Dr. Harvey “Old Borax” Wiley and His Poison Squad

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Harvey Washington Wiley, M.D. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early Pure Food movement is Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle. However, Hoosier Harvey Wiley’s work in the field was already at its apex when Sinclair’s exposé was released. When Dr. Wiley started his career in the mid- to late-9th century, the production of processed foods in the US was on the rise due to the increasing number of urban dwellers unable to produce their own fresh food. With little to no federal regulation in this manufacturing, food adulteration was rampant. Dr. Wiley made it his mission prove the importance of food regulation. With the help of a group of men known as the Poison Squad, he did just that.

Harvey Washington Wiley was born on a small farmstead near Kent, Indiana on October 18, 1844. He attended Hanover College from 1863-1867, with the exception of a few months in 1864 when he served in Company I of 137th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. After graduating in 1867, Wiley moved to Indianapolis and began teaching at Butler University while earning his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Indiana. It was in 1874 that Dr. Wiley began his work as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in adulterated food. Wiley argued that mass-produced food, as opposed to food produced locally in small quantities, contained harmful additives and preservatives and misled consumers about what they were actually eating. In the coming decades, Wiley would prove that this theory was correct and serve as one of the public faces of the pure food movement. As a 1917 advertisement in The (New York) Sun put it:

“Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.”

In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. While serving in this capacity, Wiley made the establishment of federal standards of food, beverages, and medication his priority. To this end, governmental testing of food, beverages, and ingredients began in 1902. The most famous of these tests were the “hygienic table trials,” better known by the name given to them by the media: “The Poison Squad.”

The Poison Squad
The “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious,” who made up the Poison Squad, sit six to a table. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

During these trials, “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious” were fed and boarded in the basement of the Agricultural Department building in Washington D.C. Before each meal the men would strip and be weighed, any alteration in their condition being noted. At any one time, six of the group would be fed wholesome, unadulterated food. The other six were fed food laced with commonly used additives such as borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would be switched. While the position of poison squad member may sound like it would be a hard one to fill, volunteers were lining up to participate in the tests, even writing letters such as the following to Dr. Wiley:

Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

The experiments commenced in November of 1902 and by Christmas, spirits among the Squad members were low. According to a Washington Post article from December 26,

“The borax diet is beginning to show its effect on Dr. Wiley’s government-fed boarders at the Bureau of Chemistry, and last night when the official weights were taken just before the Christmas dinner the six guests who are taking the chemical course showed a slight decrease in avoirdupois . . . To have lost flesh on Christmas Day, when probably everybody else in Washington gained more or less from feasting, was regarded by the boarders themselves as doubly significant.”

A look at the “unprinted and unofficial menu” from the Christmas meal, also printed in the Post, sheds some light on what may have given the boarders pause in their Christmas feasting.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post: Dec 26, 1902; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. 2. 

Much of the information reported by the press during this time came from the members of the squad themselves, until “Old Borax” as Wiley came to be known, issued a gag-order in order to preserve the sanctity of the scientific studies happening. Despite the order, public interest had been peaked and tongues and pens wagged around the country. As one Columbia University scholar put it, “Supreme County justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act.” There were even poems and songs written about the trials.

If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.
He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he’ll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.

-Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same”

At the close of the Borax trials in 1903, Wiley began cultivating relationships with some journalists, perhaps in hopes of turning the reports from jovial, and sometimes untrue, conjectures to something more closely resembling the serious work being done.

Along with borax and formaldehyde, the effects of salicylic acid, saccharin, sodium benzoate and copper salts were all studied during the Hygienic Table Trials. The reports generated during the Hygienic Table Trials and the media coverage that followed set the stage for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the same year in which the trials were concluded. According to the FDA, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also known as The Wiley Act, serves the purpose of “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein.”

By requiring companies to clearly indicate what their products contained and setting standards for the labeling and packaging of food and drugs, the Act helped consumers make informed decisions about products that could affect their health. While controversies over additives and government regulations continue to this day, Dr. Harvey Wiley and his Poison Squad played a major role in making the food on our tables safe to eat.

Check out our historical marker and corresponding review report to learn
more about Wiley.                            marker picLearn about the history of public health in Indiana and Wiley’s contributions with our publication The Indiana Historian.

Wendell Willkie: The Dark Horse

Wendell Willkie, circa 1941. Image courtesy of History.com.
Wendell Willkie, circa 1940. Image courtesy of History.com.

This blog post is an expanded version of Nicole Poletika’s original marker review essay, which can be viewed here.

The presidency of the United States is seen by many as the ultimate prize in American politics. It has been held by lawyers, philanthropists, and even actors. The State of Indiana has been at the center of presidential history, claiming Hoosier Presidents Benjamin Harrison and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison. However, one year sticks out more for what didn’t happen than what did: 1940.

That year, Hoosier natives Wendell Willkie and Paul V. McNutt, came very close to winning the presidency but ultimately lost, in their own ways, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). This is the first of two blogs dedicated to the Indiana men who ran for the highest office in America.

Wendell Willkie's childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie’s childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.

Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Candidate for President, was born in 1892 in Elwood, Indiana. Willkie attended Indiana University, where he became friends with another budding young student, Paul V. McNutt. When McNutt was the President of the Student Union, Willkie was the President of the Jackson Club, a Democratic leaning political group. Their paths continued to cross throughout the rest of their lives. Willkie received his law degree from Indiana University in 1916. In 1929, after practicing law in Akron, Ohio for the Firestone Tire Co, he provided legal counsel for The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, a large public utilities company, of which he later became president.

As company president, he fought against FDR’s federally funded New Deal program to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which intended to provide employment to the many jobless during the Great Depression. Willkie opposed the TVA because it would directly compete with The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and because he opposed both governmental and private monopolies. While Willkie lost, he gained notoriety as “the most articulate, vigorous spokesman for the business community.”

Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA aministrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA administrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

After gaining the attention of Republican politicians with his outspoken belief in free enterprise, Willkie was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate to run against FDR in 1940 in what was described by the Indianapolis News as “one of the most dramatic events in American political history.” Despite never holding political office, much like modern Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Willkie was nominated after the sixth ballot was taken at the Republican National Convention. He defeated well-known political figures such as Governor Thomas E. Dewey and Senator Robert A. Taft. It was here that he earned the campaign moniker of “Dark Horse,” since his candidacy was such a political upset. Republicans sought a fresh candidate to represent the party as World War II intensified abroad and Americans became more determined than ever to avoid war at home.

Around this same time, his IU colleague and friend Paul McNutt, dropped out of consideration for the Democratic nomination, giving in to Roosevelt’s desire for an unprecedented third term. Had McNutt been nominated, both major party candidates for President would have been from the State of Indiana.

The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
"Wings for Willkie" campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
“Wings for Willkie” campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Despite a well-fought campaign, Willkie lost the election to Roosevelt in a landslide, earning only 82 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 449. He also lost the popular vote by nearly five million. Many commentators thought that his progressive position on civil rights and support of liberal internationalism alienated him from his party. Voters also struggled to identify his position on major causes because he covered a wide range of issues briefly.

Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Even though he lost the presidential election in 1940, Willkie and FDR became friends and political allies, as they held similar views on foreign policy and civil rights. In particular, Willkie, both during and after the campaign, went against many in his party with his support of FDR’s policy to dispatch war aid to Britain in 1940, as opposed to fighting abroad or remaining isolated from the war. Historian Justin H. Libby describes Willkie’s support of war aid as the “forerunner of the bipartisan policy.”

Willkie’s support for aid eventually gained favor among the general public, allowing FDR to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941, which postponed U.S. involvement in the war. He also served the President by traveling the globe as a U.S. emissary to observe the war abroad and meet with foreign leaders, reporting on his experiences. As an internationalist, Willkie worked for “world peace,” presenting a bipartisan resolution to the Republican National Committee in 1942 that was eventually passed.

African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On the home front, Willkie avidly defended the rights of African Americans and publicly advocated for the improved housing, education and health of black citizens. He was widely concerned with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces, arguing in various articles that they should be afforded the same freedom at home that they fought for abroad.

In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” He appealed to political figures to strengthen anti-lynching measures and to eliminate state poll taxes that often prevented African Americans from voting. Willkie ultimately brought attention to the struggles of all minority citizens, arguing in the New York Times that they were “rich assets of democracy.”

One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerbooks.com.
One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerrbooks.com.

In 1943, Willkie wrote about his experiences traveling the globe in his best-selling book One World. He described his trip, in which he traveled with Army and Navy officials to over half a dozen countries. His observations, made during a period before the United States frequently worked and communicated with other countries, has been described as “extraordinarily perceptive and statesmanlike.” It spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and was an influential text on the future United Nations.

Willkie sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, but dropped out of the race in April after a poor showing in the Wisconsin primaries. Constant comparisons to FDR, his liberal stance on civic and international issues, and general independence from other Republican members resulted in the loss of party support.

Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Willkie died October 8, 1944 and was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Rushville, Indiana. President Roosevelt issued a statement honoring Willkie as “one of the great men of our time.” In addition to the memorial erected at his gravesite, memorials to Willkie were dedicated in Elwood and in the State House Rotunda in Indianapolis. The Willkie Memorial Building, created to serve as a center for the Freedom House and other causes he supported, was dedicated in New York on the first anniversary of his death. Willkie, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped established Freedom House in 1941 as an organization that could “strengthen human rights and civil liberties in the United States.” As of 2016, the Freedom House still advocates for human rights.

Wendell Willkie’s ambitions for the White House never materialized, but his influence on American politics can still be felt, especially in his stances on international relations, civil rights, business, and foreign policy. His friendship and support of Franklin Roosevelt, even after losing to him, benefited the country during wartime. Willkie was a results man; he believed deeply in the power of institutions and people to get the job done right, whether in politics or in business. His bipartisanship and amiable demeanor earned him respect from leaders all across the country. In the end, the “Dark Horse” became a statesman on par with almost any President.

Check back for Part 2 to learn about another prominent Hoosier who had his eyes set on the White House: Governor Paul V. McNutt.

Jasper Sherman Bilby: To Map the Earth, Part II

Part one, covering Bilby’s early life and years working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, can be read here.

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A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.
A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s time in the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (US C&GS) is best remembered for his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. The tower revolutionized the Survey’s procedures, costs, and efficiency. As described by historian John Noble Wilford, the Bilby Tower was used for horizontal-control surveys (measuring latitude and longitude) and allowed surveyors to see over hills, trees, and other impediments to make their measurements more accurate.

In his manual, Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation, Bilby detailed this problem of visibility:

In many regions it is not possible to select stations for a scheme of triangulation and have the stations intervisible from the ground, as trees, buildings, and other objects obstruct the line of vision between adjacent points. On geodetic surveys, covering wide expanses of territory, the curvature of the earth must also be taken into account. Towers are, therefore, necessary to elevate above intervening obstructions the observer and his instrument at one station and the signal lamp or object on which he makes his observations at the distant station.

According to US C&GS documents on his field assignments, Bilby began his designs on the tower as early as December 1926. He then took his early design plans to the Aeromotor Factory in Chicago to make a prototype. Once the prototype proved successful, twelve complete towers were manufactured by the same company and were first tested on assignment in Albert Lee, Minnesota with positive results.

A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.
A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.

In terms of design, the Bilby Tower was actually comprised of two independent towers. An inner tower carried the intricate instruments for survey calculations and the outer tower supported the surveyors who made the measurements. These towers never connected, so that the vibrations of either one did not disturb the survey calculations. In 1927, it was named the “Bilby Steel Tower” by Colonel Lester E. Jones, then director of the US C&GS.

In a 1927 commendation letter, Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover commended Bilby’s invention for its cost and time efficiency and cited the surveyor’s service as essential to the United States government.

I have just learned, upon my return to Washington, of the excellent results which the Coast and Geodetic Survey is getting in its triangulation from the steel towers which you designed.

The accelerated progress of the work, accompanied by a reduction in its cost, is highly gratifying to me and justify the commendation which this letter conveys.

However, Hoover’s letter was not the only special commendations he received while in the US C&GS. He earned financial promotions through 1915- 1916 and in 1930, the position of “Chief Signalman” was created for him. Understanding Bilby’s work as essential to the US C&GS, President Hoover used an executive order in 1932 to waive the mandatory federal retirement age.

Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.
Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.

Within the first ten years of use, the Bilby Steel Tower saved the federal government $3,072,000, according to the itemized cost listing of both wooden and steel towers from 1927-1937 by the US C&GS field assignment reports. The 1928 US C&GS annual report explained how the implementation of Bilby Towers cut unit costs down by nearly half, much more than the projected 25-35% savings. It also increased their surveying progress to over “150 miles per month.”

Within a few years of its invention, the Bilby Steel Tower was used in nations such as France, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark. In particular, Major M. Hotine, Royal Engineer of the Ordinance Survey Office in Southampton, England, wrote of his satisfaction with the Bilby Steel Tower in the December 1938 issue of the US C&GS Field Engineers Bulletin:

We have just completed among other work this season, the primary observation for our new triangulation in the Eastern Counties of England. The country here is so flat and enclosed that we had to use Bilby Steel Towers at 34 of the main Stations [sic], to say nothing of several secondary stations surrounding such Steel Tower States, we thought it would be advisable to observe at the same time as the primary work. You may be interested to know that these admirable Steel Towers were entirely satisfactory; and that we were very deeply impressed with the conception, design, and construction of these Towers.

Along his invention, he wrote several government manuals on the theory and practice of geodetic surveying. His most famous and influential work was the manual on his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation (1929) covered every aspect of his invention, from concept and construction to its usage and transport. It stayed in publication through two editions. Other manuals include Precise Traverse and Triangulation in Indiana (1922), Reconnaissance and Signal Building (1923), and Signal Building (1943).

Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor's Historical Society Collection.
Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor’s Historical Society Collection.

Bilby retired from the US C&GS in 1937. His final assignment was at a triangulation station in Hunt City, Jasper County, Illinois, completing his 53 year career exactly where it began on the 39th parallel. His 1927 manual for the Bilby Tower was revised for surveyors in 1940 and his work continued to influence the trade well into the 1980s. The last Bilby Tower was erected in 1984, in Connecticut. A complete survey tower, originally constructed on an island south of New Orleans, Louisiana called Couba in 1972, was restored and moved to the town park in Bilby’s hometown of Osgood, Ripley County, Indiana in 2014.

Bilby died on July 18, 1949 in Batesville, Indiana. He was buried in Washington Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. His long career and advancements in geodetic surveying technology, particularly on the 39th parallel, ensured the completion and accuracy of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRP), a first-order triangulation network of the United States.

The NSRP, according to the National Geodetic Survey, is a “consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States.” This system’s continued use ensures accurate information for the United State’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), known domestically as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby's work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this system. Today, it informs our GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.
The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby’s work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this network of survey points. Today, it informs the US’s GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s innovation and inventiveness left an indelible mark on surveying in the United States and the world. His Bilby Steel Tower, and the knowledge it advanced, revolutionized mapmaking for generations.

In short, Bilby helped us map the earth.

Ambrose Bierce: The Evanescent Man

Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, both from the pages and their authors. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Hoosier Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late-19th century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views about life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Bierce’s early life, after he and his family moved to Indiana, remains shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the Republican newspaper, the Northern Indianan. Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce reportedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months. He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861. He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War inspired much of his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Records and Archives Administration.
Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.” One critic referred to his writing as “humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne.” Another review considered his early works, “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke,” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of his unorthodox pen name came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a pen name while in England. As biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”

Bierce’s columns appeared in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.

A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.”  This column gave Bierce a platform to express his views on politics, current events, literature, and history, often with a humorous slant. As an example, this short quip about a millionaire’s dining habits appeared in the March 13, 1886 issue of the Wasp:

There is a man in San Francisco—a millionaire who has revived a very ancient custom, I am told. This gentleman is rather fond of dining people at his house—mostly men. Between the courses, now and then during the meal, he introduces various uncouth monsters, whose antics are supposed to amuse and edify the guests. I am told they don’t. A friend of mine has asked me to complain of the infliction—which I willingly do, although it is not the simplest method of relief that my friend could have thought out. If he does not relish monsters with his dinner why does he not dine at home and ask to have the monsters sent over to him afterward, as a separate entertainment?

By 1898, Bierce renamed his column “War Topics” and wrote mostly of his early support and subsequent ambivalence regarding the Spanish-American War.

In 1887, he worked for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald. Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom, a growing antagonism existed between them. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906. Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.

In 1891, he compiled many of his Civil War tales into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.  The book included “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story.”  The widely anthologized tale excellently displays Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war.  Film maker Robert Enrico adapted the story into an Academy Award winning short film (1963), which Rod Serling subsequently used as a Twilight Zone episode.

In this excerpt from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce reflects on death in war:

Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

 Many reviewers praised the Tales of Soldiers and Civilians after its publication. A New York Tribune reviewer noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].” New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called Bierce a “genius” and considered the anthology the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”

Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

It is somewhat fitting that an author known for his unexpected plot twists would have a surprise coda to his own life.  Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1914 proved to be as complicated as his early years in Indiana. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source (a letter to a friend) that suggests that he went to Mexico. The other indication that he was headed that way is in letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington places him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best. Therefore, it is more likely that he disappeared after 1914 and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913. Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce is available at the Indiana Historical Bureau book shop.

Visit Part Two to learn about Bierce’s connection to 19th-century freethought.