CAN SUCH THINGS BE?
The Riddle of the Orion Williamson & the Strange Mystery of Ambrose Bierce


INTO THE SHADOWS
American Unsolved Mysteries & Tales of the Unexplained by Troy Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





 

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 them.

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 no more.

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 career!

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 mysteries.

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 grass.

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, Alabama.

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 everyone!

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 Victoriano Huerta.

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 exposure.

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 enemy.

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.

© Copyright 2003 - 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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