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Texas Trails Oct. 28, 2022

published: October 28th 2022
by: Clay Coppedge
source: Southern Livestock Standard

The old gringo in Texas

At the ripe of old age of 71, writer and civil war veteran Ambrose Bierce wrote to his niece, “Goodbye. 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. To be a gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia.”

That last line inspired the title of novelist Carlos Fuentes highly regarded novel of speculation about Bierce’s fate, The Old Gringo. An aging Gregory Peck played Bierce as the old Gringo in the movie version. But what really  happened to Bierce in Mexico? Or did he meet his fate in Texas? A hundred years later, the mystery and circumstances surrounding Bierce’s death are as well-known as his oft-cited book The Devil’s Dictionary, but we still don’t know the answer.

Historians generally believe that Bierce died in Mexico in a futile search for Pancho Villa and the next big story. The image of being “shot to rags” is as good a guess as any about what happened to Bierce. But it’s still just a guess.

Because he passed through Texas on his way to Mexico, an alternative history suggesting that Bierce died in Texas— in Marfa to be precise— has taken hold in some quarters. The justification for this view is a letter written to the editor of the Marfa Newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, in 1990.

“Neither (Pancho) Villa nor his men had any involvement in the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce,” the letter read. “Bierce died on the night of January 17, 1914, and was buried in a common grave in Marfa the following morning, in a cemetery located southwest of the old Blackwell school and across from the Shafter road.”

The letter writer was a man from California named Abelardo Sanchez who was born in Marfa and lived there until he was 16. He was driving back to Marfa from California one day when he picked up an old man named Agapito Montoya, who had a story to tell.

Montoya told Sanchez that he survived the battle of Ojinga against Pancho Villa and was fleeing the scene when he and three fellow soldiers came across a sick old Anglo man who said he was looking to find Villa in order to write an article about him. The soldiers told him that wasn’t going to happen because they were doing their best to get away from Villa. He offered the soldiers 20 pesos each to take him to Marfa, and they agreed.

On the way, the old man told the soldiers he had written a popular book. Montoya remembered that it had the word “devil” in it. The name he remembered wasn’t Ambrose Bierce exactly, but it was close. Elements of the U.S. Third Cavalry captured the soldiers and the old gringo after they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. The cavalrymen didn’t believe the old man was a famous writer, and he was taken prisoner. He supposedly died in Marfa a few days later.

Jake Silverstein, the former editor of Texas Monthly and now editor of New York Times Magazine, stumbled across the letter when he was a young reporter in Marfa.

“The more I learned about Bierce, the more credible Sanchez’s letter looked to me,” Silverstein wrote. “His version of Bierce’s end was so Biercian…A proud old man of letters, intent on finishing his life on a valorous note, sallies forth into a war-ravaged nation in search of a heroic death before a firing squad or in the heat of battle.” Silverstein went looking for Bierce’s grave and, with the help of a friendly local, found the spot, but not the grave.

Glenn Willeford at Sul Ross College in Alpine cast serious doubts on the letter’s validity when Silverstein went to see him. Willeford believes that neither the story’s geography nor the time of day (or night) when it happened match up. Beyond that, Willeford notes that the soldiers were fleeing for their lives and finds it doubtful they would have had the time or the inclination to detour for the sake of an old gringo. He believes the U.S. Cavalry would have sent on old and ailing gringo, especially a famous one, to a Red Cross Hospital in Presidio. And there is no record of an Old Gringo dying in Marfa around that time, leaving us with no more evidence than we’ve ever had but with more material to fuel additional speculation.

What would have Bierce have made of all this?

Perhaps a clue lies in The Devil’s Dictionary where he defines history as “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant.”


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