
weaker as the days passed. On the last night he was heard, the family slept
outside on the edge of the vanishing spot. They heard Williamsonís whispers
and then he was heard no more.
Ambrose Bierce later interviewed not only the searchers in
the Williamson affair, but "experts" who claimed to have theories as to where
the farmer had done. One of them, Dr. Maximilian Hern, was a scientist who had
written a book called Disappearance and Theory Thereof. He stated that
Williamson had walked into "void spot of universal ether". These spots, he
explained, only lasted for a few seconds but were capable of destroying any
and all material elements that happened into them. Other scientists stepped
forward with theories as well. One of them said that he believed Williamson
walked into a periodic "magnetic field" that disintegrated his atomic
structure and sent him into another dimension.
None of these theories helped to discover the missing Orion
Williamson though and while he was immortalized in Bierceís writings, he now
seemed to be gone for good. His story refused to die though. Not only did he
appear in a story by Ambrose Bierce, but he would also provide the inspiration
for other stories by the writer. In addition, his story would be plagiarized
numerous times over the years, starting in 1889.
In that year, a traveling salesman from Cincinnati named
McHatten was trapped by a snowstorm in Gallatin, Tennessee. With nothing to do
but sleep, eat and drink, McHatten decided to rewrite the Orion Williamson
story and sell it to a newspaper as an original report. He changed
Williamsonís name to David Lang and the site of his disappearance to Gallatin.
He also altered the date of the occurrence from 1854 to 1880. McHattenís
story, except for the basis facts, was a complete fabrication and has since
been accepted and rewritten to appear in many reputable journals and books.
Research has revealed that no one named David Lang ever lived in Gallatin. The
same research however does show that Orion Williamson was no figment of
anyoneís imagination and that in 1854, he was a real resident of Selma,
Although, of course, his residence in that city came to an
end on a hot afternoon in July 1854....
The story of Orion Williamson almost surely provided the
inspiration for Bierceís works on the unknown, but it would be his service
during the Civil War that would provide inspiration for his gritty tales of
death and adventure. Bierce always considered the war to be his finest hour.
He enlisted three times and rose through the ranks to brevet major. He saw
horrific action as well, fighting at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro,
Kennesaw Mountain, Franklin, Nashville, Lookout Mountain and along Shermanís
March to the Sea. The war took a physical toll on him as he wounded twice, but
he always returned to the battlefield. He seemed to love the war, but his
brother always believed that it changed him in terrific ways. He stated that
Bierce was never the same after he was wounded in the head on one occasion.
"Some of the iron of the shell seemed to stick to his brain," he said, "and he
became bitter and suspicious."
Following the war, Bierce joined a military expedition that
fought its way through Indians to reach the Pacific. He settled in wild San
Francisco, among the miners, gamblers and prostitutes. Times were changing in
the west and a good newspaperman was needed. Bierce was determined to fit the
bill and he soon became popular. He earned a reputation as a witty writer but
was considered as unpredictable and as odd as many of the people he wrote
about. He was a tall and handsome man with a fair complexion, blue eyes, blond
hair and a luxuriant mustache that was said to have attracted almost every
woman who looked in his direction.
Despite his good looks though, Bierce was a failure with
women. He simply worshipped them too much, placing them on a pedestal from
which they were guaranteed to fall. When he discovered their flesh and blood
failings, his love turned to dislike and hatred. His tirades against women
were infamous and they became even worse after he destroyed his marriage to
lovely society belle Ellen Day. He was married to her long enough to father
two sons and a daughter but never stopped hating his wife for having failed
him. Strangely, he never had much contact with his sons, both of whom died
young, and yet he maintained a loving relationship and voluminous
correspondence with his daughter and secretary, Carrie Christiansen.
And Bierce made many enemies outside of his family as well.
His writings contained a level of viciousness and brutality that were
unrivaled in journalism of the day and he received scores of threats. Bets
were placed on how long he might live and he took to carrying a pistol with
him on the streets. He was not subtle in his criticisms, but he was impartial
about how he handed out the abuse. In other words, Bierce hated just about
Bierce and his family traveled widely in the 1870ís,
journeying to London for a time, where his reputation as a bitter curmudgeon
took hold. His writings became even more acidic, perhaps because of his
dislike for England, and yet people seemed to love what he published. He
published a number of sardonic pieces in British papers and magazines and put
together a volume of his early journalism.
Ambrose Bierce (Right
next to woman), San Francisco writer Herman George Scheffauer and a number of
unidentified ladies in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In 1874, Bierce returned to San Francisco and became one of the star writers
in the spreading editorial empire of William Randolph Hearst. Their
partnership became an arrangement that would last for more than 20 years,
despite frequent arguments and resignations. Bierce and Hearst eventually came
to hate one another and yet Bierceís writings appeared in the New York
Journal, the New York American and the San Francisco Chronicle, as
well as in Heartís tremendously popular magazine, Cosmopolitan. His
name became a household word and between his sharp attacks on everyone from
clergymen to politicians, he wrote short stories of the Civil War and of the
bizarre and the curious. Curious collections such as Fantastic Fables and Can
Such Things Be? began to appear. Many of the stories were based on real-life
happenings, or claimed to be, and Bierceís mixing of fact with fiction
continues to thrill readers today. In many of his stories, he wrote about
unsolved disappearances and seemed obsessed by them. On several occasions, he
conducted interviews at the sites where people had vanished and while many of
them expressed skepticism as to the supernatural nature of the vanishing, they
did draw attention to the events.
Oddly, Bierce began to joke about the possibility of his
own disappearance, which would no longer be a jest in 1914.
As time passed, Bierce became increasingly erratic and
eventually he grew tired of fighting with Hearst and began to rekindle
memories of his Civil War glory days. In 1913, he made two important
decisions. One of them was that he would retrace the paths that he had taken
on battlefields of the war and the second was that he then go to Mexico, where
revolutionary forces were fighting to overthrow the federal troops of dictator
Bierce did make his sojourn to the battlefields of his
youth in early October 1913 and stayed for a short time in New Orleans. While
he was there, a reporter managed to land an interview with him and Bierce made
the claims that he had never amounted to much after the Civil War. Then he
told the reporter that "Iím on my way to Mexico because I like the game. I
like fighting. I want to see it."
On December 16, 1913, he wrote a letter to his daughter,
Carrie Christiansen, from Laredo, Texas. In the note, he stated that he was
crossing the border into Mexico "with a pretty definite purpose which is not
at present disclosable."
From there, Bierce crossed the border into Juarez, which
had recently been liberated by popular bandit leader, Pancho Villa. The
bandit, now turned general, issued Bierce credentials that would allow him to
accompany Villaís army. By this time, Bierce was 70 years-old and had not
ridden a horse in almost 30 years. The fact that he managed to take up with
the soldiers was a remarkable accomplishment for him.
He sent a last letter home to his daughter and it was dated
December 26. He said that he had ridden four miles to mail the letter and that
he had been given a sombrero as a reward for "picking off" one of the enemy
with a rifle at long range. He also told her that he was leaving with the army
for Ojinaga, a city under siege, the following day. Here, the facts behind the
disappearance of Ambrose Bierce end and the speculation begins.
George F. Weeks, a friend of Bierceís from California, set
out on a personal search for the author in February 1919. No word had come
from his old friend since the last days of 1913 and while most assumed that he
had long since died, answers were still being sought about his final
destination. In Mexico City, Weeks managed to track down an officer who told
him that Bierce had been killed during a campaign in January 1914. He had
collapsed during the attack on Ojinaga and had died from hardship and
Other rumors, clues and leads suggested that Bierce was
killed by a firing squad, conducted by federal soldiers. He was also said to
have been killed by the volatile Pancho Villa after the two of them had
quarreled. Or that he was killed by guides or by Villaís men after one too
many insults from his sharp tongue. Some have suggested that Bierce did not go
to Mexico and instead committed suicide over his failing health. It was also
theorized that he might have been murdered and buried in secret.
Others theorized that Bierce had never really gone to
Mexico at all but had actually crossed back into the United States to live and
die in obscurity and have a last laugh at those who puzzled over his
mysterious disappearance. While this sounds like something Bierce might have
done, most would agree that the lure of war would have been too strong for him
to be able to resist going to Mexico. Odo B. Slade, a former member of Pancho
Villaís staff, recalled an elderly American with gray hair who served as a
military advisor to Villa. The American called himself "Jack Robinson" and he
criticized the Mexicanís battle strategies with the eye of a military expert.
Slade later stated that "Robinson" quarreled violently with Villa and was shot
to death when he announced his intention to leave and ally himself with the
But what really happened to Bierce remains a mystery and
will, without a doubt, remain that way forever. He vanished, as he wrote in
his own words, into a space "through which animate and inanimate objects may
fall into the invisible world and be seen and heard no more."
And thatís just the way that Bierce would have liked it.
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