The Farmer Vanishes


Orion Williamson was a Selma, Alabama farmer who, on a July day in 1854, simply vanished into thin air while walking across his property. What makes this case especially notable is the fact he did so in full view of his wife and son, as well as two other witnesses (neighbor Armour Wren and his son James).

The Wrens, who’d been riding along a road on the other side of the field in a horse and buggy, immediately ran to the spot where Williamson had last been seen, idly swishing the ankle-deep grass with a small stick, but found nothing. Most of the grass was gone from the spot where Williamson had disappeared as well. The news was quickly carried into town, and soon three hundred men formed a massive search party. They combed the field in three rows an arm length apart from each other, but their thorough search yielded no clues. As news of the inexplicable event spread for miles around Selma, hundreds of curious onlookers arrived at the farm to join in the futile search or merely to gawk at the scene. A geologist and a team of experts dug up the field to see if perhaps the ground underneath was unstable or abnormal at all. They found nothing unusual.

Newspaper reporters swarmed to the place, and all their articles said essentially the same thing: “A man has vanished into thin air.” The curious were still coming to gape at the field as late as the following spring. Mrs. Williamson allegedly revealed at this point that she and her son had heard the farmer’s voice crying out for help from the area where he’d vanished, but the voice gradually grew weaker and faded away after a few weeks.

A Mr. Ambrose Bierce was said to be very interested in the case. He interviewed members of the search party and studied the grassy, treeless field where Williamson had disappeared. Bierce was so fascinated by the incident that he consulted a German scientist, Dr. Maximilian Hern, who’d written a book entitled “Disappearance And Theory Thereof”, which detailed his theories surrounding the spots of “universal ether” that he believed could completely destroy any solid objects that happened to be in them. Bierce scoffed at such ideas. The irony here is that Bierce himself would later become one of the most renowned missing persons in history. For unknown reasons, a reporter would write a fictional account which matched all the details of this event precisely, except that the farmer’s name became David Lang, the locale Tennessee, and the date 1880. This mysterious fictionalization has caused a great deal of confusion over the years, with the ” David Lang” version actually receiving far more publicity.


The Death of Bierce

As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.
– The last line of the last letter from Ambrose Bierce,
December 26, 1913

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ambrose Bierce’s life was its end. After a tour of the Civil War battlefields of his youth, the septuagenarian Bierce crossed the border into revolutionary Mexico and was never heard from again. Although there should technically be a question mark at the end of the title to this section, we can safely assume Bierce’s death since he would be over 150 years old if he were alive. (Although, as you’ll see below, there are some theories that overcome even this.) Ambrose Bierce’s date of death is usually placed in 1914.

The facts of the matter are this. The build-up to Bierce’s disappearance began in letters that expressed an interest in going to war-torn Mexico to cheat a lingering old age, perhaps even hooking up with rebel leader Pancho Villa. Before a long visit to Civil War battlefields, Bierce made a series of arrangements for the control of his various interests that can be seen as either preparation for a lengthy trip or an ordering of someone’s final affairs. After the battlefield visits, Bierce crossed into Mexico, sent out a final letter, and vanished. Bierce’s daughter Helen, alarmed by the disappearance, petitioned the United States government to help find her father. An official inquiry by the government failed to turn up anything.

The mystery sparked a great deal of interest and controversy. Uncountable reports, theories, and conjecture followed the event as to the final fate of Ambrose Bierce. These theories largely fall into two camps. One assumes that he did go to Mexico; the other assumes he did not.

he “traditional,” or at the least the most widely believed theory, holds that he did go to Mexico. Although the specific details of the death vary, the most common story is that after crossing into Mexico, Bierce was killed during the fighting of the war. In different tellings, he was executed by rebels, federal troops, or Villa himself — or died in a battle before or after joining up with Villa’s forces. One story even tells of an old gringo advisor in Villa’s camp who constantly mocked the rebel leader. Although various people claimed to see Bierce or his grave after December 26, there is no definitive contact with Bierce after that last letter.

Some of the Mexican scenarios are right out adventure novels. One holds that Bierce was really going to Mexico to spy on suspected German and Japanese plots against the Panama Canal. Bierce apparently went with British adventurer and spy, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Heading through Guatemala, Bierce and Mitchell-Hedges manage to stop and steal an ancient Maya artifact called the Skull of Doom. Mitchell-Hedges and Bierce then part ways in British Honduras, with Bierce vanishing into history. Another tale told was that a Central American explorer named Johnson ran across an old man with long, white hair matching Bierce’s description. Clad in jaguar skins, the old man was being held prisoner by a tribe of natives who believed that he was a god.

Perhaps the most convincing of the Mexico stories is that of soldier-of-fortune Edward “Tex” O’Reilly in hisBorn To Raise Hell. He claims to have been contacted by Bierce in El Passo and then in Chihauhua City — but never met with him. O’Reilly says that several months later, he heard that an American had been killed in a nearby mining camp of Sierra Mojada. He investigated and heard how an old American, speaking broken Spanish, was executed by Federal Troops when they found out he was searching for Villa’s troops. The locals told how he kept laughing, even after the first volley of his execution.

lthough most of theories that posit that Bierce didn’t go to Mexico are fairly far-fetched, at least one has some interesting possibilities. This one holds that Bierce’s build-up to his Mexican adventure was a total ruse to disguise his true intention: suicide. In this version, Bierce made one last tour of his fields of honor, then diverted to the Grand Canyon, where he shot himself. Although the theory is psychologically consistent with Bierce and would explain why someone as famous as Bierce was never recognized despite the heavy American press presence in Mexico at the time (especially around Villa), it forces us to ignore the final letters from Mexico.

The other theories based on the idea that Bierce didn’t go to Mexico skew towards the fantastic. Right after his disappearance, one source went so far as to claim that Ambrose Bierce never existed at all. Another theory stated that Bierce never went to Mexico, but instead checked himself into a hospital for the insane in Nappa, near the home of his faithful secretary, Miss Christiansen. In 1915, there came reports that Bierce was actually in Europe attached to British Lord Kitchener’s staff in France during World War I. Perhaps my personal favorite was one put forth by a paranormal investigator, Charles Fort. He claimed that since Ambrose Bierce disappeared at roughly the same time as one Ambrose Small, it provided definitive proof that evil supernatural forces were collecting Ambroses.

he fictionalizations of his death range wildly. The novels Old Gringo and Yellow are variations of “Bierce into Mexico.” A supernatural twist on the Mexican myth is found in the movie From Dusk Till Dawn: The Hangman’s Daughter. After traveling into Mexico and escaping bandits, Bierce ends up at a vampire temple. The film’s original ending had him falling during the final battle and turing into an undead vampire, certainly one of the most original takes on his disappearance. However, in the final cut, Bierce assists in dispatching the forces of evil and then disappears into Mexico and history.

Certainly the most fantastic fictionalization comes from the comic series, Lost PlanetLost Planet defies brief explanation. It details the quest of an American fortune hunter, a wizard, an alien Amazon, and her pet ape against the evil mage king who subjegated a dinosaur-infested planet of super-science after a devestating war. Yet there is more. The evil king’s mistress is a drugged and amnesic Amelia Earhart. The wizard is Ambrose Bierce.

After tiring of the Mexican Revolution, Bierce travels to Venezula, where he meets up with some colonists from the aforementioned planet who were escaping the cataclismic war. Bierce accidentally enters the portal to their world while trying to dispatch a “demon” who was menacing the settlement. He is quickly captured by the mage king, but the evil elixir which gives the king his power is slowly driving him crazy. Bierce is able to pacify the king and impose some authority on him, giving Bierce free reign of the castle. Finding a hidden sanctuary, Bierce is taught the magic arts by the ghosts of the scientists imprisoned and killed by the king, allowing Bierce to escape.

At the end of the series, the group dispatches the king and restores power to the scientists’ descendent. Trapped on the other world, Bierce is still alive — and will continue to be so, as the other planet imbues a life span three times that of Earth.

EULOGY n. Praise of a person who either has the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.

It’s a very interesting story how I came about that article, however I should be careful with the use of the word interesting since it is subjective. First thank you for the postcard as usual very nice scenery, and I assume you enjoyed your vacation time.

I do quite a bit of reading throughout the week and happened upon a story of a Selma Alabama farmer named Williamson, who just so happened in the year 1854 disappeared while he crossed a field in full view of his wife child and several neighbors. Although an extensive search with officials and neighbors found no holes in the earth in which he could have sunk, he was eventually legally declared dead. I am in the process of trying to verify his lineage in my family tree. During this verification process, I found a photo from 1892 of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce.  Ambrose was a short story writer and editor of the San Francisco Examiner and author of a story in the San Francisco Examiner on October 14, 1888 recalling the event.

I contacted the San Francisco Examiner and asked if they had any archived information regarding the story they quickly responded and informed me I should go to the San Francisco public Library the editor suggested a particular librarian after contacting the librarian the next morning I had an e-mail of a complimentary copy of the story. If you ever need to do research, apparently California is the most efficient way to get information. It was during my research into the Williamson event, which I ran across the story of the mowing devil; by the way, the Williamson case is the only officially recorded disappearance of a person as declared by courts.