Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

You didn’t really think I was done with Bitter Bierce did you?

I came across this book entirely accident while hanging around the Spearfish Public Library with my mother. Bierce expert Don Swaim says it’s the only book on an obscure part of Bierce’s life.

How could I resist this one?

Review: Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, Paul Fatout, 1956.Ambrose Bierce and the Black HIlls

In May 1879, Bierce’s column in the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut suddenly stopped appearing, and he spent the next year-and-a-half in an experience which was to embitter him further, yield little money, and which he spoke of very little in later years.

He became involved with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Bierce finally gave into his wife and mother-in-law and left England in 1875 though he was a successful journalist in London. On his return to San Francisco, he worked in the Assay Office at the local branch of the United States Mint. That, along with all the talk about California mining and the Black Hills gold rush which started in 1874, may have gotten him interested in mining. His father-in-law, Captain H. H. Day, was a famous mining expert, and Bierce liked him a lot more than Day’s daughter or his wife.

In March 1877, Bierce was back at the Argonaut. Fatout thinks it was this period that the Black Hills began to show up in Bierce’s fiction. The title “The Night Doings at Deadman’s” may have been inspired by the name Deadman Gulch near Rockerville, in Dakota Territory, and it was Rockerville which was to be at the center of Bierce’s time in the Black Hills. I think Fatout’s on far less certain ground when he says the “gulches, sluice boxes, pans, and a Territory” of Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest” may derive from the gold rush in Dakota Territory. Those appurtenances of placer mining certainly would have been in California too. Continue reading

Ambrose Bierce the Accidental Legendmaker



I have reached the pinnacle of my blogging career.

Screw page views and numbers of follows and retweets.

I’ve been footnoted in the Fortean Times.

Specifically in issue 335’s “Nightmare Before Christmas: The Strange Disappearance of Oliver Lerch” by Theo Paijmans and Chris Aubeck which references my Reading Bitter Bierce: Was He a Proto-Fortean?.

Ok, lots of people with widely varying amounts of rationality, credulity, credibility, and coherence get footnoted in the Fortean Times. And I didn’t really offer a definite answer to my question.

Quibbles. Quibbles.

That particular posting on Ambrose Bierce mentioned his story “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, part of a trio of stories first presented in the entertainment section of the 14 Oct. 1888 issue of the San Francisco Examiner as “Whither? Some Strange Instances of Mysterious Disappearances”.

Marian Kensler’s article “The Farmer Vanishes” in the 12 May 2008 edition of Strange Horizons looked at how “Charles Ashmore’s Trail” and another of the Bierce stories, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, were the wellspring of Stuart Palmer’s “How Lost Was My Father?” in the July 1953 issue of FATE magazine. Kensler showed how this allegedly true account of a farmer vanishing as he walks across a field can be traced to Bierce. (She gets footnoted by Paijmans and Aubeck too.)

She also mentions the legend of Oliver Lerch which got its fame — if not its start, in another “true story”: Joseph Rosenberger’s “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?” in the September 1950 of FATE.

Kensler cites Algernon Blackwood as patient zero for the mutated viral version of Bierce’s tale that became “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?”, specifically in his 1914 story “Entrance and Exit”.

Paijmans has been doing a semi-regular column, with more than 60 installments so far, for Fortean Times called “Blasts From the Past”. Basically, it’s armchair Forteanism which takes advantage of the huge online newspaper archives that now exist thus leading to Paijmans re-telling tales of Parisian child torture rings and mad scientists making monsters and Louisiana devil men.

In the article he pushes the origin of the Oliver Lerch all the way back to Irving Lewis’ “The Man Who Disappeared” which appeared in the Dec. 25, 1904 edition of New York City’s Sunnday Telegraph. Lewis’ has all sorts of good hoax details — the names of specific parties who witnessed Lerch’s disappearances and their residence. Well, good hoax details for 1904.

In the age of online census records and, they didn’t withstand Paijman’s efforts at verification.


More Bierce related is available on the Bierce page.