The Ambrose Bierce Site


Don Swaim

Marfa, population about 2,000, is a dot of a place in far West Texas. Its major claim to fame is that in 1955 Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean stayed in the local hotel during the filming of Giant. Marfa began to boast of being an arts colony of sorts after the minimalist artist Donald Judd moved his studio outside of town in 1971. But it may primarily be known for its Marfa Mystery Lights.   The mysterious lights are best observed at night off of Route 90, nine miles east of town. The Texas Highway Department even built a roadside parking area so the curious can conveniently observe the lights, often called ghost lights, spirit lights or spook lights.
   Apparently, the illuminations are not a recent phenomenon. According to the Texas Historical Association, the first recorded sighting was in 1883 by Robert Reed Ellison, a cowpoke driving a herd of cattle who saw a strange flickering light. In 1885, two settlers, Joe and Sally Humphreys, reported that they also the lights. As did other cowboys herding cattle in 1919.

Marfa, Texas
Photo by Allison V. Smith

   Although I lived for several years in Texas, and still have relatives there, I’ve never been to Marfa, so my description of the lights is based on witness accounts as well as photos on the Internet and YouTube. The lights often appear in colors off in the distance, perhaps many miles, twinkling and moving around. They seem to break apart, come together, vanish, then reappear. In Texas Monthly in 1984, Gary Cartwright wrote that “...something ice-cold moved across my skin. The points of light appeared one or two or sometimes three at a time, about the intensity of second-magnitude stars, moving diagonally and sometimes horizontally for ten to fifteen seconds. They would vanish and then reappear in some new location.”

Marfa's Mystery Lights

Understandably, any number of experts have tried to get to the bottom of these strange lights, but with checkered success, although there have been a number of theories: 1) Atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights or campfires. 2) Static electricity or swamp gas. 3) Uranium, mica, phosphorescence, or luminescence on the fur of jackrabbits. 4) A top secret nuclear laser fusion device gone astray. 5) The so-called Novaya Zemlya effect in which light beams are bent by adjacent layers of air.
   The most plausible explanation is that, viewed from the observation area on Highway 90, the lights are the result of traffic on Highway 67, which several miles to the west bisects Route 90. A study was made in May 2004 by the University of Texas, Dallas Chapter, of the Society of Physics. It concludes that the illuminations can be reliably attributed to automobile headlights traveling along US 67 between Marfa and Presidio, TX.
   Unfortunately, the study does not take into account the sightings in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when autos were rare or nonexistent. Reluctantly, the TU students conclude: “Data analysis is ongoing and proceeds as student time and interest becomes available. We have yet to find historical accounts of Marfa mystery light observations, but searching.”
   To man’s discredit, where science has not yet drawn conclusions about the unknown, humans are quick to grasp at the supernatural as the explanation. Therefore, could the lights be the spirits of the dead, ghosts, phantoms, or apparitions of the night?

   Which bring us to Ambrose Bierce. He was no admirer of religious ignorance and myth, both of which he skewered during his lifetime, even as he delighted in composing the supernatural tale.

   Bierce disappeared into revolutionary Mexico in 1913, ostensibly while trying to reach the border town of Ojinaga, where Pancho Villa’s soldiers were about to clash with beleaguered federal troops.

Pancho and his (well-armed) gang

A freelance writer named Jacob Silverstein, who had been working for the tiny, local newspaper in Marfa, came upon a letter to the editor in the edition of December 20, 1990, written by one Abelardo Sanchez, who was born in Marfa in 1929. The letter reads: “[N]either [Pancho] Villa or his men had any involvement in the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce. 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.”
   Silverstein tracked down Sanchez, and the rest of the account is Silverstein’s, whose article “The Devil and Ambrose Bierce” appeared in the February 2002 issue of Harper’s Magazine: Sanchez maintained that in 1957, he picked up a hitchhiker named Agapito Montoya in San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. Montoya claimed that when he was seventeen he fought with the federales at the battle of Ojinaga in January 1914. He survived, and as he fled he and four companions came across an old man who appeared sick from a cold who was trying to fix a wheel on a horse cart. Montoya said the old man paid him and his friends twenty pesos to get him back across the border and up to Marfa. The old man, who identified himself as “Ambrosia,” was loaded into a wagon filled with wounded Mexicans, and several days later died of pneumonia while interned by United States troops in Marfa.
   Silverstein says that Sanchez knew nothing about Bierce other than what he claims he heard from Montoya, the hitchhiker in Mexico. Further, Silverstein could find no traces of the cemetery where Bierce was allegedly interred in a mass grave.

   There, the trail ended. Until now.

   Your reporter has shrewdly made the connection between Marfa’s mystery lights and Ambrose Bierce — unlike free-lancer Silverstein, who mentioned the lights in his article but utterly failed to make the link. Plainly, the University of Texas physics students with their meagerly four-day study also failed.
   Clearly, the lights are the product of the ghostly Bierce, who has joined with other spirits to signal their presence over the lonely Texas plains. As an accomplished master of the supernatural, Bierce, if he were still alive, would have it no other way. Reportedly, ghosts communicate by a variety of methods: bumps in the night, Ouija boards, strange footsteps, chill winds, even by an iPhone app (according to a newspaper in Indianapolis). Obviously, Bierce chooses to do it eerily yet artfully by distant lights. What does he want? Nothing. Only to signal his presence, y’know, the way ghosts do.

Is this Ambrose Bierce?

In conclusion, the Ambrose Bierce Site is delighted to have solved both the mystery of the Marfa Lights and the death of Ambrose Bierce in one fell swoop, as Shakespeare would say. You read it here first, folks.

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